Brand Strategy Work Is No Job For Ad Agencies

Mark RitsonSeptember 23, 20133 min

The world of marketing has evolved, and today the companies that supply marketing communications and brand strategy are very different. There was a time when ad agencies were also the chief brand builders for their clients. It was called the 20th century. But that era is over and even big and brilliant agencies are no longer qualified to work on brand strategy.

Ad agencies should do what it says on their tin – be agents for the creation of advertising – and accept that the strategy work that feeds their creativity will be devised elsewhere and without their involvement.

As brand has become more central to the success of most major clients, it has moved further away from the core competencies of advertising agencies.

Niall FitzGerald identified this separation while he was chief executive officer at Unilever. Sixteen years ago, he gave the keynote speech to the European Association of Advertising Agencies and noted the ‘alarming discrepancy developing between what our brands are going to need and what contemporary agencies are good at’. His prediction has proved to be accurate.

Today, brand strategy requires a fundamental knowledge of business operations, finances, employees and internal culture – subjects most ad agencies, which often struggle even to understand how their clients make money, are ignorant of.

There are whole subsets of brand strategy that most agencies are completely unaware of. Consider brand architecture, for example. It is probably the single-most important brand issue for most major branded companies, yet most ad agencies would have trouble even identifying what the concept means, let alone advising their client on a major brand consolidation or co-branding strategy.

This is not to deride or diminish advertising agencies. There is plenty of money to be made and work to be done in the area of marketing communications. Indeed, with the gradual disintegration of terrestrial TV advertising and the fragmentation of the market, there has arguably never been a more challenging or interesting time to work in advertising.

But it is time for agencies to recognize that brand consultancies offer inherently superior systems, people and solutions when it comes to branding. Just as I would never recommend that a client work with a brand consultant to create a communications campaign, I would be equally aghast if they asked an ad agency to work on their brand strategy.

In the long and twisting journey to building a brand, the external communications stage usually occurs late in the day, if at all. Consequently, the initial research, positioning and engagement work will always occur long before an ad agency has any reason to become involved.


– Pat Stafford, former marketing director of BUPA, once said: ‘I have never found a lack of willingness by agencies to get involved, perhaps just a lack of skill.’

– A survey by Farmer & Co in 2001 showed that clients rated their agencies highly for their traditional skills. However, while 75% wanted their agency to give them more strategic business advice, 46% were not satisfied with the strategic services provided.

– Cheryl Giovannoni, managing director of Landor London, has said: ‘With ad agencies it is about short-lived campaigns, but brand consultancies’ work is more enduring because it has to transcend a series of campaigns.’

– Jim Thornton, executive creative director of Leo Burnett, said: ‘When the branding consultancy works in isolation from the ad agency, it is insulting. I don’t understand why clients do it.’

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  • Thomson Dawson

    September 24, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    Great post Mark! I can hear the grumble of ad folks already. But it takes two to tango. Many marketers don’t know the difference in value between brand consultants and advertising agencies. Especially when both marketers and their agency partners believe brand strategy is mere lip service before logo and web site making.

    Many are neck deep in tactics! Marketing tactics, particularly when the focus is on communication, are valued more than brand strategy… which for many, is still an esoteric theoretical exercise. Many highly skilled marketers I have worked in workshop settings will ask at day’s end “but what’s our tag line going to say?”.

  • Mark Tinnion

    September 25, 2013 at 8:33 am

    I completely agree with everything you say Mark.

    The biggest challenge facing brand consultants today is helping clients to understand the difference between branding and marketing.

    I typically find that when you map a brand’s touchpoints around 25% maximum lie within the responsibility of the marketing department. Yet branding is often left to the advertising agencies as it’s seen as a ‘marketing thing’, when in reality it is as much to do with operations and finance as it is with communications.

