Who’s winning the brand identity turf war?

The British Gas logo was recently updated by CHI&Partners: is such work best suited to brand specialists or will we see more done by communications agencies?

Following a CR blog post on CHI& Partners’ update of the British Gas logo, we invited CHI partner and head of art Dan Beckett and Saffron chairman Wally Olins to discuss the differences between brand specialists and communications agencies and which of them is best placed to work on brand identities

CR: Dan, can we start off by asking you why advertising agencies are interested in doing brand identity work and what they can offer in this sphere that others cannot?

DB: An ad agency, like any creative business, is interested in doing anything creative that it’s asked to do. What’s prompting clients to ask advertising agencies to get involved in this kind of project? It’s interesting that there’s a shift in clients’ minds and that they are thinking of asking an ad agency to get involved in something they traditionally wouldn’t have done. Perhaps ad agencies have been able to foster closer relationships with clients and have managed to become slightly closer as strategic partners and we are a little nearer perhaps to the business issues. What we’ve found reasonably successful at CHI&Partners is becoming a collective of specialist practices, and being channel agnostic, which makes us more effective in solving a business’s problem.

Wally you started your career in advertising….

WO: A hundred years ago!

CR: And you’ve said that you felt opening a design consultancy allowed you to have a more holistic approach to an organisation and its needs – do you still feel a design consultancy is the best mechanism for that?

WO: I think it’s very interesting hearing Dan talk about advertising agencies’ relationships with the client because traditionally the advertising agency was the sole communications supplier to the client and the idea that advertising agencies and brand consultancies and PR companies and anyone else you can think of were competing for the client’s attention would have been regarded by advertising agencies, a bit more than a generation ago, as absurd because they took it for granted that they were the nominated supplier to the organisation. That’s still very much the case in very many marketplaces – India is an example, Poland is another. The advertising agency is the dominant supplier and contracts work out to others. The reason it changed in some more sophisticated markets is because a great deal of the work a client needs is not directly involved in communication – it may be in internal brand engagement, in teaching people how to behave. In my old company [Wolff Olins] when we created Orange, we created the name and the positioning and we worked with the advertising agency in very considerable harmony, with Robin Wight, who created the strapline and slogan so on. It was a very good partnership. Organisations tend to be a bit free flowing – it’s a bit like making a movie. They get hold of partners they like or they think appropriate for a given situation: that is precisely mirrored in what a brand consultancy does if it’s got any sense. So the relationship between the client and the supplier organisation doesn’t necessarily depend now on what that organisation does, but on how close that relationship is. There is one caveat: my understanding is that what you did for British Gas is about changing the gas logo, it is not a profound piece of brand movement. If you are doing creative work that modulates the visual identity of the brand, who better to do it with than the people who have been working very closely with the marketing department? That’s perfectly reasonable. But if you are talking about shifting strategically from being one kind of business to another, then I think it more likely that a brand consultancy will have the kind of equipment and experience to do that kind of job than an advertising agency would.

CR: Does it really depend on what we mean by ‘brand’?

DB: I think there’s a lot of confusion about that word and clients’ vocabulary varies a lot. Some come to us and say we need some brand guidelines … an awful lot of the time they are actually asking for campaign guidelines. For someone like British Gas, the campaign vehicle becomes a highly visual part of their identity – what they are really asking is ‘how do we use these campaign elements on other bits of collateral?’ I think of a rebrand as a complete repositioning of an organisation, not what we’ve done on British Gas, which is an amendment to the visual identity.

WO: When one talks about logos and branding it’s a very loose way of talking about something that can be tiny, a modulation, or it can be profound. If it’s profound – and actually I would say this – it’s better left to the professionals, because you’re not dealing with the marketing department, you’re dealing with HR and environment and marketing and 15 other things.

CR: So you’d contend that a brand consultancy is best placed to deal with all those factors?

WO: I think mine is!

DB: I agree, but at CHI&Partners we don’t enter into this thinking of ourselves as an ad agency. What we’re trying to build is a full-service communications agency. Advertising is still at the heart of what we do, but we have added partners and built specialist practices. But I think Wally is right – if you were to attempt a more profound shift in the structure and offering of an organisation, that is arguably the domain of a brand specialist.

WO: The confusion derives from the fact that the word ‘brand’ is so meaning-ful and meaning-less – it’s mostly meaningless. What Dan was doing was modulating an existing logotype to make it more appropriate for the campaigns it’s going into which is a perfectly proper thing for that kind of organisation to do in that situation. If the organisation was saying ‘we’re going to do something completely different and we need therefore to consider whether we need to keep the same name, we need to consider how we are going to tell our people that we are doing something completely different to what we used to do, if we’re going to have a completely new set of customers and our investors are going to have understand that and we are going to have to put up some construction of some kind to make that clear’, then that’s something that an ad agency would find it appropriate to work with another company on.

CR: Is this where the holding companies come into their own with their ability to put together teams of specialists to work for one big client? Do they negate the need for a single business to be able to offer everything?

