Are Agency Brands, Brands?

Are Agency Brands, Brands?

James Fitzjohn (lead image) is the general manager at Humaan, a design and technology agency that specialises in websites, apps and digital products. In this guest post, Fitzjohn poses the question – are agency brands, brands?


The title is grammatically correct, and no, not everyone will agree with the following conjecture but that is the price you pay when you present your opinion at the altar of democracy that is LinkedIn.

Throughout my career, I freely communicated the words ‘agency brand’ when engaging with existing and prospective clients, without any notion of its accuracy or indeed relevancy. The hubris of my early career simply accepted the term, coming to the conclusion that agencies, like other professional B2B organisations had every right to call themselves brands in the same way a consumer, FMCG, automotive or retail brand does.

Agencies have a logo, style-guide and a vague direction around purpose, of course they are brands, thronged around my younger mind, but when that statement is evaluated through the fundamental lessons of brand strategy and management, it reveals some pertinent observations for agency leaders. The perceived lack of husbandry when it comes to agency brand management is increasingly stark when realising that one of the core services for any agency is to help build, rebuild or reposition B2C or B2B brands; their clients and the very lifeblood of their business.

As agency leaders are we practicing what we preach?

For the purpose of these comparisons and in aid of brevity I will refer to agency brands as agency brands and B2C/B2B brands as real brands.

Here we go.

Start with strategy

Sounds obvious? Sadly it isn’t always. The hallmark of a well managed real brand is a clear strategy. Starting with the business plan and flowing through to the marketing strategy (with the latter serving and helping deliver on the former) that is understood at all levels of the organisation.

Give or take business objectives such as holding company revenue targets, vague ambitions of creating award winning work or even the dreaded desired head-count, do all agencies have a clear MO for where they want to be and how they might get there?

Define your target audience

The very best brands go to great lengths in understanding their audience, their preferences and their behavioural traits. They understand their propensity (and barriers) to buying from, them along with their psychographic, demographic and geographic profiles.

Agencies wanting to translate that audience rigour into identifying and securing prospective clients is attempted but rarely mastered. By being clear about their client criteria, agencies can minimise effort during the prospecting stage and eliminate unsuitable clients coming into the business and disrupting the workflow and culture. Being selective is essential in any business context and it is OK to say no to work or decline an invitation to pitch or engage with a brand. However in a competitive environment with razor-thin margins, how many agencies would let their target audience standards slip for an ill-fitting client with a load of cash to spend?

Prep your proposition

We are disruptive, we are digital-natives, we are socially engaged and we are purpose driven. This generic guff is so prevalent in the agency pitch that the words have lost all meaning. This is usually followed by the dreaded our capabilities diagram; an articulation that features a service offering so broad, that it would need a handful of agencies to deliver on it. A clear and concise proposition is not 100% manifest across real brands but it is clear amongst the best ones and they adopt a ruthless approach to consistency and clarity across their brand projection and messaging across all touch-points.

At Humaan, we espouse a narrow but deep services offering, focussing on websites, apps and digital products. This is supported by clarity around who we are, what we do, what we don’t do and what you can expect from us if you were to work with us. This combination keeps us true to ourselves, to our passion for creating extraordinary experiences and makes it easier for prospective clients to identify, select and work with us. We recognise that we are not for everyone – and that is OK.

Harness your distinctive brand assets

One for the Byron Sharp fan-girl/boys, acknowledging the empirical evidence around the impact that distinctive assets can provide. This approach to brand building is moving to the centre-ground in marketing departments across the world, with the more powerful brands broadening and identifying their key assets and experimenting with their codes in order to keep them fresh and to sustain/increase mental availability.

Figure 1: Heinz Brand Codes

Not all agencies have the luxury or the opportunity to use distinctive brand assets in their communications, however effort should be made to identify a tight collection of branding elements to aid recognition and recall to their prospective clients. Ogilvy has been an exemplar in this arena with David, his signature and his pipe used to great effect to cement the agencies position as one of the leading global agency brands.

Figure 2: David Ogilvy Distinctive Brand Assets

Humaan’s marketing collateral is underpinned by a branding suite that we call interface, featuring 2D facial representations of the whole team and a distinctive visual style that is carried across all our marketing touch-points including our website, our office and our documentation and which is injected with our personality and TOV.

Figure 3: Humaan Interface

So are agency brands, brands?

Probably, just about, however, they can do much more to achieve their business objectives by adopting some of the salient recommendations that leave their building every day.

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