Who should own brand strategy?

Deciding just who assumes the lead role is increasingly threatening to spoil the collaborative harmony needed at the heart of a great brand strategy.

Don't complain, adapt, was the suggestion from the Ingram founder Chris Ingram earlier this year, when a row between Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Sony Ericsson and the brand consultancy Wolff Olins erupted.

BBH's decision to resign the mobile phone manufacturer's account following Sony Ericsson's use of a design agency to create its new brand strategy has led to a wider debate over brand stewardship, strategy and ownership.

Ingram is well placed to offer such terse advice - he crossed the floor from agencies to consultancies three years ago. The degree of disagreement among various sectors with a vested interest in brand strategy shows that little has changed in that time.

Ever mindful of their narrowing slice of marketing budget, creative agencies are understandably keen to defend both their corner and income, arguing that good advertising rarely results when a brand strategy is developed in isolation from execution. Branding specialists counter agencies' focus on advertising fails to address the wider question of how consumers react to brands when their point of contact isn't always accompanied by a message: at the end of a phone, in-store, on a user-generated content site.

Such waters are further muddied by media agencies, which argue that delivering a brand strategy leaves them best placed to take overall ownership of it. Direct and digital too, with their growing role in CRM campaigns, have a case. In all the noise being made by various warring factions, it's becoming difficult to hear what clients think is right for their brands.

When the creation of a brand strategy is a collaborative process - and that's true 99 per cent of the time - then it follows that ownership of that strategy has to be communal. And while at the heart of a great brand strategy there is usually a big, controlling idea, it's rare to find one agency capable of managing that thought and ensuring it's applied uniformly at every point that brand interfaces with its consumers.

THE CLIENT - James Kydd, Brand managing director, ntl:Telewest Virgin Mobile

The answer is very simple: the client. Rarely is it possible to be so unequivocal about a subject where there are so many inputs from so many people.

There are brand strategists lurking in every agency laying claim to the strategy, but while they can provide valuable input, they should never own the brand strategy. This has to be held by someone with profit and loss responsibility, or else it becomes irrelevant and undeliverable.

If a brand strategy is simply a short-term flavour of the moment (fcuk springs to mind), then it becomes just a veneer. A brand needs to have a purpose beyond a clever advertising campaign (fcuk again springs to mind), and this purpose needs to be reflected through the entire company to make it compelling and sustainable - only someone within the company can make that happen.

A decent brand strategy has to reflect consumer needs. And while many clients don't have a strong grasp of their consumers' needs, they should. It is not good enough to invest in research or occasionally listen to an agency planner; clients must understand their audience, and this must feed through to changes in brand strategy.

It worries me when people - either external or internal - with no direct responsibility for brand strategy, start to take ownership of it, or attempt to define what it should be. The over-zealous chairman or the finance director who suddenly realise the power that they wield is a dangerous force. Yet, these same individuals can also be inspirational and incredibly helpful in making a brand strategy come to life.

Often, the most important role of a marketing or brand director is to inspire other parts of the organisation to be able to be consumer-focused from a business perspective, rather than mere altruism. Help in this task should come from many different sources, but it is wrong to believe that a compelling consumer insight and a great creative idea is the complete answer.

THE AGENCY CHIEF - Gary Leih, Chairman and chief executive, Ogilvy Group UK

The obvious answer is the client. But someone has to design, execute and implement the strategy on the client's behalf. That task used to fall, for the most part, to agencies. Nowadays, a brand owner can choose any number of people to work with to develop his strategy: a "traditional" brand communication agency, a brand consultancy, a media agency or even a research agency.

I passionately believe agencies are still by far the best people to develop brand strategy. Many have relationships with their clients' brands which go back years, and the best of them possess a culture which is steeped in an understanding of, and commitment to, those brands.

Brand consultancies have their place in the stewardship mix, but a client entrusts his brands solely to a consultant at its peril. Divorced from the execution of ideas and the long-term relationship with the brand, specialist strategists often produce superficially impressive, but difficult-to-implement strategy documents.

Media and research agencies also play an important part, but, again, the breadth and depth of the relationship with the brand usually isn't there.

As the best agencies become more 360-degree in their approach, their claim to owning the strategic space becomes stronger still. You cannot develop brand strategy without considering design and identity strategy. Nor can you develop brand strategy without considering one-to-one and online strategy. Brands will increasingly need to inhabit these ecosystems, and they'll need to understand the various communities and interest groups they encounter there.

Advertising strategy can't be dismissed, either. What a brand stands for to everyone is an essential first step. The answer is to form a "meta-group", which is charged with this task. Small, multitalented, encompassing left-and-right-brain skills, and with a clear remit - but one with some kind of common culture which causes the various parties to respect even what they cannot understand. It is in modern, clear-thinking and conscientious agencies that such skills and cultures exist. Most case studies of great brand strategies include elements of strategic learning through execution, which is why it makes sense to keep the two together - at an integrated agency.

