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Advertising Agency vs. Branding Consultancy

A big question has been swirling around in my dark recesses for quite awhile about corporate identity and the role advertising agencies and brand consultancies play. Since we’ve been discussing this a little in the HP topic, I thought I’d spin it off into a new thread.

Who, ultimately, does a better job with corporate branding: ad agencies or brand design firms?

To delve further, and maybe help clarify, here are some further questions:

� Do ad agencies trade too much in trendy design techniques to be trusted with long-term identity needs?

� Are brand consultants too traditional to consistently offer breakthrough ideas and designs to set their clients apart?

� Can a general design studio offering branding services really understand the intricacies of long-term branding and corporate identity? Do they even need to?

I will admit to a bias, having worked for five years in a large brand firm. It was very common for us to be involved in a tug-of-war with a client’s agency over who was the true “keeper of the brand.” Sometimes we won, sometimes they did. Often, I thought the client didn’t win, because we were not all working together.

Please share your thoughts and experiences.

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armin’s comment is:

Oh, I have a good story. From back when I was at marchFIRST. We were a proud creative bunch and we were out to prove to the world (not sure if they cared but we were anyway) that the Atlanta marchFIRST group was the most creative and could pee the furthest. marchFIRST had bought McKinney + Silver or had some sort of weird relationship and they were kind of our advertising arm. So, one day an existing [dot-com] client wanted to design a logo for a new spin-off company and they had us and the McKinney folk do logo concepts.

We all went to our little creative rooms and churned out logo concepts, not once talking to McK. The day of the meeting with the client we all (marchFIRST and McK people) came together for the presentation, everything starts nicely and we each present our ideas and then B A M ! Creative egos collide. Not pretty at all. We start pointing out each other's flaws, and well, I would have done this and that smack talk. Everybody is finding lame ass excuse to why the client should pick their respective logo. I was young, so I would have been crazy not to join in on the action, I mean... my creative director was heading the bashing so I figured it was the right thing to do. I can't remember what the client said at the time, but I think he managed to not get caught up in the creative meleé of egos.

In the end, they chose a McKinney logo. And then they went bankrupt.

Talk about screwing with a client's need.

On another related note, and this is totally a personal perception void of any legitimate reasoning: I hate advertising firms. Especially those who think they are the be all end all (did I use that correctly?) of branding. I hate them, and I would never ever work for any of them. Maybe if my life depended on it. Or if I was out of money to buy a good piece of choloate.

On May.21.2003 at 04:11 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Leaving aside ad agencies for a moment, what are the intricacies of long-term branding that a general design studio may or may not understand? Do these intricacies have to do with the aesthetics and creative treatment of the logo and collateral, or with the extension of a mark, secondary mark, tertiary stuff to various media and applications? By "creative treatment" I mean, designing a logo that can be broadly applied (color, b/w, pixels, etc) and cross-culturally comprehended (ie, nothing that looks like a cross or Shiva), and by "extension" I mean how the mark or system is then applied to whatever products the client needs (packaging, vehicles, uniforms, print, etc.).

I have no idea if that was coherent. I'm exhausted today. Apologies apologies.

On May.21.2003 at 05:13 PM
Tan’s comment is:

5{k in a design firm that does branding. So of course, I feel that design firms are best suited for brand development work. And yes, yes -- ad agencies evil. Design good. etc.

But as with everything, it's not so black and white.

Let's suppose there's a circular continuum that's made up of an ad agency, a pr agency, and a design firm.

When a brand is born, a design/branding firm is best suited to deliver. Naming, logos, standards manual, print and interactive application -- it's all best handled by a design firm.

But as it grows and develops, the life of a brand will migrate and expand along this continuum. For example, if it's a b2b brand -- it will never need big a ad agency, but it might need some pr. And conversely, if it's a retail brand -- it will be best nurtured by an ad agency, but it will still depend on a design firm for its packaging. As a brand grows, it will shift its needs back and forth among all 3 types of agencies, none of which can serve all needs, all of the time.

We're a pretty full-service design firm (not like Landor or anything), but there's no way we could add media and broadcast planning/buying/creative services to our capabilities. In the same vein, I don't believe it's possible for an ad agency to fully integrate full-scale brand, print, and interactive design capabilities into its services.

So who should keep the brand? Well it depends.

