The Urban Legends of Brands

There are a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions when it comes to brands: how they operate and how decisions are made.

While from the outside, it may look like some brands are slow adapters and that they don’t understand or care about their agencies, these kinds of assumptions aren’t always true. And a lot of these misconceptions come from misunderstanding and miscommunication between brands and agencies.

That’s why we’ve asked some brand execs to weigh in on five brand myths to assess how much truth lies in these perhaps not-so-tall tales.

Brands move incredibly slowly and are risk-averse.
Mostly true. Brands have hard revenue goals to factor into every decision. They need to at least match what they made last year if not exceed it. For some brands, this can mean sticking to what has worked in the past, while perhaps cautiously trying new things. For other brands, this can mean organizing in ways that enable agility and experimentation to meet new business goals.

“If you’re an incumbent brand in the marketplace, you have absolutely no incentive to disrupt the norm and will avoid risk at all cost,” said Ron Faris, former CMO of Virgin Mobile. “The brands that move nimbly are ones that face the threat of their incumbent Goliaths — these brands take bigger risks because the payoff of breaking through is what’s critical to competing and stealing market share from the incumbents.”

Part of the issue is how well the client and agency are able to communicate with each other.

“Brands of all shapes and sizes move as quickly as they’re enabled to,” said Adam Kmiec, global head of digital and social at Campbell’s Soup. “When you start from a good brief and the agency delivers work that, while it may not be ‘reel worthy,’ is clearly going to be effective, green-lighting an initiative can move quickly. When the gap between what’s presented and what was expected is wide, decision-making slows down.”

Brands choose agencies mostly based on personal relationships.
Mostly true. Certainly personal relationships are inevitably a factor in many business situations — knowing someone can usually help you get a foot in the door at the very least. When it comes to picking an agency, brands certainly look for the best talent, but being able to trust that agency is just as important. That is, of course, why personal relationships can play an important role in a brand’s choice of agency.

“We went through about four pitch competitions, so I’m betting there was a level of talent required to be selected,” said one anonymous brand exec. “Now once it’s down to the last few, of course you’d pick the company you feel would work better with you, so personal relationships help.”

Brands give agencies work late on Friday that has to be done by Monday just to be sadistic.
False. While agency folks might like to believe that only a cruel taskmaster would want to see them jump through hoops at the very last minute, it’s not because clients are consciously trying to be sadistic. Finding out that changes need to be made late on Friday is a result of last-minute business changes that are often as big of a surprise to the brand as to the agency.

“This not from being sadistic but from lack of planning and briefing an agency appropriately in the first place,” said Brian Maynard, director of brand marketing at Jenn-Air. “If you are disappointed in the work you are getting from an agency, it is at least half your fault.”

Linda Boff, executive director of global digital marketing at GE, admitted, “I am unfortunately guilty of asking agencies to do work on the weekends when it’s needed, but I always feel guilty about it.”

It probably doesn’t make working non-stop over the weekend feel any better, but see, agency people: The client does at least have a conscience.

Brands view their agencies, for the most part, as vendors, not “partners.”
Partly false. Ideally, the relationship between client and agency should always be a mutually beneficial partnership for both parties. A true partnership that enables open communication will ensure that the agency is able to produce the best creative for the client.

“When agencies become ‘order takers,’ you can be sure the quality of the work will suffer,” said Boff.

Unfortunately, as Maynard noted, this view of agency as vendor is becoming popular.

“I think it’s the wrong way to think about it but believe there is truth in that statement,” said Maynard. “I think this is a growing trend with the rise in power of many procurement organizations.”

Treating your agency like anything but a partners isn’t good for anyone.

The second you treat your agency at a level different than how you like to be treated, it sets the wrong tone,” said Faris. “I’ve seen really lame clients abuse their power and treat their agencies like the help, quickly casting blame when the creative doesn’t work, and I’ve also seen lame agencies eagerly play the part of the obsequious servant.”

“You’re both in this together. A good client should be as invested in the work as the agency. When the work fails, you all fail together,” said Faris.