  • Oyvind Ihle

    September 25, 2013 at 11:19 am

    Thanks for a great piece, Mark. I think Jim Thornton’s response says it all, taking personal offence for not being invited to the party. If brands are at least partly a consequence of the company’s core capabilities then brand strategy is a key component of business strategy. The problem of having advertising people run brand strategy is also one of vantage point and their stage in the business cycle. You have analysis/insight, strategy, business planning, innovation, product development, brand supply chain&fulfilment and only then, you have advertising as one of many elements of the execution of a business/brand strategy. They sit at the tail end of the whole business cycle. Any brand strategy process they would run is more than likely to be myopic; they are not experts in considering all aspects of the brand’s value chain and role in the overall business strategy. Moreover, their brand strategy risk being made with the core assumption that (more/different) market communication and advertising is the right answer whatever the strategic challenge.

  • Franklin Grippe

    September 26, 2013 at 5:58 am

    I just want to say that I am a huge fan of this site. I really enjoy the insights that are presented here. 99% of the time.

    Having said that…uh…seriously? Lol…

    There are people and organizations that are both big and small of every kind and variety that get it, and there are those that don’t.

    Great branded thinking exists within agencies and often outside them.

    However many bad examples there are, the “general agency” more often than not, is and always has been the structure that most effectively brought together all kinds of business functions into a cohesive whole.

    AND put a beautiful wrapper on the whole thing.

    They INVENTED modern branding as we know it and evolve it to this day. Not always, but mostly.

    Do they hit the mark all the time? Of course not. But neither do the Landor’s of the world either. Which is probably more about the client than “agency”.

    For example, you see organizations, usually larger, that move staff around to lead different business functions once you have shown you are a good “leader” or “manager”. Only branding, especially visualization, is a fundamentally different function than any other part of business. It favors non-linear thinking styles, etc. The result is often mediocrity most of the time. But that is another discussion.

    To quarantine brand strategy in this manner like it is on Easter Island, just makes for ever more fragmented approaches, developed in a vacuum, and out of full context. Especially in an age when thinking holistically about brands is as important than ever.

    Branding and the strategy that goes with it are at best when it is conducted across skill sets. Like a symphony. Not as a violin section, playing its own music whenever it wants with a separate conductor.

    Because, for example, of all the great thinking you guys do, initiatives often fall short at the visualization stage. Which is ironic because the ability to visualize effective, aligned, and differentiated concepts is one of the most critical parts of branding and the strategic thinking that surrounds it. And this visual atrophy is often a direct result of this separation.

    I think we need to put a little less emphasis into starting new kingdoms and start working in the full context of the team. That ability to steer the ship or at least have a more profound influence it and facilitate organizations running on all cylinders, will reap the most long term financial rewards for brands, both stewards and owners.

    Branding, marketing, whatever you want to call it, is in need of a self-adapting, unified theory. Not ever more specialized activity. We need to stress cross-functional competency and effective interaction.

    It often appears that this tactic is more about carving out a ready to use, instant market space, than simply just being better at branding and branded thinking. It can be a distraction.

    The future of business thinking, branded or otherwise is rooted in context. The more informed the context, the better the outcome. And it is my belief that design thinking, that is innately holistic, will drive the innovation and associated huge rewards.

    Besides, “specialization is for insects…”…lol…


  • Tracy Lloyd

    September 26, 2013 at 6:44 am

    Great article, super relevant and so true. Companies need both brand strategy and advertising. Those leaders who see the true value in taking the time and spending the budget to get the right strategy will have stronger ROI with their advertising agencies. Everyone can win, staying in the right sandbox of where expertise lies is best for the clients long term. I too am a fan of your content here. Always well worth the stop!

  • Aaron Templer

    October 4, 2013 at 10:58 am

    Thanks for your work here Mark. I would say I agree, but coming from a brand consultant that would be obvious and unhelpful. Sort of like Thorton saying brand consultants are insulting. Of course he would think that. We take away his billable hours.

