Interior design, new product development, brand architecture, music making - today's agencies are offering a whole lot more than plain ads. Getting to the heart of a client's business or even just to the right side of a communications brief can wind up with a solution that just isn't normal, doesn't run on trusted media channels, can't really be defined as a good, old-fashioned ad.
As well as creating new media channels, such as direct music-based communication or branded TV channels, experiential campaigns that might have been regarded as stunts are being folded into credible branding exercises. Take Beattie McGuinness Bungay's Ikea campaign on the theme that home is where the heart is, which incorporated "Not For Sale" signs outside houses up and down the country, as well as Buckingham Palace and the Gherkin. Or Naked Communications producing a "brand space" - brightly coloured rooms for hire in Shoreditch - as part of Sony's bunnies campaign.
With agencies everywhere in the process of reinventing themselves, many believe that thinking about, and even doing, stuff out of the traditional box is the way ahead. Mother is another shop that has used diverse skills - redesigning Rembrandt, an oral healthcare range, for Johnson & Johnson, or exhibiting art works on the Southbank, by Sir Peter Blake and other leading artists, featuring the iconic Coca-Cola bottle. Working on other ways to win approval from the consumer makes sense, especially given the decline of traditional media channels and the fragmenting of audiences. It may also lead to more flexible and interesting ways of being paid.
Peter Walker is the director of finance and operations at CHI & Partners, which is working with National Express on a design-led rebrand. "We are not too worried how we get paid, as long as we get paid," he says. "All I know is roughly how much I expect to get from a client, so I start from a slightly more open-minded point of view."
Andrew McGuinness, a partner at BMB, sees one advantage of not using traditional channels: "It allows you to get into a different commercial conversation with clients. We normally discuss 7, 10, 15 per cent of the total budget, but if we can get into the other 85 per cent nominally spent by media owners, it's a different conversation."
It seems to have worked for the New York-based Anomaly, soon to open in London. Its co-founder, Carl Johnson, has always eschewed the label "advertising agency", despite his own heavyweight ad agency credentials. Anomaly launched in 2004 with a design brief for the Coca-Cola water brand Dasani, swiftly picking up the task of launching the new airline Virgin Domestic, including the interior design of the aircraft. Alongside its new sister agency, Another Anomaly, the agency works on its own product launches and intellectual property, as well as promoting established brands.
Johnson is clear that the company is different: "Two of the fundamental principles of Anomaly are not in line with an ad agency. We have a very wide skillset, under one P&L, so we do not give a damn what the output of our company is, and we get paid in a completely different way - no time sheets." Although Anomaly does take on branding work, it's only on the basis of a commercial partnership. It is more focused on using its designers, new product development specialists, mobile phone strategists and the rest to market its own intellectual property.
One or two agencies in the UK have divisions looking at creating intellectual property, such as Bartle Bogle Hegarty's Zag, or at least devising content, such as TBWA's Stream\. WPP is developing intellectual property through its media investment arm Group M and is producing content with and for others through a stake in the audio-visual company Mediapro and a venture with Universal Music. Even if they can't find a way to own or share intellectual property, agencies are bringing in more specialisms under one roof to give clients the option of working with them closely on more than just ads.
But do agencies, many of which have historically had an advertising focus, have the resources to understand all the potential of a brand experience and to actually implement it? Agencies increasingly need to have an understanding of communications generally, even if they are only equipped to execute a part of that plan. But to do design work? Or create brand identity? Or to publish music? Several agencies now have design divisions, including Fallon, CHI and Mother. Others, such as BBH and WCRS, have music ventures. Saatchi & Saatchi has its branded content division Gum, TBWA has its brand entertainment agency Stream\.
It's likely that ad agencies would take a dim view of music companies or design agencies knocking up an ad campaign. BBH's joint venture Leap Music drew a mixed reception from the music industry when it launched. So how does the branding consultancy Interbrand view ad agencies taking on the task of designing brand identity and creating brand architecture? "I'd be very nervous about it," Rune Gustafson, its UK chief executive, says. He points out that 40 or 50 years ago, ad agencies would happily take on a packaging brief, or work on other aspects of the brand, but the market has matured and become more sophisticated. Interbrand focuses on brand strategy and creating the brands, then it will work on packaging and retail design, environmental design, perhaps web design, but it's unlikely to pen an ad. "When you start getting into the creation of the expression of a brand," Gustafson explains, "you have to have the technical expertise to detail and deliver it."
At Naked, which has seen considerable success devising media strategies without ads, Niku Banaie, a partner, says: "It's almost impossible for any agency to have all the prerequisite skills under one roof to handle all the existing and even the 'not-yet-invented' opportunities. The solution lies in having the right network of specialists to pull on depending on the task in hand, but keeping a firm and strategic grip on how the idea is brought to life."
