What is a brand agency?
You would think that an industry that spends its life exemplifying the benefits of simplicity and clarity would have better ways of navigating its complex customer offerings. Not so, the marketing agency industry is a cornucopia of jargon, acronyms, verticals, horizontals, split or grouped into offerings, full service and specialists - PR, social and content, SEO and data analyst, CX, UX, UI, above/ below and through the line, direct, retail, digital and environment – and the list is growing by the day. It’s no wonder marketeers around the world have an aversion to approaching the pitch process. With that in mind, we see it as our duty to clearly articulate the offering of the brand agency.
To be clear it’s about brand
As the sub-heading suggests, brand agencies are in the business of developing brands. Our sweet spot is in the creation of new brands and the evolution or transformation of existing brands.
Typically a brand agency would develop a ‘think piece’ – often a brand strategy - at the start where the brand in question is examined and audited against expectations and aspirations for the future, followed by a ‘design piece’ where findings are preserved and expressed via naming, design of logo marques and a visual identity system. And yet, maybe to be categorically clear, what brand agencies really do is they help you articulate your businesses vision, then navigate you towards it.
What we aren’t
The ability to think clearly, strategically and for the long term, then leverage that thinking into great creative is a skill of the brand agency. This skill is multi-disciplinary and can be taken into any of the marketing functions to be honest; advertising, PR and any digital activation – yet tenure can count for something. Voice’s 25 years of consulting on thorny brand problems means brand development is our thing. Although we can develop an ad campaign, and we have in the past, or build a website from scratch – ours is a track record, clarity of thought and passion for the branding discipline. We could also do social content, even SEO, but the simple fact is there is probably someone close by that could do the job way better than us.
Graphic design for a brand agency is the expression of a strategic intent, expressed via a strategic document, like a brief, a brand or communications strategy. Graphic design alone, without a strategy or plan, no matter how small, is fraught with challenges for a brand agency. Very rarely will companies like Voice enter into graphic design without any type of strategic back end to support the creative. Simply because it’s difficult to know if we have succeeded if we don’t know what success actually looks like. In the creative world of subjectivity and personal opinion, great strategy is the pillar from which the brand agency’s creative expression is built. Without it we have no platform to base our ideas or our rationale from. We are lost, rudderless in the storm of subjectivity.
It is due to these type of complexities that brand development is a specialist discipline that takes maturity and confidence. Many say they can do it, but very few can actually pull it off. That’s because great brand creativity isn’t taught, it’s earned - over decades of exposure and problem solving in the trenches of the corporate world.
The rise of the specialist
In the days of Don Draper and Madmen, marketing was simpler and agencies were generalists. These days many more expressions of the marketing discipline exist, driven by, among other things, the onset of the digital revolution. No longer can a single marketing expert or agency be expected to hold all of the skill needed to advise clients on every marketing matter, both on and offline, with absolute confidence. This has given rise to the phenomenon of the agency specialist - businesses that take a specific vertical from the marketing discipline, like brand development, and offer it up to the market. Specialists are often independently owned and directly born from the experience and expertise of their passionate leaders. Staffed with teams of like-minded people, the specialist has a portfolio and a track record that backs their ‘specialist’ claim, driven by a methodology or lead process that is proven to work across many industry types. Normally more intimate to deal with, the smaller specialist teams are often happy to let clients ‘in’ to their creative process, which helps to anchor in understanding and buy-in to their thinking and creative outputs.
All agencies are engaged by complex communication problems. For the specialist it is an opportunity to use their deep capability to bring simplicity and transparency to murky waters – and while profit is vital for all businesses, the thrill is not the money, rather it’s in the clearing of the waters, the solving of problems and the validation of what they know as a tool of clarity. At least it is for the good ones.
The branding specialist
Brand agency specialists are rare animals. Simply due to the project nature of brand (once it’s done, you’re not needed anymore) and the longevity of the work (a robust rebrand should last in excess of 10 years) means it’s a business model that requires constant regeneration. This not-for-the-faint-hearted model and its need to regenerate every month is not shared by other agency types, like our flash cousins, the ad agency. For us brand guys track record is everything – the ability to reference past high performing work builds our reputation, creates interest and enquiry and drives creative teams to extend themselves. In a very real way, the pressure to regenerate drives excellence and determination not often found in more generalist agency offers. To the brand specialist your project is highly important, because the success of his/ her business literally relies on your brand doing well.
This small but crucial fact is the biggest selling point for the branding specialist.
Let’s say your brand project gets under way and you arrive at a mutually agreed investment, married to a set of expectations and outputs. While this may be the only rebrand you go through in your career (if you are lucky) it’s the 6th one this year for the brand specialist. Beyond their experience, maturity and clarity, the brand specialist knows the most efficient way to approach all aspects of your project – because there isn’t anything they haven’t seen before. They will use staff workshops and customer research to glean what they need to know, but the magic will come from their intuition – an innate understanding of where your brand needs to be positioned for greatness. Methodologies and process will be used and design will be born from strategic intent. You will get help with internal buy-in if you need, because brand specialists have faced Boards, CEOs, CFOs and spoken at shareholders meetings on many occasions. They understand the insecurities that stakeholders have to change and they use strategic thinking and knowledge about your markets to build awareness.
The bottom line is this. Be it a business you work for, or one you own, (Re)branding will be one of the most crucial exercises you go through in your career. The investment in both time and money will be big, the effects of the decisions you make will be felt in the business for the next 10 years or so, if you do a great job. On those two points alone, wouldn’t it make sense to hire the most experienced specialist you could find?
Neil Sparksman is Managing Director for Voice.