On May.21.2003 at 06:16 PM
Damien’s comment is:

Jon - you might need to be a little clearer about who is who. The topic header says Ad Agency vs. Branding Consultancy - of which I think they might be similar entities. But then you ask if ad agencies can do a better job than design agencies... Well - they do two different jobs.

Additionally - branding is a marketing term to do with the 'marking' of products.

A branding campaign could include the combined efforts of marketing and advertising.

Typically design companies can create the stuff - but can't handle and manage it for the client because of simple logistics of media buying, or crunching zip-code databases.

Its really going to be down to what the agency at hand is capable of doing. I've worked for design companies that have lost branding work because they couldn't implement it on a global scale. I've worked for marketing firms that thought they were an Agency and lost vast amounts of money on media buying.

I think the common perception (from a client's point of view) that if it doesn't already exist -then get a design firm involved. If it does exist and the client wants to communicate it to an audience, then it gets an ad agency or marketing firm involved. That's broad - but you also have to figure in different types of design firms and ad agencies. IDEO vs Wolff-Olins or Goodby vs Ogilvy.

On May.21.2003 at 06:19 PM
Tan’s comment is:

I'm like Sam....it's been a long day. Not sure what the hell I was saying exactly.

Yes, what Damien said. Much more eloquent than my analogy attempt.

Learn to play nice with the ad agency bastards. You'll both keep the client and your jobs.

Btw, Damien. A little belated -- but your brand doc rocks.

On May.21.2003 at 06:37 PM
barrymcw’s comment is:

though such an admission might get me banned from the site, i work at that much maligned ad agency.

when it comes to branding, both building and "stewarding" as we like to call it, we work hand in hand with designers. we have an in-house design studio and we have "creative teams." neither tries to do their job alone and sure, we bitch and moan at each other, but i think we, in the end, do a good job of realizing who's good at what and letting them do that.

i'm tired too. i hope that makes sense

On May.21.2003 at 06:58 PM
felix’s comment is:

barry, i used to work at your "stewarding" shop and I'm glad to hear people your people are still bitching over there... myself? I've progressed to "bitchin it forward". Now it goes straight to the client!

tell the brand boys i said hello... and heres a lil secret: theres a nice spot under your desk you can nap in.

On May.21.2003 at 07:06 PM
Damien’s comment is:

Tan - thank you. Kind of you to say so. It's being turned into a book due to the unforseen success of having been downloaded nearly 4000 times. I'm going to have to take it down soon.

On May.21.2003 at 10:18 PM
darrel’s comment is:

I read:

Who, ultimately, does a better job with corporate branding: ad agencies or brand design firms?

I 'hear':

Who, ultimately, does a better job with BUZZWORD BUZZWORD: BUZZWORD BUZZWORD or BUZZWORD BUZZWORD firms?

It's late. I'm in a sarcastic mood...

(I assume we're talking Brand IDENTITIES here?)

On May.21.2003 at 10:20 PM
Corey’s comment is:

1. I am tired also.

2. Everyone seems to be tired.

3. I see that as a good thing, as I take it to mean that we're all working a lot, which, as I gather from most of my design friends, is a really good thing.


I'm four days into a new gig with a 20 person design firm. I've been reading strategy documents generated by the incumbent ad agency for a major midwestern agricultural sciences company. They spec out by product the target messages and then itemize the print/online/radio/newspaper/television pieces to the entire multimillion dollar puzzle over the next year. To wit:

-We need a wrap with this message about this product over these days on the Iowa Farmer

-We need a radio ad with this message on WGN on these days

I'm staring at an Excel spreadsheet of over 200 jobs for this client, many of which we are tasked to execute, many additional we have been handed.

There's no way we could do both these jobs -- massive cross-media planning as well as execution. The ad agency generating this document can't do the design-intensive work well, and doesn't want to, so we get it. And we couldn't generate this kind of plan nearly as well as they have. In the end there's a bit of territoriality, but it seems to be working well. I may sing a different tune in August, but my point is that the client engages one entity for a product, and we all need to work together to keep them happy. Which we will.

The hallmark of any organization operating poorly is when it attempts to overreach its core competencies. Right now, this relationship seems to be working,, and I'm not a big fan of ad agencies when it comes to design execution. I'm just doing what I can to provide excellent work for the client, and this ad agency seems to be of like mind.

On May.21.2003 at 11:10 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

I see that as a good thing, as I take it to mean that we're all working a lot

Ugh. The words 'working' and 'a lot' should never go together. ;o)

On May.22.2003 at 08:50 AM
jonsel’s comment is:

From now on, I think I'll request that all comments are made between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm, so you guys will all be awake. ;-)

Seriously, I will attempt to clarify a bit, since I left more ambiguity than intended.

