Creativity is still an agency's mostvaluable asset

It used to be the management consultants who got adland's paranoia pumping, convinced that the men in suits were after their livelihood.

And for a while it did seem as though the MC's business acumen and process-driven approach could leave ad agencies looking like the guys who just did the pretty pictures and not much more.

Of course advertising's collective response was to set its nose upstream, broaden its offering, learn the business lingo and aspire to a business partnership with its clients. The MC threat forced agencies to recognise that their role could no longer be justified outside a rigorous business framework; a real understanding of the economics of the client's business is imperative to ensure that advertising delivers real returns.

So the management consultants never did quite steal adland's lunch and adland just got stronger as a result of the kick up the arse they represented. But a new threat is emerging and - unlike the MCs - this time business brain is being matched by creative brawn. Are brand consultancies the new MCs?

This week's shock parting of Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Sony Ericsson suggests they might be. The disbelieving "why?" that greeted news of the split was swiftly answered by the revelation that Wolff Olins had been working on brand strategy for Sony for five months and BBH didn't know a thing about it.

As always, when relations between a client and agency break down, the true story of events is a matter of opinion. Even so, it seems as though BBH has been harshly treated. After all, you might not want your ad agency involved in developing your new brand strategy, but you might at least do them the courtesy of keeping them informed. As it turns out, BBH was apparently kept in the dark until the new strategy was a done deal.

There are more and more examples of brand consultancies and design agencies competing with ad agencies for the strategic high-ground. It's not the only tension between the two disciplines, of course; plenty of brand consultancies feel that ad agencies are feeding off creative concepts they have developed and aren't giving them credit for the ideas. The challenge for clients is managing such tensions where suppliers overlap; and the overlap between brand consultancies and ad agencies is greater than ever.

Less successful (more desperate) ad agencies than BBH might have ground their corporate teeth at discovering a brand consultancy had secretly been working on a new strategy for one of their biggest clients, and then grudgingly got on with the job of implementing the new strategy. Not BBH. An agency built on strong principles, BBH has apparently taken a stand in the belief that Sony Ericsson's new strategy will compromise its ability to develop world-class advertising for the brand.

The fact is that having a view on brand development and strategy is now a fundamental part of the ad agency armoury (and revenue stream) and clients have benefited inordinately from this broader view. So ad agencies cannot simply get back into the box labelled "pretty pictures".

But in the battle for this strategic territory, agencies must recognise that creativity is still their most precious and inimitable asset; ad agencies are still the only alchemists that produce spine-tingling creative work that can transform a brand. And this is why BBH has made the right call in splitting with Sony Ericsson.

The crux of the issue is not simply that BBH could have/should have contributed to the development of the brand strategy and deserved to be informed of Wolff Olins' work; the agency could still have agreed to carry on, working to a new brief based on the Wolff Olins strategy. But if BBH felt the new strategy meant it had to compromise on its creative excellence, then it would have tarnished the very thing that makes an ad agency unique among all a client's partners.

claire.beale@haynet.com.

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