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Why Ad Agencies Still Can't Do Branding

by Matthew Clark

Part one of a three-part diatribe on the intertwined nature ofVeer

ad agencies and branding — a detriment to the brands we serve


This section sponsored by Veer




Fifteen years ago, advertising agencies were quite content to just make ads. But with atrophied media spending and dwindling traditional media consumption, it’s no wonder that they want a piece of the pie that previously belonged to the original brand-builders: designers. But why have they faltered and given branding such a bad name?

Let’s get this out of the way: the term “branding” is mercilessly overused, to the annoyance of marketers and creatives alike. Hopelessly bastardized (“branding” a baseball cap means sticking a logo on it?), even its recent movements to go “beyond branding” get it wrong. For this piece, let’s define “brand” as the sum total of a company’s body, mind and soul, including strategies, creative and any “output” that represents the audience’s total experience with the products and services they sell, from their inherent promises to the way the receptionist answers the phone. There.

I would like to suggest that you can judge the appropriateness of advertising agencies’ branding suitability by three measures: where do they make their money; what tools are in their toolkit; and what kind of longevity do their solutions have?

Ad placement drives profits

Even with diminishing traditional media consumption, agencies still make higher profits from markups on media placement than they do through planning or creative services. This makes even the most self-professed “communications agency” intrinsically tied to bought media to prop up the business. In the end, agencies sell advertising, plain and simple. With the disappearance of traditional media as the main source of profit, this is changing, but make no mistake: there is plenty of media buying going on in the new forms of media as well. Non-traditional media IS the new traditional media.

Advertising creatives are spoiled. And entitled. And enabled.

Even the best-intentioned agency brand planner will regularly have their creative brief ignored — or even left unread. That’s because the agency system — not to mention the award shows — favour the “big idea” over on-brand advertising any day. So agency creatives continue to shock and disrupt, and agency suits rewrite post-rationalized briefs to shoehorn big ideas. So when the agency claims that they are “media neutral” and put the “big idea” at the centre of their flow chart, with each discipline orbiting around to demonstrate how they put brands first, they are forgetting to mention something: that big idea will be an ad idea, virtually without exception. Brand thinking just can’t survive in this kind of environment.

The integrated agency is a fallacy

To be clear, agency-owned design departments, run independently by brand design experts, are not the “agency” I am referring to. It’s the “agency proper,” if you will, where account executives have been rebranded as brand managers, senior executives are now brand planners, and writers and art directors are now brand creatives. My 10-year experience at one of Canada’s largest agencies is that agency-proper staff, design staff, web staff, PR staff and youth marketing staff do not play well together. They are territorial and don’t share clients well, so the even the “integrated agency” often leaves out the design group when starting the brand process, leaving it to the ad guys.

Advertising is a knock-knock joke. Design is a dialogue

Quick, punchy, disruptive, advertising is short-lived. The next joke is always around the corner, so it’s no wonder the ad landscape is forever shifting like the sands with new campaigns, new taglines and new agencies, each chasing the other in an endless circle. So while an ad campaign is lucky to last a year or two, well-conceived and flexible brand design programs can last for decades. Brand designers are used to this massive responsibility, while that poor advertising planner who wrote a half-decent brief, only to have it ignored, didn’t even last a year on the account.

So why should we care? Because more and more major companies have been duped by the ad system, and have come out the end with a bad “brand” taste in their mouth. Maybe it’s because they’ve been subjected to homogenized, tasteless global branding, or maybe it’s been an ever-changing buffet of hot and spicy “soup-du-jour,” but branding itself has a bad brand. And the landscape has become increasingly convoluted. For a public institution to undergo a complete rebranding initiative, who is best suited: the ad agency or the design firm? For a complex range of packaging, the creation of a new brand, or the revitalization of an old one, who will serve them best?

Part two of three will explore why brand consultants are – perhaps surprisingly – as unsuited to the task of branding as ad agencies.


Here's the link to Part Two


Here's the link to Part Three





Matthew Clark is Principal and Creative Director of Subplot Design Inc., an internationally-recognized brand design firm based in Vancouver, BC




Ian Mackenzier

May 31, 2010 02:32 PM


"So agency creatives continue to shock and disrupt, and agency suits rewrite post-rationalized briefs to shoehorn big ideas."

Love it.

Curious to see where you take this in parts 2 and 3.



Barry Quinn

May 31, 2010 05:53 PM


I understand your need to provoke people to read, but this seems a very reductive and possibly even self interested view of the business today.

The industry is so large that sure, many firms exist exactly as you have stated. They are not the firms that are going to be leading the pack in the coming years though. The firms that will succeed are the ones that realize, the keyhole perspectives of BOTH the design and advertising industries are not relevant to the cultural and business landscape today.

Simply said advertising and the design exist in a world that has changed and they too must change.

You could just as easily written a story that said Design firms lack the strategic depth to deal with the issues of today's clients. They rarely have anyone on staff that can get into the knitting of a multi-million dollar brand and understand the market and capital costs of even slight changes in a brands positioning.

