Close-Up: Do fashion brands need an agency?

Can ad agencies offer high-end brands more than their in-house teams, Matt Williams asks.

Last week, the 153-year-old Burberry brand, which has historically used an in-house offering for all of its marketing, finally hired an ad agency. Bartle Bogle Hegarty has been briefed to handle strategic services on the business, as well as revolutionise its digital offering. However, the creative will remain in-house.

This type of relationship is rare because work for luxury fashion brands is usually produced in-house or through a specialist luxury fashion shop, such as Euro RSCG Luxe or Provenance.

The fashion industry is extremely insular and traditional about its products and how they're marketed. This has led to a scepticism of ad agencies - which are usually seen as being too broad in their strategic approach and lacking an understanding of the intimacy, heritage and prestige of luxury fashion brands needed to create effective campaigns for what is a highly specialist and stylised industry.

"Ad agencies are experts on things such as FMCG brands because they have the knowledge and ability to help make them wider, brighter and bigger. But luxury brands need to have intimacy to be able to embrace their identity," Steve Grant, the global planning director of Euro RSCG Luxe, says.

This approach has generally suited fashion brands well in the past, but because of the recession, consumer attitudes have noticeably adjusted and this has had a major effect on high-end advertisers.

Consumers will still pay for luxury goods, but less regularly and with more thought behind the purchase. This means that luxury brands have to strengthen their relationships with customers - something a traditional agency's strategic objectivity can achieve.

Nick Dutton, the managing director of Euro RSCG Luxe, says: "Sometimes, because in-house creatives are so internally focused, they begin to lose that objectivity and perspective to push the advertising beyond what they know."

Damon Collins, the executive creative director at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, also points out that fashion advertising lacks any sort of "idea", which can prevent it from engaging consumers.

However, by appointing BBH, Burberry has also acknowledged the need to build brand loyalty through the digital space, which can help enhance the interaction between brand and consumer.

And this has been a major failing on the part of the fashion industry. In an age when mainstream digital brands such as Amazon and eBay already provide consumers with a high-quality online experience, luxury brands must supply an even better one to justify the cost of the goods and meet consumers' expectations of the brands.

Janet Carpenter, the general manager of Atelier, Leo Burnett's specialist luxury agency, says: "There was a recent marketing event for luxury brands regarding digital and it felt like we were way behind the times. That there's a reluctance to create a luxury experience online because brands still don't really understand it and believe that it's hard to do it properly. That's where working with a professional agency like BBH can be of benefit."

It is clear that there is a lot of existing expertise in the fashion sector on how to handle high-end advertising but that it can be insular and behind the times in strategy and technology. By appointing a traditional agency to handle strategy and digital, fashion brands can objectively look at their marketing strategy while retaining their core creative heritage.

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LUXURY AGENCY HEAD - Janet Carpenter, general manager, Atelier

"In a recession, a luxury item is more of an investment piece, so you need to be able to build a brand up into something that a consumer wants to have a relationship with. And it is still agencies that are experts in knowing how to get to a brand's core and do just that.

"However, mainstream agencies still can be a little too obvious in their general advertising, and obvious campaigns just don't work for high-end brands because luxury consumers don't want to be advertised to. Specialist agencies understand the subtlety of messages and know that they are the best options for luxury brands."

CLIENT - Charlotte Keesing, general manager, Walpole (UK association for British luxury brands)

"Luxury fashion brands have always had a very traditional way of doing things, which they know work for them and always have done. However, I think there's a real opportunity for them to look at working with ad agencies to gain a broader range of expertise, particularly in the digital space.

"The ad agency, though, must make sure it understands the brand and its unique way of dealing with high-profile customers, because the luxury sector is different to any other sector. It's still far more about the intimacy of the brand experience and the integrity and prestige that the brand holds, so an agency must ensure that it isn't shallow in its approach."

LUXURY AGENCY PLANNER - Steve Grant, global planning director, Euro RSCG Luxe

"In the recession, consumers will still buy luxury brands, but they will do so with less frequency. This means that the brands they do associate with will need to be more meaningful in their lives. This is where digital can have such an impact. Luxury fashion ads do not need to serve as an interruption, consumers already like that world.

"So, instead, you need to be ready for them when they venture online, and provide them with the fantasy and the romance that they desire.

"And when it comes to the digital campaigns, the agencies have the expertise that in-house creative teams lack."

CREATIVE - Damon Collins, executive creative director, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe\Y&R

"The problem is that luxury fashion brands spend a fortune on advertising that doesn't contain what ad agencies would call 'an idea'. They show people in the current season's clothes, photographed by the latest snapper and work on the year-long drip-feed method to brand their wares.

"There is a school of thought that says that as far as ideas go in high-fashion advertising, less is more; that if they try too hard, they will 'lose the magic'. Unfortunately, I can't see this theory changing."