Do brand consultancies offer value?

Are ad agencies or brand consultancies best placed to drive a client's strategy? Noel Bussey reports.

Last week, Bartle Bogle Hegarty took the bold step of resigning the £50 million global Sony Ericsson account because it didn't agree with the new brand strategy, devised by the brand consultancy Wolff Olins.

As well as causing agency heads to slather with anticipation at the prospect of a global pitch, the resignation has also served to bring to the fore some fervent views about what branding consultancies are paid for, and whose slice of the pie they are taking in the process.

The consensus among ad agencies is that brand consultancies are often superfluous and that most ideas they come up with are impossible to interpret as a campaign.

Laurence Green, the managing partner at Fallon, says: "Sometimes it seems as if they delve into their big tub of brand values and pick them out at random. What we create is published and out there for all to see; they sit in a back office producing flip-charts."

However, brand consultancies believe they are creating a broader strategic idea for the company; one that is capable of driving businesses forward. Agencies, they say, only think about singular campaigns.

One argument for the clear distrust between the two camps is that ad agencies are scared brand consultancies are encroaching on their revenue and threatening their relationships with their clients.

Cheryl Giovannoni, the managing director at the brand consultancy Landor, says: "Because ad agencies have traditionally held the strategic relationship, and strategy has mostly evolved in the ad agency, they feel they're most developed in the way they give clients strategic advice. This just isn't the case any more."

Jim Thornton, the executive creative director at Leo Burnett, believes that it is advertising's own fault that clients increasingly look to consultancies for their brand strategies: "In in the 80s, agencies were so arrogant that they only wanted to do 30-second TV ads backed by poster and print. So we let other people run off with the things that should be integral to ad agencies, such as brand development, strategy, packaging and research and design."

Much of the distrust and antagonism comes down to the fight for the client's budget. Both sets of companies are vying for a diminishing pot as companies increasingly look at emerging ad streams.

"Brands have become more discerning about how they buy advice. They have realised that ad agencies have no impartiality and they are savvy enough to segment the market quite well," John Allert, the chief executive of Interbrand, says.

As brand consultancies begin to offer more and more to clients, they are becoming increasingly powerful in the industry. "We are better placed to create brand strategies, and ad agencies are better placed to create ads. This has become very obvious," Giovannoni says.

With both sides fighting for a share of the same marketing pound, mutual distrust and antagonism is understandable. But advertising agencies and brand consultancies agree that where there is a strong idea and everyone works together from the outset for the good of the client, the results can not only be long lasting but successful as well.

George Bryant, the managing partner at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, comments: "As long as clients respect an agency's strategic abilities, consultants can offer real opportunity to amplify our work rather than threaten it. If we are really to help our clients solve bigger problems, we need to learn to work with a broader range of potential partners."

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CREATIVE - Jim Thornton, executive creative director, Leo Burnett

"There are some great examples of branding consultancies really hitting the mark. Orange's launch, for example, was a great strategy.

"But it all comes apart when everyone in the process is made to work separately. When the branding consultancy works in isolation from the ad agency, it's insulting. I don't understand why clients do it. I can't see the perceived benefit of separating the two disciplines or how it's going to create the correct end product.

"The clients don't help with this as there is a tendency now to silo their budgets into neat little piles, so they have to spend certain amounts on certain disciplines."

STRATEGIST - Laurence Green, managing partner, Fallon

"Part of me thinks that brand consultancies are best placed intellectually to come up with a brand strategy, but against that the client often has the naive, and dangerous, belief that this will fix everything.

"However, it fails when it comes to the execution. Brand consultancies' big strength and major weakness is that they don't execute. Too many strategies are lead footed and originally inspiring, or inspiringly original; basically, too clever and unworkable. The best results come when we work together, but this is rarely the case. It can happen on a newly created brand, but it doesn't happen enough on existing brands."

CLIENT - Charles Ponsonby, brand marketing and sales director, BSkyB

"We work very closely with Venture 3, our brand consultancy, and they're pretty instrumental in everything we do, which can be difficult for an agency to come to terms with.

"However, we realise that the best work comes from collaboration, so we run something called Trio, where our creative team, the consultancy and the agency have regular meetings and all input into the development of the brand.

"This approach has helped develop continuity in the brand, which is rewarded with the high subscription numbers."

BRAND CONSULTANT - Cheryl Giovannoni, managing director, Landor London

"One big shift at the moment is that whoever has the main strategy with the client has the most influence. This used to be the ad agencies; now it's an open playing field.

"With ad agencies it's about shortlived campaigns, but the brand consultancies' work is more enduring because it has to transcend a series of campaigns. Going forward, we are definitely in a strong position.

"There has also been a shift in consumer beliefs. Clients are not spending their money in the way they were before. Ad agencies need to keep up with the changing communications map."