Let There Be Light!

While writing about brands and brand-building in recent months, it once again occurred to me how little advertising and brand communications agencies focus on building their own brands. We spend all our time and resources advising client organisations on the best way to build their brands and grow their businesses, but hardly care to build our own.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the advertising and brand communications industry undermined its own capabilities by separating creative and media functions, thanks to clients’ demands. Clients’ focus too seemed to be only on getting the best media deals and not on brand strategy and creative solutions, which means creative agencies’ remuneration and margins were under pressure. Meanwhile, we had middle-men masquerading as consultants, wanting a piece of the pie. All this is the subject of an excellent book, Frenemies, by Ken Auletta and I recommend everyone interested in why this industry changed so dramatically in just a decade, read it.

There’s no running away from the fact the industry capitulated, lock, stock and barrel. Now we don’t just have management consultancies eating our breakfast and lunch, we have client organisations eating our dinner, taking parts of our business in-house.

It didn’t have to be this way. If only advertising agencies had spent more time and resources making clients see the value of the services we offer, which, come to think of it, is in the area of brand consulting, since that is what every good advertising and brand communications agency worth its salt is in the business of doing. If only agencies had spent more time and resources building their own brands.

Those of us who have worked in the industry long enough know how brands are built. Through an understanding of the customer and his needs, through what our product/service strengths are, and communicating it in the right manner. Demonstrating every day, that in providing the right advice and solutions, we are helping the client build his business through his corporate and product brands. And most of all, that brands are part of important intellectual property that the company owns as intangible assets.

First, identifying the problem correctly and addressing the right audience. I think most of us in agencies are so closely involved with our campaigns and in selling them to clients and winning awards (yes, that too is important), that we lost sight of the larger problem that the client came to us with, in the first place. If we had identified the problem correctly, as helping build the client’s corporate brand in the short and long term, in such a way that the product brand is only one of many stages in that process, we might have had a better hearing. What I mean, is we often lacked the larger picture of the client’s overall business, and as a result were perhaps not even addressing the right people in the client’s office. On the other hand, management consultancies always have an audience in the CEO and other top management in corporations.

Next, look at the resources we have and see if they’re good enough. As companies that are meant to advise clients on brands and communication as ways of growing their business, what were our resources and investments? Were we investing enough in our people, in their training and development? Were we applying our minds to complex problems, fast-changing environments and thinking of lasting solutions? Were we investing in research, and also building research capabilities? Did we anticipate the technological revolution and build digital capabilities?

Most importantly, how much time and resources were we spending on the most critical aspects of brand strategy and communication? Research, better training, and digital capabilities are all ways of understanding and solving the main problem, which ought to be about building clients’ brands and growing their business.

Having spent almost half my career in advertising and brand communications at Ogilvy in India, an advertising agency known to invest far more in all these areas than any other I have worked in, I have nonetheless witnessed the gradual erosion of resources, over many years. Sadly, many of these were unique to the agency and ought to have been sharpened into enduring brand assets.

Just as every large and well-established advertising agency has its own brand strategy tools, we at Ogilvy had the OMI Blueprint (Ogilvy & Mather International Blueprint). I have seen this fall into disuse, in favour of newer tools like the brand values and culture tool, based on Hofstede. If you ask me, the Hofstede model was never meant to replace strategy; it is a very worthy addition to the set of brand strategy tools that Ogilvy already had at its disposal. Together, they should have helped Ogilvy strengthen its strategic capabilities and be a guiding light to creative teams and to clients.

We also had a journal called Viewpoint, in which the leading lights of Ogilvy from across the world would write essays and articles on their views and experiences in advertising and brand communications. It is another great brand property worth reviving and sharing, since it has plenty of learnings for young professionals as well as clients.

Another great resource that we had at Ogilvy is the Magic Lantern, which only those of us who were in Ogilvy in the ‘80s will recall. I think it is something that David Ogilvy himself was very keen on and helped create, to offer insights and suggestions at a category level that will help create better communication. It was a critical part of every new recruit’s induction process into Ogilvy. The Magic Lantern comprised a full-page newspaper advert, so you can see how David Ogilvy was all the time building the agency’s brand of expertise in the eyes of the world. The advert was adapted into a poster for display at all offices. But most important, it called for collaboration among all Ogilvy offices to pool their knowledge on a particular industry or category. The finest of that wisdom was distilled into a slide presentation and VHS tape with an accompanying booklet as explanation, for new recruits to watch, read and learn from.

One of the many Ogilvy Magic Lanterns; Image: Mascola website

I have been trying to find an image of a genuine Ogilvy Magic Lantern of yore on the internet, searched Ogilvy’s own website and even put a request out on LinkedIn, but there was no response. The image above from a website called Mascola is all I could manage and I am not sure it is a genuine article. I am not surprised that it is so hard to find, because by my second stint in Ogilvy Delhi in the ’90s, Magic Lanterns were all but forgotten. That said, the Ogilvy Magic Lantern is an amazing tool for disciplining young minds, and also for sharing what techniques work, what the tried and tested methods are, and to market the Ogilvy brand to clients.

I have recently been thinking about the Ogilvy Magic Lantern, and how it perhaps needs to be revived. I have attempted similar Magic Lanterns – full-page adverts/posters – on certain new categories that I don’t think were part of the original set and am happy to share them here. If nothing, they can at least start a dialogue on the subject within Ogilvy and get their category experts from across the world sharing their insights to improve them.

I have created a brand identity for it and I think the agency should have one for Ogilvy Brand Strategy Blueprint as well. Below are my initial thoughts on Ogilvy Magic Lanterns for the wines and spirits industry, cars, technology, financial services and retail. I think healthcare too would be a very important category to include in this list, as it will increasingly dominate our lives. I must clarify once again that I am not a designer and the inset visuals in the Magic Lanterns you see are only placeholders for the examples I mention in the text.

This is just to illustrate how important it is for organisations to hold on to what makes them unique, while they navigate the changes and disruption all around them. For Ogilvy, I think these are some of the most important assets that they need to build on and keep adding new knowledge and dimensions to.

As someone who has benefitted hugely from having worked at Ogilvy, this is a small gift of appreciation from me. I hope it gets more minds at the agency ticking on ways to build the Ogilvy brand.

For now, let there be light!


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