By Advertising Agency, I was referring to a company whose primary mission is and has been to design, sell and place advertisements: Ogilvy, Y&R, Leo Burnett, et.al. I understand that many of these agencies have "branding" groups within their walls. Ogilvy, for one, has the well-respected Brand Integration Group.

By Brand Design firms, I meant those companies dedicated to corporate identity and/or packaging design: Landor, Interbrand, Wolff-Olins, Enterprise, etc. There are many more and some better than others. These companies generally don't offer advertising services - either media buying or campaign creation, etc.

I was also not taking a crack at smaller design firms that offer corporate id services. Some, like Addis Group, do a very good job and are well-versed in it. You rattled off a list of "intricacies", Sam, and you are partially right. It may seem obvious, but there are many studios that don't understand how long and arduous the implementation of an identity, especially for a Fortune 500 organization, can be. This is often where many design firms simply fail. An identity not implemented in a consistent manner is a waste of money.

What I noticed, especially as "branding" became such a buzzword (thanks Darrel, you were right to say such) in the late 90's, is that ad agencies began to reach for more of the "brand" pie. Brand design firms, similary began to try to grab some ad work but also assert themselves as the true strategic leader for the client. It was all about the Benjamins, obviously.

I think, in the end, this reaching for more work, outside of each's traditional field, led to more distrust and a poorer working relationship. In the end, the client can't necessarily trust either, because both companies want ALL the client's business.

I believe that ad agencies tend to focus too much on the here and now. They, generally, don't look more than a few years down the road, because they are trained to think in terms of the current campaign. When they begin to design corporate identity, they don't have the same level of experience as a dedicated identity firm. Corporate ID must think 10 or 20 years down the road: timeless is key. Goals are less immediate than an ad campaign. ROI is difficult to determine, because it often doesn't translate into instant sales-growth.

Where ad agencies often do a better job than "branding firms" is in the strategic partnership. I believe, because ad billings are so high, that clients feel the need to insist on a better, tighter relationship with their agency. This fosters a better understanding of the client by the agency, and hopefully more relevant and successful advertising. Because a corporate identity project often has a finite term, CI firms don't build up the years-long partnerships that ad agencies do.

In the end, I guess it comes down to a combination of ego and money. Perhaps a greater recognition of the roles of an ad agency and a design firm would lead to more trust from the clients, enabling better work from both?

I hope this has helped a little. Am I just completely off the deep end?

On May.22.2003 at 09:41 AM
Darrel’s comment is:


I think you summed it up well.

It's all business. Ad agencies and Design Firms are competing for the same pool of marketing money that a company may have. Advertising is different than ID design, but there are many companies that claim to do both.

In fact, at most design firms I've worked with/at, they claim to do pretty much anything.

And that's OK. If it makes a buck, more power to them.

On May.22.2003 at 11:07 AM
Tan’s comment is:

...and welcome, officially, master hobbit.

On May.22.2003 at 11:09 AM
jonsel’s comment is:

If it makes a buck, more power to them.

Doesn't this fly in the face of our desire to do good work for our clients? If they do all things well, that's another story, but mediocre jacks-of-all-trades lower the bar. Doesn't this lead back to "the dark side" ?

master hobbit

How did I get saddled with this nickname??

On May.22.2003 at 02:19 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

I'm always perplexed by the never-ending conflict between "graphic designers" and "advertising people," and of course the requisite strife that erupts between "design firms" and "advertising agencies."

For the most part I think that talking about design and the intricacies of design is not unlike talking about a toaster. What I appreciate about design is that its a discipline, its a craft that requires tremendous dedication and persistence. But its not an end in itself, and I've spent way too much wasted time dealing with designers who (for example) were more concerned that the headlines in various spreads of an annual were in the same position than he was with a) what the headline SAID, and b) what the book as a whole said.

Let's take a look at the bigger, more-successful (well, we're probably just talking about "design" here, but try to think beyond brands with cool design) brands out there. Nike, IBM, Coke, Harley, Volkswagen...that's all I can think of for now. There are many, many more.

Nike--internal brand design group, but the stuff most people see is done by Wieden+Kennedy, an agency. W+K created the Just Do It theme.

IBM--Ogilvy's baby. Of course if you read Boyko's article in One Magazine, he describes how B.I.G. did an important piece once...but that's under Ogilvy and we know the brand through the print ads and commercials.

