OPINION: Ad agencies alone can offer a true brand understanding

In the past, agencies delivered a united brand concept. That was until marketing got increasingly specialised. David Barker asks, where does advertising go next?

In the past, agencies delivered a united brand concept. That was until

marketing got increasingly specialised. David Barker asks, where does

advertising go next?

I am a rare visitor to this typographical island. Not because I am shy,

or have nothing to say, but because I am in the business of selling

wisdom rather than giving it away.

The fact is, all around me agencies are surrendering their birthright.

The values of intellect, common sense and instinct in marketing are

becoming marginalised. So I felt the need to make a rallying cry.

My contention is that agencies, being bloated and sluggish, have

allowed the whole of the marketing function to break up into hundreds of

tiny pieces. Marketing has become a hospital ward full of specialists,

all clamouring to practise on the patient. Each sees the brand as a limb

to be bandaged, an organ to be treated or an ingrowing toenail to be put

right. As one client rather wistfully commented recently: ‘Marketing has

become dysfunctional.’

With the agency looking after only a tiny part of the brand

personification, control has now become the sole responsibility of the


This has led to a focus on integration, rather than the flexible and

instinctive understanding of brands that agencies used to have.

Creatively-led campaigns kept brands alive and relevant. Agencies must

go back to being the brand’s GP.

True, there are clients with the skills to provide the leadership and

vision for the brands. But even if you can find such people, how long

will they stay in that job? Eighteen months seems to be the agreed

average period among the people around here. So what went wrong and how

shall we put it right?

Creatives make excellent brand champions, steeped in a thorough

understanding of the brand - Robin Wight at WCRS for BMW and David

Abbott at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO for Sainsbury’s. On the client side

we have creative people such as Archie Norman for Asda and Richard

Branson for Virgin. For them, constant reappraisal and reinvigoration of

the brand is as natural as breathing.

This is the sole reason that Barker and Ralston has implemented the

policy of only having a few clients, because you cannot maintain passion

and motivation if your attention is spread too thinly.

What has happened in our industry is that technology has turned personal

skills and interests into specialisms. Not surprisingly, each of these

new ‘wonder areas’ has become an opportunity for a profitable standalone

business - media, direct mail, direct marketing, trade marketing,

design, packaging, marketing consultancy, the Internet, PR and sales


As these specialisms have sought to justify themselves, so they have

developed language and measurements of efficacy that have become even

more arcane and incomprehensible to the other specialists.

Trade bodies have sprung up to represent specialist interests. Many of

the specialists have sold themselves back to the agencies but still

remain as distant departments at arm’s length.

It is vital that agencies train the people who have an understanding of

the specialist tasks, rather than attempt to teach each of the technical

specialists the meaning of the brand.

It is the agency’s role to bring diversity together. Not by purchasing

the specialists and putting them all in one building, but by offering

sound advice and understanding of which specialist service delivers the

brand values most effectively.

Agencies must learn to admit that advertising is not always the best

solution, while being able to provide advice on what is. Advertising is

about a greater understanding of brands and humility. But it’s still got

to be about the idea.

David Barker is the chairman and creative director of Barker and Ralston


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