Agency branding must be more than just word salad

BCW is the latest PR agency to set out a new stall in a bid to differentiate itself in the market.

Pic: Getty Images.
Pic: Getty Images.

WPP agency Burson Cohn & Wolfe recently marked the one-year anniversary of its historic merger and unveiled a go-to market positioning centered on a new "Moving People" tagline.

CEO Donna Imperato this week described to me how her team had gathered together the taglines of all the top PR firms and tried to make sense of them, including those of the former Cohn & Wolfe and Burson-Marsteller.

Imperato's candid conclusion was that most of the taglines exhibited a similar compendium of "meaningless phrases" that focused inwardly on the agencies rather than externally in highlighting the value firms are offer to their clients.

Think "Engaging Always" at Weber Shandwick, "Act With Certainty" at Edelman, "The Power of True" at FleishmanHillard, "Influence. Impact." At MSL, "The Brand that Wrote the Book on Brands" at Ogilvy, "No Boundaries" at Ketchum, "Brands in Motion" at WE, and so on, and so on.

"Everybody is trying to be everything," said Imperato. "I couldn't tell each agency apart, including Cohn & Wolfe and Burson-Marsteller. The words were almost exactly the same." By the way, Cohn & Wolfe's former tagline was "Dig Deeper. Imagine More." Burson-Marsteller's was "Being More."

Beyond those taglines, the talk is of communications marketing, earned influence, integrated marketing, the engagement discipline, integrated communications, full service, and brand marketing.

That’s table stakes, says Imperato: "Everyone's doing it so what does it actually mean?"

In a blog accompanying BCW’s new positioning, Imperato said the philosophy behind "Moving People" is to engage, inspire, and lead internal and external stakeholders in a favorable direction and move them to purchase.

History will decide whether "Moving People" is a genuine step forward or just another contribution to the word salad that typifies most agency positioning.

But, beyond the rhetoric, one thing is for sure: Clients want their agencies to demonstrate more business acumen and to understand their enterprises and the industries within which they operate.

They are not looking for vanilla, one-size-fits-all offerings, even if their support needs are global. They want the best people working on their accounts. And they want their agencies to concentrate on supporting their business needs rather than constantly trying to upsell them services they don’t want. They note how bigger firms can easily become distracted by shiny new penny syndrome.

That’s one reason why small and medium-sized agencies have fared particularly well over the past few years.

Unencumbered by the constant drive to grow at all costs to keep the momentum of a juggernaut going, smaller firms are finding favor with clients who want fewer, bigger, better bets from their strategic partners.

Given that observation, it was telling that Zeno was named Agency of the Year at last week’s 20th Anniversary PRWeek Awards.

The Daniel J. Edelman subsidiary has obviously benefited from the relationship with its larger sibling in terms of picking up business the mothership was conflicted out of. But Barby Siegel and her team have also established a strong culture and identity of their own that is resonating with modern clients.

I’m not saying all is lost for the top 10 agencies. Of course not. They still account for 75-80% of total billings in the market.

But as PRWeek’s new Agency Business Report will show when it is released next month, the market is constantly changing and clients’ needs reflect that.

In this environment, agencies must go deeper and prove their differentiation beyond the banalities of their mushy word salads.

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