Close-Up: Live Issue - Do fashion brands need agencies?

Fashion brands often handle their own ads - can agencies offer anything extra, Noel Bussey asks.

In the 80s and early 90s, Benetton was arguably more famous for its sometimes shocking, always in-your-face advertising, featuring images such as a dying Aids patient and a soldier holding a human femur, than it was for its clothes.

Since then, the retailer's fortunes have declined and this year its share price has plummeted on the back of a warning that sales and profits are likely to keep falling.

Last week it emerged that the company that once produced all its ads in-house using images shot by the photographer Oliviero Toscani had contacted agencies including TBWA and Drugstore.

Benetton has since said it will continue to produce advertising in-house.

But what, if anything, can a creative agency offer a fashion brand? Do agencies offer a greater consumer insight and broader creative expertise?

A lot, if you ask French Connection. TBWA's bold idea of rebranding the retailer as fcuk paid dividends, re-writing the fortunes of the company and its chairman and chief executive, Stephen Marks, almost overnight.

But classical fashion companies, which may not be looking to directly target the high-street consumer, generally feel this is not the sort of advertising they need. Toscani goes one further: "Fashion brands don't need advertising agencies, because the agencies are probably less creative than them," he says.

Companies such as Prada or Chanel care more about the model, the photographer and the overall look of the work, while an agency will concentrate on planning and building a strategy.

"Fashion ads adopt a classic approach defined by art direction and style," James Murphy, the chief executive of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, says. "Strategic ads produced by agencies tend to deal in narratives, whereas fashion ads are very visceral and don't make a rational argument. There is always a tension between fashion companies and agencies."

The lack of strategy stems from the fashion industry's dual advertising targets: its consumers and its peers. This can lead to a blinkered approach to advertising and a loss of contact with what the consumer actually wants.

Mark Tungate, the author of the book Fashion Brands: Branding from Armani to Zara, says: "If you are doing your work in-house, there is a danger that the message can be lost. Such an inward approach could lead to ideas that don't have any relevance to the customer. An agency can act like a safety-net for the brand."

Levi's has had the same safety net for 23 years, in the form of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and few would deny the effectiveness of the agency's work.

But even the high street doesn't always feel it needs an agency. One of the most high-profile - and high-spending - fashion advertisers of recent times has been the American clothing company Gap. Its ads, mostly created in-house, attempt to mix the classic approach with mass-market consumerism in the form of celebrity models such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Lenny Kravitz.

If a fashion brand does use an agency, it needs to make sure the strategy doesn't overtake the product, as has happened with fcuk - French Connection is now facing financial crisis after half-year results showed profits have shrunk from £16.2 million to just £5.1 million. However, those companies that decide to produce work in-house need to remain focused on making the work relevant to both the brand and the consumer, not just to their peers.

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haynet.com

FASHION RETAILER

Jeff Jones, executive vice-president of marketing, Gap

"The answer to the question is maybe. I wouldn't say there are too many broad pros or cons in producing advertising in-house or through an agency - it should just be about the best ideas.

"Talented creatives, whether in-house or at an agency, deliver big brand- and business-building ideas.

Most often, agencies can offer a fresh perspective by stepping outside the day-to-day and focusing first on the needs of the consumer.

"At Gap, we expect our communication to play many roles, from driving traffic to the stores to keeping the brand relevant. Our product, store experience and advertising work together to differentiate Gap."

ADVERTISING AGENCY

Trevor Beattie, founder, Beattie McGuinness Bungay

"The reason there's so much bad, similar fashion advertising is because so much of it's done in-house and, as a result, lacks a real story or idea. Most fashion advertising doesn't talk to the consumer, it talks to other fashion houses - it's like being seen at the right party.

"What advertising agencies offer is real stories and real strategic thinking. We know how to talk to the consumer; fashion houses tend to think the clothes do the talking and believe, more often than not, that the clothes are the idea, and consequently believe that simply showing them is sufficient."

FASHION AD SPECIALIST

Alan Aboud, creative director and co-founder, Aboud Sodano

"There is a basic point of difference between fashion and advertising. Fashion is about change, and repetitiveness is the kiss of death. Whereas a large part of advertising is about building brand stability, which sometimes entails uniformity of message.

"If you start repeating yourself visually in fashion, the consumer will feel that the designer is not on top of current trends. High-street fashion companies gravitate more to agencies because their clothes do not change dramatically.

"The independent fashion companies we work with demand a different type of marketing. We work through the creative process together before the collection has been produced."

BRAND CONSULTANCY

Nick Liddell, director of brand evaluation, Interbrand London

"It depends on what the agency is for. If a fashion brand relies overly on an agency, it can lose its clarity and become almost schizophrenic.

"A lot of the big fashion brands we work for commission their own photography and have controlling approval on their ads. They appreciate the need for consistency and control of their brands.

"However, most companies don't have sufficient brand knowledge, or creative departments, so they need an ad agency for this reason. They just need to make sure that they handle the relationship properly."

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