Brand Action Group - an alternative approach

The post-digital, consumer-empowered age has made managing brands even more challenging. So MBA and Creative Leap decided to join forces to create the agency mini-group of the future.

What is this decade all about? Let's put aside for a moment what we call it - the tweenies? And, instead, let's consider three global trends that some people, including Stephen Maher, the founder and chief executive of the communications agency MBA, believe are driving change.

Whether we are midor post-recession, there's no question that corporations are looking harder at the bottom line. Maximise revenue and reduce costs is the constant refrain. Many marketing budgets have been slashed, and roles chopped, with implications for how marketing departments operate and how they use marketing services.

As if the economic challenge wasn't enough, companies continue to grapple with an ever-more connected world. Back in the day, a corporation could live quite happily without fear of being held to account. Not any more. Companies are under constant scrutiny by consumers as much as journalists and analysts; one slip-up can instantly explode into a worldwide media firestorm. As we - consumers - demand transparency, companies are forced to integrate their businesses so that the left hand is constantly aware of what the right is up to. Being joined up is vital.

Finally, in our trend triumvirate, is the new way to manage brands. In a post-digital, consumer-empowered age, the old "command and control" model is no longer appropriate. Brands are more effective when, to quote Maher, they "let the consumer in to the soul of the business". In other words, the traditional way of doing things has been replaced by engagement and involvement, not just for consumers, but the brand-owner's staff as well.

In this new world, how should agencies respond?

Maher is emphatic when he states that a single-discipline agency - of any type - is not the answer. "We've never had any kind of prejudice about the solution to a client's business problem. We're just not channel-driven. It's been about what delivers results for our clients."

It's a philosophy shared by David Gray, the founder and director of Creative Leap, a leading player in brand consultancy, innovation and design, and has led to the creation of the Brand Action Group.

With common values and the catalyst of a shared client in Alliance Boots, it seemed only logical to turn what was already an effective working relationship into a blueprint for the agency mini-group of the future.

Maher and Gray articulate a vision where the group will work both upstream of conventional agency-client relationships, as well as downstream, to deliver the consumer-facing communications. As Gray puts it: "Clients will use us for business and marketing consultancy. But they need more than 'paper innovation' and bean-bag cuddling. It's our job to take the project through insight and ideation to execution."

So what's on the menu from the Brand Action Group?

Brand consultancy, innovation, design, advertising, digital and direct marketing. And the group has already extended this broad offering with the creation of a PR/social media company, called Commucan.

Maher accepts that the new venture may be greeted with some scepticism, along the lines of the group being a Jack-of-all-trades, master of none; but Gray goes on to explain its radical structure and modus operandi. "We have two kinds of people here. Brand architects who focus on the client's business problem and who're responsible for the big vision. And brand developers, who are devoted to the brilliant execution of the unifying idea in their particular specialism."

Brand architects and brand developers have clearly defined and equally important roles - the holistic thinking and the craft-based doing - unhampered by the politics often found in traditional agencies.

No silos. No strategy or P&L turf wars. To the hard-pressed marketer, it sounds much more manageable than corralling competing agencies. And the group's methodology offers the prospect of a nimbler team bringing solutions faster to market. As Maher says, "We are efficient at being effective."

But is the Brand Action Group proposition going to be every client's cup of Darjeeling?

According to Maher, the group's existing and prospective clients do share certain characteristics. "They've an entrepreneurial spirit and are led by people who think this way. It's about attitude." Most of all, these marketers grasp the importance of "joined-up thinking".

They can be found across a spectrum of sectors - including healthcare, and financial services - and across national frontiers; more than 25 per cent of the Brand Action Group's work is already executed outside the UK.

Although the group is brand new, Maher and Gray can point to their work on Alliance Boots as proof of the pudding, such as the creation and successful launch of new Boots Laboratories anti-ageing and sun-care products and the new sigma-tau nutraceutical products across Europe.

What of the future?

Maher identifies some obvious gaps in the Brand Action Group portfolio such as media buying. And he suggests that with the group's desire to keep pushing upstream, setting up a management consultancy would not be out of the question. In the meantime, the Brand Action Group faces a busy decade, proving the value of being "joined-up in thought, word and deed".



Year founded


Key principals

Stephen Maher; Graham Kerr; David Gray; James Middlehurst; Paul Munce; Mervyn Caldwell; James Devon; David Prescott; Mark Chittenden; Nigel Kennedy; Robin Garton.

Income (2011 forecast)

£5.5 million.


Healthcare; automotive; travel/leisure; home; financial services.



Key clients

AA; Accor; AkzoNobel; Alliance Boots; Bupa; Comte; Embraer; Everest; Johnson & Johnson; LoveFilm; Mercedes-Benz; Merz Aesthetics; National Trust; sigma-tau.


  1. AA - Brand identity, vehicle livery, TV/press, direct, digital. Results: New creative generated 66 per cent increase in response.
  2. Alliance Boots/Boots Laboratories - Brand identity/naming, packaging, website, press/ambient, POS, PR/social media. Results: 7 per cent share in French pharmacy market after six weeks.
  3. Everest - Brand identity, vehicle livery, TV/press, direct, digital/mobile. Results: Sales up 5.39 per cent in a market down 24.27 per cent; £46 million incremental revenue. IPA Effectiveness Award winner 2010.
  4. The National Trust - Brand definition, outdoor/press, direct, digital, POS/local marketing. Results: Memberships have exceeded 3.5 million and visits have increased by 4 per cent.


The challenge

Create a range of nutraceutical products and market them directly to consumers for the first time, in Spain, France and the Netherlands.

The solution

First, a brand blueprint was developed, defining the brand essence, positioning, personality and values, taking into account sigma-tau's long-standing, respected heritage in the pharmaceutical industry.

Second, distribution in pharmacies and consumer demand were achieved by targeting "concerned seekers" - people who had, or thought that they could have, an ailment treatable with one of sigma-tau's products. In this way, the agency was able to produce an extremely focused, integrated communication strategy with minimal wastage.

Last, the campaign idea of "bodies work better with sigma-tau" was launched, which promises a "third way" of treating ailments. So by bridging the gap between pharmaceuticals and natural remedies, sigma-tau has entered the market as a nutraceutical specialist with clinically proven solutions based on their unique "metabolic approach" to product development.

Key players

"Brand architects" David Gray and James Devon worked on the brand positioning blueprint and communications strategy. They then brought in the appropriate specialists, or "brand developers", Gavin Coutts on packaging design, Debbie Leighton on copy, and the art director/designers Sam Childs and Michelle Healy to develop trade and consumer literature, POS materials, websites and trade and consumer advertising and PR.