Feature

The World's Leading Independent Agencies: Venables Bell & Partners

Venables Bell says if you value exploitation over integration, it results in a round brand character.

It's hard being a marketer these days. There's a new problem lurking around every PowerPoint deck. A fresh marketing challenge with every technological innovation. And the growing suspicion in the C-Level suite that marketers are clueless and flailing.

In addition to all the tried and true traditional marketing problems, you have the increasing segmentation and fragmentation of audiences, a proliferation of media vehicles, including new ones you have to quickly learn about, and don't forget those friendly ad-skipping technologies and services. To complicate things further, we have the rise of new disciplines and specialties (customer relationship marketing alone could fill your calendar) - all of which need to be managed and integrated. Oh, and let's not forget budget restraints. You have to pay more as you splinter the media plan to reach fewer people than you used to. How nice. And those restraints aren't going away, they're getting tighter.

It's official: no one cares

There's one other little thing to contend with. No one is paying attention any more. We live in a world where, a recent New York Times study suggested, the average person multitasks 31 hours of activity in a 24-hour day. Point in case: what else are you doing while reading this? No, don't answer.

The overwhelming majority of consumers has one of two responses to your carefully crafted, precious marketing messages:

- That's sad. And boring. You're boring me. Please stop.

- Fooled you. I wasn't actually listening to begin with.

In the old days, clients could choose to bludgeon people with massive mass-media buys until they succumbed to a message. But that's not possible nowadays. Today, people have the power. Brands must be magnets. They must entice and attract. Instead of using the stick to prod people towards a brand, advertisers must now dangle carrots. And given all the new media vehicles and fragmented targets, it's more like dangling zillions of carrots every which way a specific target turns. And they're really delicious carrots. More like carrot cake, actually. The kind with the little raisins and real cream cheese frosting. So the target is constantly discovering these little tasty bits in various places at various times, and literally comes looking for your brand. That's the game these days. Delicious carrots.

As an agency, we deal in carrots. Delectable, cream-cheese-frosting- smothered carrots. Where do we get them? We form them for our clients, and they're made straight from the brand DNA. They're little brand stories, brand personality quirks, added dimensions to brands we think we all know. Something more than what people expect.

A Lesson from seventh Grade English

Remember English class and the concept of round and flat characters? Well, a flat character is distinguished by its lack of detail. It is utterly one- dimensional. Supporting characters are generally flat, as most minor roles do not require a great deal of complexity. The flat character does not change - it is predictably consistent. Billy Budd stands for goodness, and that's it. Nice to know ya, Billy. It used to be enough for brands to be that way.

No more. It used to be that brands wanted and actively pursued this flatness, standing for one thing and clinging to consistency. But we believe that consistency is a false God. An over-rated marketing objective. It's no longer relevant that your shoes match your handbag, so to speak - each touch point must be taken advantage of in its own way. Every opportunity to engage with a consumer has to be exploited.

When you value exploitation over integration, by contrast, you end up developing a round brand character, not a stagnant, flat one. Round characters are complex. Detailed. Conflicted. Unpredictable. Multi-dimensional. Interesting.

Take Tony Soprano - a lovable, everyday sort of father figure who toils with college tuition and a lunkhead of a son like any Jersey resident. But he just so happens to be in the business of putting heads in bowling ball bags. Hannibal Lecter, the fascinating sociopath, qualifies, too. And, more traditionally, there's Humbert Humbert - the questionable hero of Lolita.

These characters have depth and detail. They live and breathe, evolve and change. That's what a brand needs to do too. When you encounter it, it needs to give you a little more. It needs to be true to its DNA, but expandable, adaptable and surprising.

Our industry is undergoing an enlightenment of sorts. It's something we were in dire need of. Nowadays, a great idea - one that makes the consumer want to come to it, instead of it barging in on the consumer - is the force that mobilises the disciplines and specialists. And true integration occurs, almost naturally, because the idea reigns, and all execution and implementation springs from it.

Welcome to the Age of Surprise

The marketing sandbox is huge. There are more toys in it than ever. Brand meritocracy rules it: just because you're Nike doesn't mean you win. Any brand, with any boring history, from any category, can step up and surprise and delight. Even a British bank. (We proved this last example with a financial institution called Barclays. You might have heard of it.) This is an exciting time.

When our creative people, media people and strategists work together to let an idea loose in the world, the energy is mind-boggling. It becomes so much more interesting than creating "ads". Especially with all those media vehicles and options at our disposal. Someone pinch us, for crying out loud.

This is a golden age, where brands do things they never thought they would do. In turn, brands that we as consumers never thought much of will appear on our radar. Current favourites will be knocked off their perches. Brands we've vilified in the past will be sought out. There'll be more chaos, uncertainty, upheaval and gnashing of teeth.

Which leads us to the question: can it possibly get any better than this?

Paul Venables is the founder and creative director of Venables Bell & Partners.

AT A GLANCE

Name: Venables Bell & Partners

Founded: 1 June 2001

Principals: Paul Venables, Greg Bell, Bob Molineaux, Lucy Farey-Jones

Staff: 136 (all very nice)

Location: 201 Post Street, Suite 200, San Francisco 94108, California, USA

What's the future for independent agencies? Agencies that demonstrate nimbleness, adaptability and creative fire power will lead the enlightenment, leaving lumbering giants to trail behind. To us, the future looks very bright indeed

How will we be part of it? It's just a matter of sharing our passion and conviction with our partners.

Topics