THE BRAND CONSULTANCY CHIEF - Rita Clifton, Chairman, Interbrand

The short answer is the client. However, the question reminds me of one of my children's favourite jokes: "Where does a ten-ton gorilla like to sleep?" Answer: "Wherever the bloody hell he likes."

The "which agency" answer to who owns brand strategy is whomever the client wants and trusts to give the best advice. No-one has any divine right. The question is: Whose advice is a) asked for, b) taken up and c) paid for doing it?

The issue is also complicated by the question of who the client is, and what we actually mean by brand strategy.

Branding is now quite rightly attached to just about every organisation trying to add value to day-to-day process and cost. In order to be most effective, a brand needs to be an organising principle, and brand strategy needs to touch all areas of a company's functions.

Having ideas about these areas is not the same as being able to give detailed advice on how to make necessary changes and process developments. For brand consultancies, clients can be from the chief executive through human resources and finance to legal and corporate affairs, as well as marketing. Any of these might want to sort all or part of the brand strategy picture.

I sometimes think that brand strategy as a term is used (inaccurately) as a proxy for brand positioning, or even brand communications strategy; these latter cases would obviously either involve, or be driven by, agencies. Even so, I don't think that any of us should be over-precious about who does it, providing it is likely to achieve the right business effect.

We have had very good experiences of working with agencies of all kinds. It's particularly good when there are direct conversations and working involvement from agency creative teams. Neither agencies, nor consultancies, do themselves any favours with clients when they feel like they're being asked to play referee.

Sometimes we are asked by clients to lead brand strategy through our consulting teams, and sometimes our different practice areas work to someone else's brief. Often, our brand valuation team is asked to analyse the financial value of brands and what drives that value, and it's usually helpful in showing the value of brand communication investment. The consultancy and agency businesses are complementary and there's absolutely no need to tread on anyone's toes.

Overall, it's probably best that we should be talking to each other, rather than exchanging articles.

THE DIGITAL AND DM AGENCY CREATIVE - John Williams, Creative director and joint managing partner (digital), Harrison Troughton Wunderman

Simple. The client. Many agencies or consultancies might help develop it, but this is more about etiquette.

Like most people, I always find it difficult to stay focused when someone else's tank is parked on my lawn.

Agencies accept other people's strategies as long as they feel they have something to bring to the party.

We know of instances where a brand consultancy has created a new brand identity, logo, strapline or whatever, and shown how this would be implemented. The client must then decide whether to piss everyone off and go ahead with it, or to not go with the execution. Given the high investment and perceived value in the identity work, and the fact that it has already received boardroom approval, I guess sometimes it's easier to go with the proposal and face the consequences.

So where do digital and DM agencies fit in? When was the last time you heard of one resigning business over brand strategy? It's not that we're less principled, we just work collaboratively. Clients have a responsibility to champion this co-operative working. It serves their best interests. Traditionally, digital and DM agencies have struggled to lead brand strategy, with the ad agency being the default strategic AOR through share of spend. That share is clearly shifting.

Digital-centred agencies will increasingly be more pivotal in defining brand strategy. Take largely digital brands, such as MSN, Google and MySpace, where the agencies that advise them surely need to be digital. More than that, a good digital engagement runs much deeper within any client, not just the marketing department.

To deliver brand strategy, you need the depth of planning capability, together with breadth of channel experience - without this, the strategy may end up unworkable.

We have long talked about "brand response", but in this new era, I can see that digitally centred agencies will become much more central to brand strategy. There will always be other fish in the pond, but savvy clients will go to those who can provide a creative solution to a business issue without any predisposition to a channel, discipline or logo.

Maybe I should go and buy a tank.

If they do resign, it's usually due to relationships, money or creative.

THE MEDIA STRATEGIST - Sue Unerman, Chief strategy officer, MediaCom

Who owns brand strategy? Increasingly, consumers do. Media agencies are best placed to understand - and therefore influence - what consumers are saying, thinking and doing.

Consumers' relationships with brands have changed and will continue to do so.

A brand's communication with consumers is becoming more of a genuine dialogue; and at the same time, millions of dialogues between consumers are also shaping their opinions of brands.

Consumers won't just sit and listen to our messages, not even if the creative is very amusing. They have been empowered by digital media to go and find out for themselves. To ask questions. To talk among themselves. No-one has control over brands anymore in the way they used to. (I've just been to Google Images and randomly typed in a very well-known beer brand. The third image that came up was a bloke being sick in a bath - doesn't this prove that the idea of control over brand image has changed irrevocably?)

Advertising still influences the purchasing decision, but it is one in a list of items that may include blogs, message boards, price-comparison websites, events, CRM and content creation.

The choice in this era is to be talked about in a good way, bad way, or not talked about at all. The media agency's role is to ensure the former, and media agencies are best placed to do so, because brand strategy is no longer owned by any one agency, no longer wholly owned by the brand owner itself, but shared with the consumer and with the consumers' editors - the media owners. Because our focus is consumer insight and media expertise, our strategies for brands ensure positive and commercially beneficial consumer dialogues.

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