Wolff Olins' D&AD award reflects shift in ad industry

Design consultancies are becoming more important to brands, John Tylee says.

The only question begged by this year's D&AD President's Award going to the design consultants Wally Olins and Michael Wolff is why it's taken so long.

More than three decades have passed since the "godfathers" of brand identity began laying the foundations for the time today when establishing a brand's personality is seen as just as important as how the brand is communicated.

How curious, therefore, that the founders of Wolff Olins, whose work includes everything from BT's "prancing piper" and Labour's Red Rose to persuading Guinness to become Diageo, have had to wait until their twilight years before they too have joined their famous contemporaries on the D&AD honours list.

Some say the 20-year stand-off between Wolff Olins and D&AD sprang from a time when D&AD's brand of luvviness and insularity was at odds with Olins' view that the design sector couldn't work in isolation from the business world.

Michael Johnson, the D&AD president, whose decision it was to honour the pair, remembers his first job at Wolff Olins in the mid-80s when Olins, with his trademark dicky bow and thick-rimmed glasses, was refining his theories about how design consultants should be collaborating with the likes of McKinsey and Bain on brand strategy.

"What they've done is force businesses to look at themselves and at their inadequacies and rethink things they took for granted," Lord Puttnam, the former adman turned movie mogul, says.

"Corporate identity was thought to be about rearranging typefaces before they started," Robin Wight, the WCRS chairman, says. "It's actually about re-arranging the business."

Olins believes his attitudes were defined by his period in adland. "It seemed to me that when I was in advertising we looked at everything from the point of view of media expenditure," he recalls. "We didn't look at the overall impact a company made on the marketplace by the products it made, the buildings that it had or the communications it produced or the way its people behaved."

Olins ended his 32-year stint with Wolff Olins in 1997 after the company's acquisition by Omnicom. Yet his view of the future has proved uncannily accurate. The explosion of pan-European and even global campaigns has accelerated the need for more strongly visual, design-led work able to travel across borders. What's more, there's a widespread belief that the ever growing number of communication channels has made the establishment of a consistent brand personality essential.

Indeed, there are those who cite Wolff Olins' development of the Orange brand in the mid-90s coupled with WCRS's delivery of its message via "the future's bright" campaign as the outstanding precursor of the kind of seamless fusion between design and advertising that ought to be the norm.

More recently, the collaboration between Wolff Olins and TBWA/London on Abbey National has provided an intriguing insight into what the future might hold. "There's been a complete crossover between ourselves and Wolff Olins on everything from the look of the branches to the TV advertising," Trevor Beattie, the TBWA chairman, explains.

Johnson, a former agency art director who went on to be a founding partner of Johnson Banks, goes further: "You could argue design companies have become more important than agencies."

Certainly, there's a legacy of mutual distrust between design consultancies and agencies. Olins has written about how design consultancies were treated with a mixture of incomprehension and disdain by agencies who feared they nursed secret ambitions to become agencies themselves. "We have all been trying to grab the high ground," Robert Campbell, the joint executive creative director of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, says.

Johnson believes such attitudes persist in some of the older, more conservative agencies but aren't apparent in the younger and more forward-thinking shops, which understand advertising and design skills ought to be complementary.

Undoubtedly, many agencies are beginning to appreciate the advantages of bringing design into the heart of their offerings. They include WCRS, which is backing a Wolff Olins breakaway called Dave, which has Orange as a client.

At the same time, the demarcation lines are blurring. Bartle Bogle Hegarty's recent campaign for Lynx deodorant was the brainchild not of the agency's creative department but its design arm.

"It used to be a case of never the twain shall meet but we've all grown up a bit since then," John O'Keeffe, BBH's executive creative director, claims.

Nevertheless, the belief persists there's a long way to go before advertising and design are made to work in harmony to clients' benefit.

For one thing, Campbell argues, agencies remain mainly word-driven organisations that have been slow to adapt to a world where communication is growing more visual. For another, all the senior level client idealism about achieving real synergy between advertising and design counts for little with brand managers preoccupied by sales targets and the latest Millward Brown tracking studies.

He says: "You can get design to work across all platforms but not advertising. Agencies must become aware of the power of design and the consistency it can bring."