BEATTIE MCGUINNESS BUNGAY - First Choice
Beattie McGuinness Bungay has recently entered the realm of aircraft design. Rather than deck out its innovative new Boeing 787 jets using the customary suppliers, First Choice decided that it was after a whole new approach to creating that long-haul, in-flight experience. With its eye to what the customer really wants, BMB will work on the decking out and design of the aircraft - from external branding on the aircraft's body and tail fins to the look and feel of the cabins. The agency will partner with an aviation interior design specialist with all-important practical experience.
"First Choice wanted a fresh perspective - looking at what we are trying to do with the brand, rather than starting with the interior," Andrew McGuinness, a partner at BMB, says. "From the moment people see the Dreamliner, it will be a positive travelling experience. Customers are going to spend between eight and ten hours onboard, and that brand experience - everything from the seat cover and carpets to the in-flight entertainment system - is going to transform opinion far more than any piece of ad communication."
The move to acquire the 787s, which should be operating from the spring of 2009, is a significant investment by the company, which has recently shifted its focus towards a more upmarket customer. The Boeings are billed as the most environmentally friendly commercial aircraft ever built, and will also have a spacious interior, bigger windows and higher humidity.
BARTLE BOGLE HEGARTY - Audi
Bartle Bogle Hegarty has turned its hand to a fair bit more than conventional advertising for many clients. Its world first in advertiser-branded channels for Audi is entirely managed by the agency, which came up with the idea, put the various partners together, lobbied for it and did all the necessary deals to get it up and running. The channel goes out on Sky and the pay-TV service Top-Up TV, but is also on the Audi website. It recently arrived on new platforms - featuring live or as a download at the online TV service Joost and becoming available through Nokia Nseries phones.
The mix of programming on the Audi Channel is designed to appeal to potential Audi buyers as well as a broader reach of viewers. So it includes celebrity test drives, interviews with famous figures such as Sir Alex Ferguson and entertainment shows such as Innovators, featuring entrepreneurial business leaders, with lots of mainly bite-sized chunks of viewing. BBH manages the production and scheduling of the output using a mastermind website, which links with the production company North One and the broadcast service Definition.
"Audi's commitment grows year on year," Mark Boyd, the BBH creative director and head of content, says. "What some saw as hype has changed the car purchase process." Sixty per cent of Audi prospects watch the channel, 13 per cent go on to book a test drive. According to Boyd: "Our task was to radically improve conversion. The channel has done that."
ABBOTT MEAD VICKERS BBDO - Sainsbury's
OK, so you must have been living in the woods for the past few years if you're in the UK and you haven't caught some of Sainsbury's Try Something New ads, fronted by Jamie Oliver. But for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, this was a whole brand experience - right through from internal corporate communications, PR and brand identity, to the ads themselves.
The big rebranding idea came out of the agency's work when it had to pitch for the account as the incumbent in 2005. The then new chief executive, Justin King, was leading a three-year recovery plan and needed inspiration to get the retailer back on track towards £2.5 billion extra sales by March 2008. Two years later and, despite setbacks, the supermarket has made impressive strides towards this target.
AMV's chief executive, Farah Ramzan Golant, says that the relationship had always been about more than just advertising: "We put the business problem at the heart of the idea and the idea was store-based. Try Something New became a call to action for staff."
AMV designed the brand architecture, rather than using a brand identity consultant. It also went on to design the point-of-sale "tip" cards, with recipes and suggestions for customers. But its sister agency Proximity worked on the DM, and AMV brought in other specialists. "Part of our success was not to have a Jesus complex and believe that we could do it all," Golant says. What AMV did was to keep the message on track, right down to presentations to the supermarket's HR team, when Try Something New was incorporated into Sainsbury's staff appraisals.
FALLON - Tate Modern
Fallon's idea to get young, urban Londoners into the Tate Modern was through making music. Every month for a year, starting in September 2006, the agency orchestrated for a different band or artist to come up with a new track, inspired by one of the gallery's works of art. For one month, the piece of music could only be heard at a listening post in front of that exhibit, then, for a second month, it was available on a Tate tracks website.
This unconventional approach came out of a tricky communications brief, with a budget of under £100,000. There were a couple of problems immediately: young, urban Londoners don't generally clock conventional advertising, and there's a feeling that they hate art. "We looked at the things that they did consume and where they're happy," the agency's executive creative director, Richard Flintham, says. "Music drives their whole lives and we felt a strong bond between art and music."
The idea caught the imagination of the music world, bringing in artists including The Chemical Brothers and the ex-Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, who produced their own work. Their tracks were supported by a low-key promotional campaign through flyers, online, radio and PR.
After 12 months and 12 tracks, a 13th track was recently chosen from a competition opened up to the public. There were more than 200 entries, judged by a panel including Coxon and The Chemical Brothers. It was hard to measure the success of the project by counting heads, but an editorial audit by The Media Foundry estimated £2 million of PR on the back of Tate tracks, with much of that in media unfamiliar to writing about the Tate.