You could say that designers don't care about solutions that aren't elitist and beautiful. That they believe the world can be cured of its ills if only we all embraced small type.

You could state that many design/branding firms do not have enough experience to fully understand most brands at the ground level and prefer to fly high in the rarefied air of the design standards manual and the world of buffer zones and typographic standards for type they will never set.

You could say these things, but then you would be just falling into the trap of perpetuating the cliches that only serve to marginalize the industry by avoiding the very real work of crafting a future that embraces the intricacies of modern communications and branding.

The truth is 'Designers' and 'Advertising' people have to find a way to work together. But that's not enough they need to empower other disciplines to add to the story in a meaningful way. They have to do this because alone they lack the perspective, the tools and the bandwidth to solve the problem.

Does that mean they all HAVE to work under the same roof, no. But they have to respect the contribution of others.



Adam Rotmil

May 31, 2010 07:47 PM


Thank you for the POV. It was enough to make me consider renaming my firm, because I don't want to confuse people. I mean, if ads make sense to do, sure, but I've got a partner has made real brands, from AT&T (1984) to Cisco (2006) -- definitely would not want to be falsely seen as the kind of agency you are describing. Again, thank you for writing a keen insight. Now... Let's see how you tear up brand specialists in the next column!




May 31, 2010 10:00 PM


"Advertising is a knock-knock joke. Design is a dialogue" - Well put.

You could also substitute 'branding' for 'digital' throughout this article and it would easily articulate the inability of many (if not most) traditional ad agencies from thinking digital as well.



Dave Watson

June 01, 2010 09:33 AM


Knock Knock!

Who's There?


Designers Who?

Designer that is scared shitless of 'advertising agencies' making their branding shops obsolete writes an uninformed rant to justify their existence in a business world that no longer needs them.


Funny cuz it's true.




June 01, 2010 11:25 AM


I wonder what ruffled Matt's feathers this time? I'm sure you all remeber when he wrote a short novel a few years back after Subplot was blanked at the Lotus awards. It was basically a direct jab at Rethink for cleaning up. I don't understand your "us vs. them" mentality. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on design companies who create ad campaigns.

The most ironic part if your rant is that your background and experience is rooted in the "agency" you so much despise.



Matt Warburton

June 01, 2010 03:54 PM


I agree with Matthew.

I’ve watched the agencies move into the design world more and more over the past 15-20 years and they really mess up the marketplace because as Matthew describes, that’s not where they actually make any money.

Classic example is a friend with a packaging project. A big name agency took it on for a pittance (not even enough to cover the salary of the production coordinator who’d be working on the job, let alone any of the creative staff). So for them its a loss-leader(?) but for a smaller firm like mine, those fees would have been actually okay, still not full value, but with our staffing numbers (me, myself and I plus my partner, so 4 in total) it would have been fine.

So why is the agency doing it? Its potential “award-winning material”. Which begs the question, why do it? If you can’t win awards for work that pays, how can it be award-winning?

And the expectation in the marketplace is that what the agency charged is the real value, so when the client talks to colleagues, they quote the lower rate they paid, which means fewer opportunities for us to get real value for our work.

Love your line about Advertising being a knock-knock joke and design being a dialogue! Its a bit harsh, but there is a grain of truth to it.

can't wait for Parts Deux and Trois!




June 01, 2010 06:57 PM


Are you actually contributing anything to discussing the design profession or are you just throwing a tantrum because agencies are winning the awards you covet? It seems to be the latter and a rather weak attempt to be seen as the "real thing". Does it work for you as a marketing strategy? Subplot is so hostile and aggressive it's very off-putting.



Stuart Thursby

June 01, 2010 11:57 PM


While we encourage commenting and discussion — particularly on controversial topics — outright personal attacks on either the writer or other commentators will not be tolerated.

Dissenting opinions are something which we hope are voiced as a result of the opinion pieces we run, as discussion and debate can only help our collective creative profession, but not at the expense of mutual respect.




June 02, 2010 02:13 AM


As a client, would you rather manage (and pay) two firms- ad agency and design firm- each one whispering in your ear what to do with your brand? What a nightmare and a waste of energy! Or are you proposing that clients first go to a design firm, develop their brand and then take that and shop for an agency, expecting that agency to interpret and follow the strategy you developed? Haven't experienced that yet, unfortunately.

The world is full of creative people and contrary to popular belief, advertising AND design are not rocket science, there's isn't one right or wrong answer, and that's what I love about them. Sometimes branding is a knock-knock joke as some ad campaigns truly say more about a brand than any piece of packaging or a business card ever will. Both define it when done well.

Is it effective to take arms against the current state of the design profession to try to change reality and convince clients to change? Or, is it more productive to do the work to the best of your ability and let clients get what they pay for?



