CAMPAIGN-I: SPOTLIGHT ON: Marketing online spin-offs.Can an agency handle both a brand and its online spin-off? Duckworth Finn's problems with Mothercare reveal the dangers

On those rare occasions when mainstream West End agencies are accused of under-investing in new-economy skills, they tend, sooner or later, to play the 'time is on our side' card. It's a pretty simple argument. The new economy, they say, will eventually be owned by the big players in the old economy - bricks and mortar becoming clicks and mortar.

On those rare occasions when mainstream West End agencies are accused of under-investing in new-economy skills, they tend, sooner or later, to play the 'time is on our side' card. It's a pretty simple argument. The new economy, they say, will eventually be owned by the big players in the old economy - bricks and mortar becoming clicks and mortar.

Mainstream West End advertising agencies tend to believe they 'own'the big blue-chip clients. So, the argument runs, they will inherit the future however it turns out.

Good theory. But the trouble is that, now and then, something comes along and makes you question the whole proposition. Like, for instance, the spat between Mothercare.com and its agency, Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters.

Neither side has been willing to comment, but what seems to have happened was that the agency, which won the main Mothercare brand back in 1996 and has worked happily on the account ever since, found it impossible to work with the dotcom spin-off.

Mothercare.com, which was launched in September, is semi-autonomous - what it does must square with the main brand, of course, but it has separate management. Duckworth Finn, though, was asked to handle the launch campaign.

From the agency point of view, it was a clear case of chalk and cheese.

It thought it knew the client but then started to realise that the e-commerce people had a very different set of rules.

The two sides have agreed to split and some observers maintain that this is inevitable where 'brandstretch.com' ventures are concerned. Surely, they argue, you can't hope to integrate the marketing arrangements of a main brand and its e-commerce spin-off. They have such divergent agendas.

Integration might guarantee branding consistency, but does consistency matter?

One senior marketing source argues passionately for complete separation: 'The classic case is where you have, say, a big retailer and it has an e-commerce department that it thinks has evolved into a big dotcom venture. It's been set up as a separate profit centre but the problem is it's haemorrhaging cash. It has big plans but everything it wants to present to the outside world crosses the desk of the main brand's marketing director and, of course, he doesn't have a clue about the new economy.

He's just a massive brake on anything remotely innovative.

'And then there's a division that deals with anything across the whole group that's connected with direct to consumer distribution. It is interested only in logistics and it's always sucking its teeth and saying, 'Ooh, I don't know about that, guv.' And then there's another division set up to look for brand extension and spin-off opportunities and how it can deliver extra shareholder value. To be honest, it's a complete nightmare for anyone caught up in the middle of all of that trying to move it forward.'

David Stubley, Outrider's managing director, can recognise some of that.

He agrees that you should aim for branding consistency but it shouldn't be the be-all and end-all. He says: 'You can develop guidance rules about product and branding and it is great if the whole thing dovetails but you have to give people enough scope. We've found that clients who are focused and have the necessary level of autonomy have the speed to market.

We appreciate all the arguments about brand consistency but we'd argue that losing some of that consistency is a risk worth taking if it gives you speed to market.'

Not everyone agrees with that, of course. Tim Duffy, the managing director of M&C Saatchi, asserts that structure just isn't the issue here: 'The key thing has to be an understanding of what the core of the brand is. That becomes a rock to which everyone can attach themselves and it allows each manifestation of the brand to convey individual messages while still being part of the brand.'

This is new territory in many respects. Marketing theory is still miles behind. Can dotcoms be managed as brand extensions like any other? Can new economy ventures prosper under the beady eye of brand custodians?

We'll see. But Duffy, who has experience of these issues on the Sainsbury's account (the agency handles both bricks and clicks), says that it's in no-one's interest to encourage the formation of battle lines.

'It's wrong to talk about conflicting agendas. I think you can achieve a situation where the e-commerce part contributes to the main brand as much as it derives strength from it. It's a two-way feed - I think that's certainly the case with Sainsbury's,' he adds.



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