Close-Up: Live issue - Adland still learning how to play the agency name game

Are partners' surnames out, and catchy titles in? Kunal Dutta investigates.

Sterling Cooper, the fictional "old world" ad agency in BBC's Mad Men, is where powerful admen stalk corridors, titanic egos do battle and employees indulge in activities far beyond after-hours cocktails. It is also an agency, like many of its time, which assumes the surnames of its founding partners.

This, as a trend, dates back further than 60s Madison Avenue. Earliest records go back as far as Victorian times, when companies dealing in classified print ads would take surnames in a bid to reassure customers of respectability and wholesome family heritage.

Perhaps the essence of that reasoning still holds. It comes as little surprise that (even today) the likes of Saatchi & Saatchi, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO have retained the names of their founders as a quality seal that defines the legacy of the agency.

But is opting for surnames becoming less popular? This year, we have seen the birth of two start-ups, both with significant talent, choosing esoteric or conceptual names: think Adam & Eve and AnalogFolk, a far cry from the old-school acronyms etched in gold above the door.

James Murphy, the founder of Adam & Eve, says: "We could have gone the 'country solicitor' route, but there's a sense that to stand out and have more durability nowadays, you may need something that's simpler and more ownable."

He points to the rise of digital in the late 90s, when many shops had already shaken off the traditional option, moving instead towards monosyllabic words such as Dare and Poke. "We've never really seen a full-scale return to traditional names since," Murphy says. "So surnames above the door can sound quite yesteryear."

Leslie Butterfield, the founding partner of Butterfield Partners, recalls the naming process for his first agency, Butterfield Day Devito Hockney back in the 80s.

Strategically mapping out agency names that had assumed the title of their partners against those that hadn't, there was a clear quality trend. "All of the strong agencies before our time had used founders names, whereas agencies such as Yellowhammer and Zenith just somehow didn't carry the same clout," he says.

But that didn't remain the case. By the late 90s, the agency was rebranded as Partners BDDH in a bid to retain the heritage of the founders, while pointing to a more collective spirit of partnership within the agency.

Rob Smith, the chief executive of Farm, says that, over time, the importance of a name diminishes and is replaced by the legacy of the business. "As you grow and develop, a name loses its literal interpretation," he says. "Think of the band name U2 20 years ago. It was (and to an extent still is) a rubbish name. But you don't think about that nowadays, instead you conjure up all sorts of other associations and imagery beyond the literal meaning of the name."

Proof of this is that a marketing director can now tell his boardroom with utmost seriousness that he's assigned his creative budget to an agency called Farm and his strategy to a shop named Naked.

For Smith, the 21st-century client is left with a simple choice: "Basically, as a marketer, are you buying the talent above the door, or are you buying the agency's concept?"

This may still be the case. However, it is clear that as companies have to operate in a more transparent culture, the decision to go with founders' names or not could have as many drawbacks as advantages.

In 2000, Wunderman Cato Johnson rebranded as Impiric in a bid to reposition itself as a global strategic consultancy, rather than just direct marketing. It lasted several months before the agency reverted back to its old name with an instruction to "get back to our knitting", according to one insider. "Dropping those names was a huge folly," he says. "Everyone was moving towards daft names, and we overlooked the fact that Impiric was a name that didn't tell clients anything."

David Buonaguidi, a founder of both St Luke's and Karmarama, says: "When we first went about creating St Luke's in 1994, it was one of the first agencies of its kind that didn't have the name of partners. It was greeted with a big dollop of scepticism, and even the staff found it extraordinary. But by the time we went about creating Karmarama in 2000, there was a far greater sense that clients were feeling dominated by their agencies and wanted to work in a more open and honest way. We tapped into this with the word 'Karma' and stuck the 'rama' on as an afterthought."

Deciding on a name is still a polarising mark that continues to split opinion. Murphy recalls running the logic of names above the door past two chief executives. "One suggested we did, saying that you can charge a client more for your time because your status is abundantly clear. The other suggested that we didn't, because, as founder, when you can't be in the client meeting in Seattle, a status-conscious American client will wonder why you're not giving his business your proper time," he explains.

But there is plenty to suggest that digital and technologically savvy start-ups are not locked in this dilemma as much as their above-the-line peers. "There's an egalitarian culture inside digital agencies which doesn't sit comfortably with old-school advertising agencies," Jason Goodman, the managing director of Albion, says. "Digital needs a combination of skillsets that rarely gives such prominence to the individual."

Matt Hardisty, a co-partner at AnalogFolk, agrees. "One of our key pieces of thinking for the name was that the agency should be about more than the people who founded it," he says. "It should embody the joint vision and sensibilities of its founders and, ultimately, be as future-proof as possible."

But Richard Huntington, the director of strategy at Saatchi & Saatchi, argues that the nature of the start-up and quality of people will ultimately determine how the name is formed. "It comes down to whether the nature of the start-up is stars or a bunch of mates," he says. "It would have been clinically insane for Trevor Beattie not to have his name above the door. Likewise, Simon Clemmow and Johnny Hornby. Business is still about client confidence, recommendation and reassurance, and these names in themselves are brands."

His point leaps to the defence of several new shops that have deliberately chosen to buck the trend. Dye Holloway Murray, the first start-up of 2007, has continued on a founders' names policy, while, earlier this year, Nick Hurrell and Neil Dawson's decision to rebrand their agency Hurrell Moseley Dawson & Grimmer to accommodate its new partners was greeted with derision. One chief executive said it sounded like a "bunch of Edwardian grave robbers". Both founders remain defiant, however, insisting that "clients still judge an agency by its talent first".

Yet, while the debate will continue to play out in advertising circles for years to come, it is important not to over-intellectualise. Some of the most successful brands have taken a pot-shot at their name and built the company that defines them. It is said Apple was the favourite fruit of its founder Steve Jobs, while Danone was named after the founder's first son, Daniel.

In the 21st century, as brands operate in a more ethical and open culture, the decision to run with founders' names may be the seal of quality to separate talent from the constant birth of new shops. But it could also signal old-school stereotypes that, alongside long lunches, expense accounts and slick salesmen, many clients will want consigned to history.