Where agencies no longer fear to tread

Where agencies no longer fear to tread

Grant: radical restructure of BBJ to broaden services

For years, advertising agents have been quaking in their boots over the perceived incursion of management consultants onto their com-munications turf.

Agencies' failure to penetrate most clients' decision-making hierarchy much higher than marketing director level and their inability to charge a
premium rate for advice like their consultancy cousins was seen, by many, as the advertising industry's Achilles' heel.

Last week, however, was a good one for one area of the ad business. Strategic media shops that have, in recent years, been claiming the intellectual high ground in media look as if they've stretched their positioning even further.

Rocket bagged the creative and brand consultancy task for new travel company Resort Holidays and Naked was signed up by ONdigital to advise on its communications strategy. The  brief includes including the planned relaunch of ITV Digital and the launch of new TV station ITV Sport later this year.

Both wins highlight the growing importance of strategy for advertisers, but they also demonstrate how a media shop can push the boundaries of agency service because, in both cases, Rocket and Naked have a far more extensive brief than plain old advertising strategy. Both have taken that crucial next step to be involved in brand and communication strategy across the business as a whole. In effect, they are entering the territory of the business consultant.

"Our role at Resort Holidays is one of management consultancy," says Mark Holden, creative director at Rocket. "In that sense, there is no brief."

Harlow: not rooted in any kind of end product

Resort Holidays is yet to launch, but has taken Rocket on board to allow the group an early involvement in brand positioning as well as overseeing thecreative strategy of the launch.

On top of this, however, the agency has also been given a direct link to the board of Resort and will be acting as consultants on a range of
business issues.

Rocket will thus be providing strategic input into the business itself at an extremely early stage. "Of all the variables which can affect conversion rates within a company, it's the business itself and how it's presented and the way it works which is most important," says Holden.

"Getting this right is fundamental. It's above media."

"I think they're God," said Nils Wetterlind of Resort Holidays. Of the five companies pitching for his account, only Rocket offered such flexibility to try out different ideas and strategies before deciding which worked. "Some of the others just suggested we advertise in the Daily Mail. No one else approached the situation like Rocket."

This shift in focus is becoming the trademark of the newer strategic agencies. Unlike traditional ad agencies, their smallness and flexibility allow them a unique opportunity to get inside a company at a direct and influential level.

"Instead of the traditional role of, for example, establishing the most cost-effective recruitment strategy for a business, what we instead are able to do is establish the most cost-effective business for a recruitment strategy. It is the most senior value that marketing can have", says Holden, "and the effect is so much greater. This is as upstream as we can go."

John Harlow, one of the founders of Naked, prefers the term "cross-stream" when talking of his company, which was formed last year as an independent communications solutions company. "The key thing with our company is that we're not rooted in any kind of end product, whereas an ad agency is tied to making and delivering an ad, we give clients a different axis point.

"It's very difficult for an ad agency to, say, tell a company to spend less money on TV advertising and spend it on call centres instead. Our independence and neutrality allow us to do this. We have no vested interest so we can work across different levels."

The brief for ONdigital will allow the company to do just this, working on its customer retention problems as well as its brand strategy. "Marketing and business strategy are so closely linked," he says.

The shift marks a further evolution in the development of the role of agencies. While the 1980s concentrated on buying, in the '90s the emphasis shifted to strategy. Now in the new millennium, says Holden, agencies have a new-found confidence. They have let go of the world of strategy and are moving into the world of business.

While the structures in place at larger agencies mean that it is often harder for them to offer such knowledge, many are now attempting to incorporate flexibility into their spectrum. Most recently BBJ, under managing director Trista Grant, has announced a radical restructure of its company to broaden the scope of its services.

While BBJ will continue to plan and buy media space, the sign hanging over the shop front will now read BBJ Communications Partners rather than Media Services.

The name-change indicates the agency's repositioning as a communications planning company offering communications and branding advice based on consumer research.

"We felt that our real investment needed to be in delivering on consumer insight-driven planning," said Grant.

The agency will be restructured accordingly with former planning director Tim Elton heading up the development of the new strategic offering in the role of communications planning director. Part of his new brief will be the development of research tools with its sister agency Carat Insight which will include a programme of qualitative and quantitative research.                      

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