Agency branding campaigns put PR's creativity to the test

Looking at Cohn & Wolfe's innovative attempt to recast its own image, industry experts analyze the necessary - and not so necessary - elements of any agency branding campaign.

Looking at Cohn & Wolfe's innovative attempt to recast its own image, industry experts analyze the necessary - and not so necessary - elements of any agency branding campaign.

When Cohn & Wolfe created the Great Pointed Archer Society to rebrand the sewer rat - and itself in the process - the blog world was abuzz with speculation about who was behind the campaign.

The effort included a website, full-page print advertisements, and even a staged demonstration in an attempt to change the public's image of the much-maligned rodent.
Of course, agency branding efforts are nothing new, but some branding experts suggest that this one broke the conventions that PR agencies usually turn to.

Stunts - in this case, a pro-rat rally - are typically associated with advertising agencies, notes Scott Baradell, a brand strategist and president of the PR firm Idea Grove.

"If you look at how PR firms typically name themselves and present themselves...they're trying hard to promote themselves as 'corporate' and [less so] as creative," says Baradell, adding that agencies often try to position themselves as strategic counselors, much like lawyers.

But after years of trying to win a proverbial seat at the table - and move past the image of publicists and party planners - some agencies are starting to rethink how they present themselves to corporate executives.

Although agencies do want to be seen as strategic advisers on issues such as corporate image and reputation, they are also under pressure to show that they can help move products and have a direct impact on the bottom line, notes Stephen Boehler, founding partner at the Mercer Island Group, a marketing management consulting firm.

"What's going on is that there's a push and pull in their desire to be in the boardroom...and corporations themselves are looking for business results," he says. "These two desires may not be at odds over the long term, but over the short term they are."

Jeremy Baka, chief creative catalyst at C&W, is pleased that the campaign has challenged stereotypes about PR agencies. He's also glad that people initially confused C&W's campaign with the work of an ad agency.

"That's exactly what we want them to say," Baka explains. "To us, it's like saying that we're just as creative as the ad agencies."

PR agencies, he adds, invented creative branding.

"We took umbrage with the idea that we aren't more than strategic counselors," he says. "We're so much more than that."

"Why can't you be both?" adds Margie Fox, partner and cofounder of Maloney & Fox, an agency that has long promoted itself with "branded booty" and "advermations" (spoofs on commercials). "I think C&W is showing they can do it all. I don't think that what they did would be off-putting to a corporate client."

Baka admits that it is too soon to determine whether the campaign has brought in any new business; the agency hasn't had any inquiries from potential clients yet.

Baradell, therefore, questions the campaign's ROI. "This idea was ill-conceived in my opinion," he says. "I don't think stunts like that impress the people they're trying to impress."

He adds that the campaign didn't actually meet its objective of transforming the rat. "All they did was have a rally and spend a lot of creative energy," he says. "[The campaign] didn't show that they could actually achieve the results."

Boehler agrees. "The critical issue is what were the folks at C&W trying to accomplish," he says. "I think it's a much better example of creativity than it is of branding."

Boehler adds that the effort did garner "press and notoriety" and, therefore, might spur other firms to launch similar campaigns.

"It's fun and it's crazy. I applaud their audacity," he says. But, Boehler notes, "At the end of the day, clients know it's about their own self-interest."

Maloney & Fox undertakes its branding efforts to show clients that the agency isn't afraid to practice what it preaches, Fox notes. "I think you have to say things in an irreverent fashion these days," she says. "I didn't think C&W had that creative capability. I'm glad to see it."

Baka notes that C&W is trying to appeal to the same sorts of Fortune 500 companies as it currently represents, such as Pfizer, Merck, ChevronTexaco, Cadbury-Schweppes, Visa, and Hilton.

"When a bank says they want wacky creativity, that means something totally different from what a Nike means when they say wacky creativity," he says. "What we want to do is just stimulate the discussion."


Elements to highlight in a branding effort


Past case studies

Consistent client success

Ability to meet business objectives

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