How agency partners become true client counselors

Real insight cannot be garnered solely through the lens of advertising, but effective multi-platform strategies can help brands change the world.

It’s pretty awesome being a brand strategist these days. Oh I know I should bitch and moan about something - it makes for much better click bait. But I’m excited.

In my mid-20’s I found brand planning. After two years as a (mildly talented at best) junior copywriter, writing endless headlines for a Reader's Digest specific print execution to sell chemical cookies, brand planning felt like a revelation.

Finally I got to shape what we were saying.

Finally I got to have a say in how we thought about people.

Finally I was where the action was.

Except I still wasn’t.

Every agency I worked for talked about being partners in our clients’ businesses, but as I learned more about brand planning that claim revealed itself as one of the great half-truths.

I’ve worked under astoundingly respected and talented brand strategists and the truth felt more like this: Being partners in our clients’ businesses was something that was battled for or earned after months of wooing and work instead of it being the initial invitation from clients. At best, brand planners were allowed to work from advertising and then prove ourselves holistic partners, but we were swimming upstream and rarely made it.

So from our perches on the edges of agencies, where we often had to fight to be even in internal meetings, we craved more influence: To have the brand influence the product, the distribution, the culture, the experience, the future, the way our clients’ companies worked. But it felt like there was an invisible stiff arm keeping us in our proper place - downstream with advertising.

And as I was told by those respected brand strategists eight years ago, clients will never pay for brand strategy without advertising. It just doesn’t work that way.

But something has changed.

Thank you Internet. Thank you for making media monopolies irrelevant. Thank you for exposing the tricks of our trade. Thank you for giving people spaces to demand better from companies. Thank you for making it essential that we tell the real stories of our clients and ensure their business intent is woven with human ones.

Life has gotten much more interesting because of it.

As the public has pushed upstream in its involvement with companies, so has brand – and, therefore, brand strategists. And it’s exciting – the playground has expanded and it’s a more fun and profound place to play.

When I started my own agency I didn’t know if we could just sell brand work. I didn’t know if brand thinkers would be invited into the upstream rooms. But as I started talking to clients I realized how much they needed and trusted brand strategy to help their holistic business… as long as it was divorced from an executional machine.

Without a creative department down the hall, the recommendations felt pure and the interests were seen to be coming from the right place.

I haven’t been in a full-service agency for a while, so my hope is that planners in all kinds of companies get to be in those hallowed upstream spaces. I haven’t heard a brand planner say in a long time that they love advertising, but I do hear them say they love the impact brands can have on the world - only by being more upstream can they work on that.

Impact rarely comes from ads anymore. Impact comes first and foremost from orienting a brand around a purpose, and not a BS purpose you slap on a company but one that naturally emerges from belief.

Fortunately, modern clients naturally operate from belief. Once that belief is articulated, real brand impact comes from saturating an entire company with that belief and articulating the pathways in which to operationalize it, from product to internal processes to customer relations to innovation.

Yes, communication executions are a part of that operationalization, but they’re useless if you don’t get the other stuff right first.

We had to exist separate from the traditional system so we could work on the questions we loved. Questions like: what is the future we want to make? How do we exist in a powerful and meaningful way? How do we create positive change in the world? For others, I hope the cases can be made that brand strategists, no matter where they are housed, can help the business, not just the communications.

Because in this age, by the time you get all the way downstream to the advertising, it’s too late.

And life further upstream? It’s damn exciting stuff.

Heidi Hackemer is the founder of NYC-based brand shop Wolf & Wilhelmine, which works with clients such as Google, Nike, Bonobos, Harry's, Cornell Tech, and the White House.

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