WO: These very big groups have consolidated a business that has been extremely diverse, but the whole point about this kind of business is that it doesn’t require a lot of capital to start up so all the time you have these large organisations offering all these things you also inevitably get lots of small people starting up on their own, so there is entropy constantly and creativity constantly. You won’t get a situation which is stagnant. It’s also the case that we are operating in an environment where there are no clear dividing lines. If an ad agency decides it’s not an advertising agency and it’s now a creative organisation or a business strategy organisation then no-one’s going to stop them. If you want to put it politely it’s a very lively scene, if you want to be a bit brutal, it’s a jungle.

CR: So in future will we have separate ad agencies and brand consultancies or will we just have creative companies?

WO: I think we’ll have both. I don’t think anything in this business will operate with a formula. People will always break it and find another one.

CR: When does the relationship between an ad agency and a brand consultancy break down?

DB: Some of these tensions would be caused by creatives and designers in ad agencies feeling restricted by very tight visual identity guidelines – they can feel like a straitjacket. Brilliant guidelines are those that feel like a springboard. If visual identity guidelines are well written then something that feels like a light touch can actually be very rigorous – think of Orange. Even the Vodafone tetris – it’s very simple but allows for a choice of photography or illustration, you can do pretty much anything with it. The tricky ones are where visual identity elements start to become campaign elements and that starts to dictate the way campaigns should be written. That’s tricky because you can’t second guess what’s going to happen in the years to come. Those guidelines should outlive a number of campaigns so it’s tricky to predict how well they will work in the future. That’s where some of the difficulties occur.

WO: I have a slightly different view. When the client and the branding agency and the advertising agency really understand each other and work well you do not get real problems at the top. Where you begin to get problems almost always is at the middle level, of misinterpretation and creative jealousy on both sides, which is deeply dysfunctional and disruptive. Any brand organisation that is worth anything will be very flexible in the way that it deals with the agency and will listen and incorporate many of the things that agencies suggest. If you get on, it works, if you don’t get on, forget it. If Dan phones up and says ‘my guys find these guidelines incredibly restrictive, they were done four years ago, the world’s a different place’, fine, let’s sit together, let’s sit with the client, let’s get some ideas from you guys and you can help us modulate things.

DB: Perhaps where there is a little bit of jealousy between the different agencies it could actually push clients to choose one over the other because they are fed up with getting stuck in the middle of these arguments?

CR: What do you make of the cultural divide between designers and advertising agencies?

DB: It confuses me a little bit. I didn’t get into advertising until about 13 years ago having worked in graphic design and it surprised me that there was such a divide between the two sides. It’s interesting how that comes to bear in the way that, for example, awards juries work, but that soon breaks down when people realise that they think the same way and solve problems the same way.

WO: It’s fundamentally an issue of personalities, of big and little. Little countries are always jealous of big countries, and if you transfer that thinking to this world, designers in design companies are jealous of advertising agencies because they are bigger, they are older and they’ve got more heft and so they kind of denigrate them. They put them in a different category. It’s absolute nonsense because people can transfer from one kind of business to another without too much difficulty and the kinds of people who work in one kind of business are not that different from the kinds of people who work in another. But if Holland is jealous of Germany and Pakistan is jealous of India, design is jealous of advertising – I’m putting it very crudely but there is something in it. It’s silly but it’s the way people are.

DB: I think there are differences in the ways that designers are asked to behave in smaller design companies versus ad agencies. To work in an ad agency you have to work with a broader range of styles. Designers who have more of a house style have a different mindset, a designer who has worked over ten years to produce a style and works in a business where everyone is very focused on producing that style might (wrongly) have a little bit less respect for somebody who is working with the commercial challenges of, say, retail brands.

WO: That may be true, but you’re not working for yourself, you’re working for the client. A brand consultancy has to be a balance between strategy and creativity and if the balance is wrong in either direction the result is not as good as it should be.

CR: Are clients adequately equipped to buy visual identity?

WO: It’s very hard for them. You have to be very patient, you have to be very persuasive and you have to explain to them why it looks that way and maybe you can do some research but mostly it doesn’t help much. I can’t think of any major programmes I’ve been involved with where research told us anything except don’t do it. And you have to have a client who really has a feel for it. In business schools, the whole environment is very antagonistic to creativity, they don’t find it easy to think in an imaginative way. I once had a client, a German guy. We’d had our meeting and he wanted to buy some ties, so we went to Jermyn Street and he spent three quarters of an hour walking up and down: ‘Do you like this? Do you like that?’ I said to him ‘Hans, you can’t even pick a bloody tie, let alone a visual identity.’ So I said ‘I’ll pick it for you’. It is very difficult for people who are not faced with these issues on a daily basis. They always want to err on the side of caution. You have to gain their confidence. A client once said to me, ‘how do you know it’ll work?’ I said ‘John, you have to have the courage of my convictions.’

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