Media: All about ... To mantra or not to mantra

Brands face landmines in selecting their straplines, Alasdair Reid writes.

It's true. Campaign has had more than its money's worth of Starcom's "fueling brand power" mantra and its accompanying "vapour trail" - a smear of colours designed to emphasise the brand's rocket science undertones.

Perhaps by singling out the fuelling brand power phenomenon we've been a tad unfair, given the availability of other deserving targets. But we Brits bristle when US spelling is thrust down our throats, such as Starcom's "fueling".

Yet it was with some guilt that we noted the news from Starcom last week that the mantra is to be dropped and may soon be replaced with, wait for it, "connections that captivate". This, clearly, is still a work-in-progress for Starcom under its EMEA chief executive, Iain Jacob. However, Starcom is not the only agency network preoccupied in recent years with developing a positioning and an accompanying strapline.

1. Arguably the most successful mission-statement mantra - both in terms of the sort of distinctive pithiness that can aid recall, and in its ability to spark debate - has been ZenithOptimedia's "The ROI Agency". It was introduced following the merger of Zenith with fellow Publicis operation Optimedia in 2003.

At this stage in the market's evolution, most media agencies were repositioning themselves as communications planning consultants. The ROI positioning, promising as it did a focus on delivering results linked to sales, was an antidote to the more airy-fairy tendencies in the business. And it was hard for rivals to undermine this positioning without implying that they didn't deliver on the basics - a dangerous game to play.

2. The most perplexing case of mantra inconsistency is, arguably, provided by MindShare. Most people associate the network with "The house of media" - a hugely simple and powerful idea rivals feared would give it an edge. Happily, for those same rivals, this mantra is given a relatively low profile in MindShare's marketing and presentational materials. Its most prominent tagline is usually: "The global media company." If it's trying to be more boastful it uses: "Smarter thinking, smarter ideas, smarter execution." Some observers may regard such mantras as reassuringly generic.

3. Rivals are similarly pleased that MediaCom changed its mantra from "Closer to clients" to "People first, better results". Five years ago, when MediaCom was winning every pitch in sight, the market was convinced it knew why - the agency was unparalleled in the level of client service it was prepared to offer. So "Closer to clients" conveyed an awesome truth.

The new mantra was introduced by global boffins following consultations with staff. This, some observers say, shows the pitfalls when you design a mission statement for internal rather than external consumption.

4. Carat's animated logo - vivid streamers and blobs that coalesce into a soap bubble swarming with iridescent colour - is probably the most eye-catching in the business. But its "3C" (with a typeface that makes it look like "3G") mantra is too cryptic for some. The "C" stands for curiosity, creativity and collaboration - qualities, a subsidiary strapline reminds us, that can transform communications.

5. Other mantras worth a mention include PHD's "Pioneering"; OMD's solid but dull "Insights, ideas, results"; and another token gesture, Mediaedge:cia's "Active engagement". Universal McCann embraced "Next thing now" earlier this year. Universal's Interpublic sister agency Initiative has traded under the tantalising "Expect more" heading for several years but perhaps realised that this tag wasn't wholly appropriate when faced with losing big accounts. It is thought to be working on a new positioning.

6. Perhaps the most notorious - one that, like "fueling brand power", attracted opprobrium in sections of the trade press - was Vizeum's attempts to clamber aboard the mission statement bandwagon in 2003. The network positioned itself as an expert in the noble arts of "connectology" - thanks to the fact that its staff were variously "magicians of memory", "chemists of conversation" and "smile synthesisers". This proved, according to one commentator, that they were also "wizards of wank".

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

ADVERTISERS

- According to Paul Phillips, the managing director of the AAR, anything that helps to differentiate an agency brand can and should be actively pursued. But mantras and mission statements are, he maintains, of marginal influence when an advertiser is looking to choose an agency.

- Other marketing analysts are slightly less charitable, and argue that media agencies should do more research into how these mantras are received by their intended targets.

- But it is unlikely, they say, that an agency's decision to opt out of the mission-statement game will hamper its ability to win new business.

AGENCIES

- On the other hand, few agencies are likely to scrap mantras entirely. The majority will opt for the Starcom approach - a tweak here or an evolutionary upgrade there, based on permutations of a core stock of generic terms.

- Some may feel that this is motivated by a poorly conceived desire to tick all the right boxes. Our rivals have a mission statement, the argument runs, so we'd better have one. Others point to more pragmatic motivations - websites and PowerPoint presentations need hooks to hang on. These mantras can provide useful structural frameworks for supporting your pitch.

- According to some, their value as an internal rallying point should not be underestimated. It's useful, now and again, to give your staff reminders, however vague, of what it is they're trying to do.

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