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A rose by any other name

Michel Dubery asks if it is time for agencies to let go of the 'advertising' descriptor

A close up of a red roseNot very long ago pharma companies would have carried out most of their brand positioning and messaging, strategic and tactical planning in-house, with limited help from a few agencies.

Advertising, PR and med ed agencies formed the basis of this assistance and brands usually had one of each.

Over the past few years, however, we have seen an increasing number of companies outsource parts of the brand development process. The drive for this has come partly from the pressure on resources, which the whole industry has been feeling, and partly from the groups set up within companies to ensure best practices are imported into their marketing processes.

Marketing excellence
Almost every company now has a marketing excellence programme. Most of these come with attendant processes that break up the journey each successful brand makes as it transitions from the lab to the bathroom cabinet, refrigerator, or medicines cupboard. This has brought welcomed clarity to what was once practised as 'dark art'. There is now common understanding of brand plans across the companies involved, which is a far cry from the previous scenario where a plan written by one group would be so different from one submitted down the corridor as to be mutually incomprehensible.

Added to this, many of the processes clearly define the links between the actions recommended, the issues and opportunities they are expected to address and the objectives that they need to achieve. Once fully budgeted and forecast, these plans form a relatively firm link between the investments made and the business result expected. This is a much better way to plan than the old "what we spent last year plus inflation plus a bit to negotiate away if my boss gets really hissy" methodologies common 15 or so years ago.

Process fragmentation
It would seem then, so far so good. This clarity of process and the drive to engage best practice, together with the pressure on resources, has made the outsourcing model look more attractive and easy to use. We can simply choose which sections of the process to outsource, short list agencies that we believe are the best at these bits, hold a few pitches and, there you go, instant best practice. The rapid expansion in recent years of smaller agencies focused on very specific parts of the chain has further encouraged this approach.

Cost is also a major driver. As purchasing departments catch on, they are using this fragmentation of process to separate out the areas perceived to be of higher value (such as strategy development) from those seen to be commoditised (such as production and execution). Advertising agencies – in the eyes of procurement – are often seen to be purveyors of the latter.

There are many brands currently on the market that have a brand strategy agency, a professional advertising agency, a consumer advertising agency, an agency for professional digital communications and another for consumers. This is before we even begin to consider access, PR, med ed, global, regional or local considerations. It is a complex thing to manage and can lead to loss of coherence, at the very least. In extreme cases the agency running the positioning workshop is not developing the messaging and the agency that is may not be writing any actual copy. In some cases there has been so little contact between the brand strategy and the creative agency that the brand proposition developed by one holds nothing within it to spark any creative fireworks for the other.

Maintaining consistency with such a disparate group of agencies can be difficult and time consuming; enough so that it can negate any best practice gains and put extra pressure on the scarce resources that argued for outsourcing in the first place.

On the positive side, the expansion of outsourcing the branding process throws up a lot of opportunities for the agency side of the business. If properly handled it can really deliver on the promise of best practice throughout the process.  

Are we still ad agencies?
One of the interesting tenets of "best practice" is that no single agency can be good at the whole brand development process. I am deliberately excluding the specialities of PR, med ed and access because I agree with what Max Jackson said in an earlier Perspective about these specialities being different enough to be treated as separate, but linked entities.

One of the great ironies thrown up by this tenet of "best practice" is that as advertising agencies we are often selected by different clients to get involved with different areas of the brand planning process because we have proved to them that we are the best in that area. At my own agency, for example, we are engaged in positioning, message development, digital strategy, creative development and execution for both consumers and professionals, rarely all for a single client and generally as separate offerings. Given that this has been my experience at all of my last three agencies it would seem to give the lie to the tenet that no agency can be good at the whole process.

One of the questions that comes to mind when considering this is: Are we still well served by the title advertising agency? Does it not push us back into a bygone era when we made a decent living out of actually making advertising and all the related promotional finery? Does it not fail to recognise the explosion of media that are not really considered advertising and best served by yet another specialist agency? Does it clearly communicate to clients the value that we can offer strategically, as well as creatively, or does it have a narrower meaning that puts us at risk of being pushed further and further into the shrinking business of making detail aids, print ads etc?

Back to basics
As a starting point it is useful to consider the etymology of the word "advertise", which predates the industry, as it is currently defined, by several centuries.

Advertise: Early 15th century, "to take notice of," from Middle French advertiss-, present participle, stem of a(d)vertir "to warn," from the Latin advertere "turn toward," from ad- "toward" + vertere "to turn" (see also versus). Sense shifted to "to give notice to others, warn" (late 15c.) by influence of advertisement.  Original meaning remains in advert "to give attention to".

So the original meaning of advertise could be paraphrased as "to turn attention toward". Using this definition we would appear to be reasonably well served by advertising.

However, from a current meaning point of view, it has been a long time since French was the standard language of the English court and so I widened my search and found this on dictionary.com:

Advertise: verb, to announce or praise (a product, service, etc) in some public medium of communication in order to induce people to buy or use it.

It appears, however, that although separated by 6 centuries, both of these definitions have the same shortfall; they focus entirely on communication after the fact. They assume that whatever it is we are praising or "turning attention towards" is already fully formed.

If we are not to be niched in most clients' eyes, not least those who work in procurement, we need to demonstrate our abilities further up the brand development ladder.

The fact that we are, and have been able to hold our own strategically is really through our own effort and expertise, not necessarily as a result of how we describe what we do.  We need to adopt a nomenclature that is more fully reflective of our abilities and, therefore, makes clearer to our clients that there is an alternative to ever-increasing fragmentation of the branding process.

In order to continue to add value it may well be time to let go of the advertising tag and adopt something that portrays the breadth of what we do more clearly.

There is, of course, the vexed question of what do we call ourselves? Dropping the advertising descriptor might be a simple decision if there were a clear replacement for it, but is there?

It is time for a rebrand. Anyone for a workshop? Because if we are not careful we could find the space we occupy as purveyors of what the client sees as advertising shrinking almost to the point of vanishing completely.

Michel Dubery
The Author

Michel Dubery is a leader in strategic healthcare communications, with extensive experience in healthcare professional marketing and a deep understanding of patient communication. Michel has spent 28 years in healthcare, comprising seven years in nursing and 15 years in sales and marketing, before joining the agency side seven years ago. He has vast experience in pulling teams together across Europe to create strategic campaigns that integrate on- and off-line approaches across customer groups.

To comment on this article, email pm@pmlive.com

21st April 2010

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