Firstly you have to understand a little background to this situation. The old model advertising agency is history. Anyone trying to make a living from a business based on the model that was commonplace ten years ago is on a hiding to nothing. It’s irrelevant and it just doesn’t work. Agency owners who recognised this were faced with two choices. They could either broaden their approach which meant developing a proprietary process or programme that delivered omni-media, multi-channel solutions that few of them understood let alone had the capability to bring to life, or they down-sized and specialised.

There was no shortage of specialities that enterprising marketers could focus on, digital, social, SEO were all on the list as was graphic design and this latter area is one that many agencies gravitated towards. They weren’t the first to move onto this piece of real estate however and the segment quickly became saturated. Time for a re-think of the design offer.

Designers have always loved designing logos. In fact every budding designer working on-line from his bedroom soon jumped on the band-waggon and in no time you could buy a logo or “corporate identity” for $100. That was something that a real business with overheads couldn’t compete with and seeing as logos have always been subjective it was difficult for the real designers to distinguish themselves from those with no real skills at all. Their salvation, wasn’t far away though and it didn’t take them long to realise that if you wrap your logo solution in a bit of magic under the heading of “brand strategy” you could hang a significant price ticket on. And so the branding agency or consultancy was born. … except this isn’t branding.

These days it seems there’s a brand consultancy or agency on every corner of every street in every city. However, when you study their offer almost all of them reveal their failure to understand brands at even the most fundamental level. They aren’t developing brands. What they are doing is producing brand communications and as we all know unless this is backed up with some serious commitment and processes that facilitate the delivery of the promise that is inherent in every brand, it represents failure of a magnitude that few businesses could survive.

These agencies prey on innocents. Business managers who are even less well-informed about brands than they are, who are usually, and partly because of their innocence, struggling to maintain business momentum and will grasp at any straw to breathe life into their business. They may not know what a brand is, but they’ve heard, as we all have, that a strong brand is somehow the secret to business success and when some snake-oil salesman comes along and offers them the elixir of life, they are willing victims.

In some ways you can’t blame them. When there is a consistency to what these agencies are saying, even if it’s a load of rubbish, it’s easy to accept this as fact and there is a lot of rubbish being talked. To give you an idea of how commonplace this misrepresentation of brand development is I’ve been studying the scene in Dubai where there are dozens of so-called specialist brand development agencies and even more general marketing practitioners claiming branding as one of their components and I reckon just two are the real deal. So what does a branding agency or consultancy looks like?

It doesn’t take pictures or portfolios to identify a real branding agency. You can tell by their conversation. If they lead with talk of logos and collateral they are a design company not a branding agency. If their emphasis is on defining brands and business transformation then you might be on to a winner.

A branding agency will have an end-to-end process for researching your market, defining your brand, running an internal marketing programme, managing the business transformation that aligns all your efforts behind the brand and then finally designing your logo and collateral and taking your new branding to market. There’s a massive failure rate with branding projects – something like 80% of transformations fail and the most common reason for this is that businesses take their proposition to market before they are able to deliver it. That’s where a real brand development agency or consultancy does its magic.

With competition hotting up in every sector, most brands would benefit right now from a bit of an overhaul. So, if you are contemplating re-branding or even just a spring clean make sure you hire consultants that can really make a difference.

First published on LinkedIn March 2015

Phil Darby
August 2, 2018

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