Harley--Carmichael Lynch, an ad agency, controls the brand. I'm not saying that my firm doesn't play a role, but we don't guide it.

VW--The brand is controlled by Arnold...I'm sure there are design firms working on it, but what they do I'm not sure of.

Of course, what I've also noticed recently (or maybe I'm just becoming more aware of it), is that you've got big agencies who have the big corporations as clients...and then they farm out almost everything to all sorts of different people, other firms, whatever. For instance, Goodby handing a lot of the HP work over to CORE. Or to John Norman. Or BBDO giving stuff over to Imaginary Forces.

I don't know when brand started to translate directly into design & advertising, but look at brand as a part of the marketing equation and not the sole answer. If you were involved in marketing 80-100 years ago, you probably did a lot of direct sales or managed product/service distribution in some way. To an extent, the same holds true today--a brand is affected by tons of decisions. When to advertise, where, and how much all play a role are just a few--and these decisions are made by advertising agencies.

Designers might do a package, a logo, a catalog, whatever. Those have an impact, but not quite as much an impact as the power determining who sees them, when they see them, and how frequently. I don't know of any design firms that tell their clients how big the print run will be for anything.

Another aside. Crispin Porter Bogusky, agency behind Mini, has been doing far more interesting things than anybody else I can think of lately. Go to Molsonusa.com to see because I can't properly explain it here. It's smart--definitely not going to last forever, but who cares? Its cool.

An identity is more than a "timeless look." An identity is an attitude, an emotion, that sort of thing. Nike was talking about how it maintains such a strong brand, and (like Diesel, another powerhouse) the folks there just said that they do things by gut and intuition. Consistency for them doesn't lie in totally arbitrary things like colors and typefaces, its a matter of staying true to the essence. The surface can change as much as it wants to and still reflect a deeper truth.

Advertising agencies who just see themselves handling ads and graphic designers who only do a few specialized things are going to have a harder time in later years I think. Say what you want to about short-term trendiness, but it works (see Madonna, Elton John, or hell, Nike for real-world proof) and those who can master it more than once will do quite well. There's no point in drawing severe lines between the creative aspects of a brand; I'm not saying they'll necessarily "blend together" or "converge," but I think its pretty clear that the requirements for a brand to succeed are somewhat unpredictable and encompass a lot of different things.

On May.23.2003 at 04:00 AM
marc’s comment is:

Interesting reading!

It's crazy that we are always talking execution.

Design, advertising and branding are all executions

of one commercial visual language.

Much in the same way that journalism, copywriting

and authorship are all executions of one verbal language.

Importantly they say different things. They are about different points of view. This is an important matter.

Let's not think execution but judge all work by consistent quality and exceptional creativity.

Those of you maligning advertising agencies haven't done your research. Clients demand a variety of communication that has left straight design agencies in very shallow water. Holding onto typeface colour and form hoping that this will offer cohesiveness in any multi faceted communication is desperate at the very least.

Even great design can stand for bad corporations if the client’s communication and actions leave much to be desired. We must bend and shape our profession to learn all the avenues of communication and skilfully mix and create from a vast palette of knowledge.

Never be scared to learn, don't right things off as bad before you know the facts, this is tantamount to ignorance.

Choose your clients wisely and keep learning. This way you'll grow with them. Shape them. And enjoy working with them.

If another party (ad agency, branding consultancy, whatever) is preventing or changing your creative input then do better work. Make your work the most vibrant useful work on the table. This way you'll get control and the clients ears. If an advertising agency is causing problem learn their skills and become better than them.

All the names you mention in your texts are at the forefront of a new commercial visual language. John Norman is part of Goodby Silverstein. Robert Nakata and John Jay are part of Wieden and Kennedy. John Warwicker is part of Grey. They all represent multi talented creative people who recognise no border.

Whether you agree with this is inconsequential.

The only way you can effect anything it is to take hold

of the reigns are move you work forward in a

positive direction.

As I worked on Nike for Wieden and Kennedy for four years and I worked with John Norman on the HP brand at Goodby Silverstein. I've had my share of battles.

And before you designers start crowing "just another ad guy" I worked as an assistant to Tibor Kalman and as a designer at Studio Dumbar. So I have extensive experience at approaching the problem from more than one angle.

Look forward to meeting you across the table so to speak


On Oct.30.2003 at 06:44 AM