Tony Spaeth

June 02, 2010 04:57 PM


You're spot on, Matthew. Recent agency-designed identities continue to showcase their own cleverness at the cost of enduring identity impact.

As someone who has worked both for ad agencies and identity firms, two more points. First, agency account teams are rightly focused on selling the campaign idea (or execution) that will communicate today's critical marketing message, whether selling a product or an idea. The mark that signs that message, however, is something quite different, and it must sign future messages just as effectively.

Second, ad agencies are always in the relationship business; their priority, above all else, is "keep the account." Although identity firms too value enduring relationships, the best of them place a higher priority on making right recommendations, even if impolitic. Rebrandings are essentially one-shot events, and the best designers and consultants may not like it but know they are expendable. I have known an identity consultant to tell a client CEO, for example, that "your own presence is a brand factor so strong that it is pointless to rebrand until you are replaced" (Joel Portugal, at AGP, to my classmate Frank Lorenzo).

Barry, too, is correct in noting that some "design firms lack the strategic depth to deal with the issues of today's clients; but he left out the "some." In fact, some designers love identity work so much that they have made themselves effective, well informed consultants. Others have been smart enough to be sure they team with an experienced identity consultant who knows and loves great design.

For more thoughts on this, see http://www.identityworks.com/issues/issues6.htm



Lynn Warburton

June 02, 2010 05:21 PM


As a communications strategist, I find it interesting that there's no toolkit for clients to use when buying design (or advertising for that matter). Their design or advertising du jour is only as good as the pitch and maybe a recommendation from someone who sounds like he know what he's talking about. An inherent part of our design process is educating clients about how to maximize their brand platform and leverage it as part of their growth. It would be so great to raise the collective IQ of our audiences - they should be reading this and forming their own opinions.



Tan Le

June 06, 2010 12:45 PM


I've worked for two of the world's biggest branding firms, and I've also built an integrated design/brand division within a large ad agency.

Are there differences? Absolutely. Processes are different, approaches are different, and the very language of creative and strategy is different. It's like saltwater and freshwater fish trying to live in the same tank.

But there are things each side can learn from each other, to broaden and strengthen their own disciplines. Ad guys have an ability to chase big ideas, and dream large -- something designers often can't do because of self-imposed limits. But designers are much more thorough in developing their ideas, filling in details and thinking that ad guys often don't care about. Ad guys can write great copy and taglines that actually means something, while designers are the ones who originated "innovative solutions" and similar dribble. On the other hand, designers have the ability to craft copy that intelligently articulates the intangibles of creative, while ad guys would just rather make a funny thirty second spot about themselves.

There are endless other differences that would make both sides better if they truly respected and understood each other's strengths and weaknesses. That's why the idea of an "integrated agency" will always be pursued, even if it's rarely achieved.

But much of this argument is futile. Clients don't care about who does what best. Most large enterprise/global clients divide their marketing business into "above the line" and "below the line". Advertising, consumer media, and retail is seen as "above", while brand expressions, packaging, and other facets of design is seen as "below". The majority of the world's biggest brands assign their business along this methodology. So it's less about who does branding better -- but what does "branding" actually encompass? Where does the line lay, or better yet -- does it exist? The agency or type of agency that defines and answers that best, usually wins the most business.

Just one last thought. It's ironic, but the author's initial description that "brand [is] the sum total of a company’s body, mind and soul" sounds like something an ad guy would write. He must've picked that up working at the ad agency.



Tuija Seipell

June 10, 2010 06:47 PM


In all of this navel-gazing (nothing wrong with that...) WHO cares about the client 's needs? There's nothing holy or inherently wrong or right about being a design firm, branding firm, ad agency...from a client perspective, they all seem to be offering the same thing, using the same jargon, desceetly bashing each other along the way. This is not helpful. Rather, it makes everyone in the business a bit suspect. So, let's start with the client's needs and go from there. If the client is happy, all is well and the "best" have won.



Errol Saldanha

June 20, 2010 10:51 PM


Matthew, I commend you for being one of few to recognize that branding is not the domain of advertising agencies.

Advertising and branding are two very different ventures with very different expiry dates. Too often people confuse brand identity with brand campaign.

However, branding is not exclusive to design firms either ... designers work across and/or specialize in many fields such as branding, marketing, advertising, packaging and publishing.

Graphic design is a discipline that contributes to the development of a brand, in the same way it contributes to advertising or architecture.

“Graphics” are only part of the equation. Many designers make the mistake of viewing branding as only a 'look-and-feel' exercise when it involves many other tasks, such as naming, positioning and legal work, including searching and securing trademarks. While most design firms list such services, they often do not have the expertise or experience.

For many years, I have been working via the International Branding Association (IBA) to establish branding as a specialized field of expertise ... http://www.brandingfield.org

Please also see: http://www.brandingbranding.com (which was published by Applied Arts Magazine October 2006 Vol. 21, No. 5) ... perhaps we could discuss the issue further as the IBA would welcome your perspective.




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