    One hair to split: Communications planning from a consultant can be a very good thing. Without an agency bias, consultants can provide tactic-agnostic advice and planning free from a revenue model that might affect objectivity.

    Again, thanks for your work and for sharing it.

  • Franklin Grippe

    October 4, 2013 at 11:11 am

    I think at the end of the day there is one question that you have to ask. Is the thing that you ultimately make, that involves a team of people, and costs 10s or 100s of thousands of dollars, better than if you just hired a couple of really good, brand aware design professionals/art directors/visual people that understand visualization?

    By the looks of what is being produced, it is not. IE Burger Kind, Pizza Hut, Radio Shack, most of the Unilever brands, etc…in my opinion.

    I think it is more about perpetuating a business model, than about the work, the end product, or the thing that is made, in most cases. What has improved for sure, is the ability of certain organizations to produce mountains of documentation by teams of “experts”, and most importantly, the billings that come with those things.

    Not the actual end product. Which ironically, has to be visualized.

  • Rick Roth

    October 8, 2013 at 6:45 am

    Interesting debate.
    Having grown up in a big ad agency at a time when we were trained in brand and business strategy and driven to care for brand expression across all touchpoints, I believe there is a way to have both serious brand consulting chops and creatively brilliant thinking connected on behalf of a brand…. with the right talent and the right model.
    But it does need to be ‘created’ for the brand.
    To suggest the disciplines must exist separately – is, I agree, to suggest they have to be quarantined – and this seems rather self serving.
    This thinking led us to a proliferation of specialist shops and for the marketer looking for true holistic thinking, it puts the issue in his lap to find the right talent and to connect them on behalf of his business – it spins us right back to the silo issues of big agencies today.
    If a group of people expert in brand and business strategy can sit alongside folks who can bring brand strategy to life across key touch-points, wouldn’t that answer a lot of need for marketers today? And wouldn’t it lead to more success in the marketplace?
    If a group of people who got to know a brand inside and out, could continue on from strategy to comms planning and creative work and yes, incorporate shopper wisdom, wouldn’t that yield unusual value?
    I think we should stop thinking about specialist value and silo’d ownership and instead consider how to solve for what brands need today. Those of us with the flex to build customized brand teams just might be able to make a very big difference.

  • Rahul

    November 7, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    Isn’t this where the Planner/Creative Strategist within an Ad agency come in? When you say Brand Strategy to be handled outside, it creates a gap and more-so a communication gap between the agency and brand consultants because of both trying to prove each other. This role in today’s agencies is fulfilled by planners/ Creative Strategists who are especially hired by agencies to carry out this role.

    Where the problem lies is most clients don’t see the importance of planner within an agency ( as they are unaware of the role they play) and refuse to pay for it. Here I believe it is more of a job of the clients to demand a planner rather than going elsewhere (or using their own marketing professional) and dividing work.

    The result of this will be smooth processing from brand strategy to communications strategy as there will be less friction. Also most agencies feel more comfortable taking advice from there own people who they know and trust rather than some outsider.

  • Leigh Cowan

    June 2, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    This article should be mandatory reading for every CEO, business student and every person working in advertising.
    The problem is advertising folk simply don’t know how much they don’t know about the greater issues in Marketing that go beyond those relevant to the discipline of Marketing Communications (the other “P’s” in the Marketing Mix).

    Watch an ad agency person roll their eyes when a client tries to develop their own creative! But when the shoe is on the other foot, some ad folk think they know it all.

    Synonymous with the rift between “sales” and “marketing”, but more complex due to the external nature of the appointment, it takes a wisdom and humility of players to to overcome.

  • Doug Brown

    June 22, 2015 at 6:41 pm

    It’s a nice argument on paper Mark, but it relies on us agreeing with your observation that “most agencies” can’t do branding nor do they understand Brand Architecture. Where are you pulling this from? It wasn’t the case in the majority of agencies I have been with (8 to date), where I got some killer training and education in brand building and architecture.

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