Original innovator sees direction vindicated by award

George Michaelides thinks greater financial restraint benefits his company, writes Glen Mutel.

The Campaign of the Year award Michaelides & Bednash scooped at last week's Campaign Media Awards was more than just a pat on the back for interesting work. It was a vindication of the agency's current way of working and the direction it has taken since it first formed out of HHCL & Partners eight years ago.

M&B started life as a media agency -- one that sought to challenge traditional ways of thinking about media planning. It aimed to show advertisers that there were alternatives to placing 30-second TV executions in the break during 'Coronation Street'.

These days, it no longer sees itself as a media agency at all. Instead of purely planning strategies, it offers creative solutions, which extend beyond the traditional capabilities of an art director and a copywriter.

As such, it doesn't have in-house creative resources. It relies instead on the services of outside talent, be it that of creatives, planners, designers, musicians, journalists or illustrators.

"When we start work developing a communications strategy, we look to broader culture to develop ideas that clients can then own and propagate," George Michaelides, who founded M&B with Graham Bednash, explains. "That informs us as to how we can move it on to the stage where we can begin to brief creatives. The point at which we get creatives involved depends upon the task at hand. This flexibility is crucial. We need to be able to respond to the task instead of behaving like a sausage factory."

The agency has certainly come a long way since its days as an early pioneer of media neutrality. Of course, Michaelides objects to the term media neutrality. In fact, you could fill a book with the number of terms Michaelides objects to. But his pedantry concerning the specific nature of the agency's offering is well founded, as M&B occupies a unique position in the market. Although some still classify it as a media agency, this year it has found itself pitching against the likes of The Leith Agency and M&C Saatchi.

However, critics will argue that this new offering will only work with a certain type of client. Now that M&B's big-spending initial clients such as National Savings, Tango and the AA have departed, there is some debate as to whether its positioning is too elusive to be appreciated by larger advertisers.

"How easy is it for clients to buy M&B in comparison to agencies set up on more traditional lines?" Paul Phillips, the AAR's director of advertising and media services, asks. "M&B differs significantly from other agencies because you can't walk into the agency and see lots of creative teams beavering away. This makes it harder for the clients to understand what the benefits to them are. What M&B would argue is that it understands strategically what clients' requirements are and will offer a broader communications strategy which is not a slave to 60-second commercials and 48-sheet posters.

"But where M&B is open to being knocked is that some of its big spending original clients are gone, and it's finding it more difficult to attract the mainstream FMCG, bank or car account. That's a challenge for it, but I think it's capable of meeting it.

"The fact is M&B isn't looking for market domination, so it does not need to win an awful lot of business to satisfy its ambitions. It can, therefore, afford to be more eclectic in how it presents itself."

Michaelides is optimistic on this front. He believes the fragmentation of the media and the rapidly changing advertising environment will gradually force big advertisers to recognise agencies such as M&B. "They'll have to," he says. "Because every penny spent is now judged and assessed. We don't have the situation where clients sign off money willy nilly."

The M&B partner Matthew Andrews adds: "There are always advertisers who demand new and innovative communication strategies and there will always be a significant number of risk-taking clients in this business."

Although the agency's positioning is often misinterpreted in the UK, apparently this is not the case on the other side of the Atlantic. Michaelides believes US clients are more in tune with M&B's way of working and this is why, in January 2001, the agency opened a New York office. It is run by Rupert Newton, one of M&B's seven equity partners, and in September it added Elle to its client roster.

"New York's easier in some ways because there isn't an advertising village there," Michaelides says. "Clients are used to getting their ideas and communication strategies through a variety of sources. There is an incredible freelance community and there's a lot of major talent that doesn't like working in big companies. So clients are far more used to choices like those we are offering."

With the New York office up and running and the UK office receiving widespread praise for its work for Channel 4 and Butterkist, M&B has reason to be upbeat.

Eight years on, it is still often said M&B paved the way for agencies such as Naked. But if the agency is to ever shake free of this platitude and receive recognition for what it is now rather than what it was, it may have to pull in a big-billing, hotly contested account. It would be interesting to see M&B's work model applied to a big-spending flagship brand that can ill afford to experiment or make mistakes. For many in the industry, this is M&B's next big challenge.

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