Helen Edwards on Branding: Not all it's cracked up to be

Agencies aspire to return to the top table, but might they be misjudging the benefits of achieving this?

One of the obsessions of communications agencies is their desire to be welcomed at their clients' so-called 'top table'.

It is an ache for reinstatement to a position they feel was once theirs by birthright. Today, glowering from the lowly benches at the back of the hall to which they have been banished, near the draughty corridors and serving hatches, they gaze up at the high platform and imagine the talk of 'top things'.

Up there, so agency folklore has it, the conversation soars to embrace grand strategic issues and sweeping organisational themes; an eloquent discourse on such seminal matters as acquisition, innovation and the complex interlocking forces of commerce and culture.

Then let me whisper this quietly; at the top table, they talk dirty. They use the 'D word': distribution. And the 'O word': operations. And the 'P word': pricing.

They even use the 'C word': customers. But not the ones agencies love to talk about; it is the dominance of the retailers - brand marketers' most immediate, and powerful, customers - that exercises minds and tongues. Audibly accompanying this base subject matter is a persistent, throbbing drone: numbers, numbers, numbers.

Would agencies want to be part of these conversations? Moreover, could they contribute if they were suddenly thrust into the guest-of-honour seat?

I managed to shed some light on the answer to that question during preparation for my slot at last Thursday's APG conference. This is the scary Battle of Big Thinking format that the planning group organises every year in association with Marketing's sister publication, Campaign.

Since the conference audience is dominated by marketers and agency planners, I was keen to gain an empirical view of the former's view of the latter. So I asked marketers what they felt planners brought to their business, and where they sat in the scheme of things.

The answers were astonishing. While marketers value planners for their pure communications skills, it pretty much ends there. Here are some comments:

- I have never seen a planner get within a country mile of really understanding how to hold on to margins.

- Most are simply not numerate enough to be useful in the wider context of brands and business.

- They have no idea of business - they will suggest that we explain to Tesco why we shouldn't abide by its guidelines.

- They are so much further downstream than they think they are.

What's sobering for agencies is that planners are probably the most respected force within their line-up, the people whose strategic intimacy with the client ought to make them natural partners. If planning is as good as the agency-client relationship gets, the hope for table-jumping is a forlorn one.

In fact, it is even bleaker than that; as some of my respondents mentioned, agencies tend to overestimate the status of marketing itself within the corporate hierarchy. Many marketers nurse a similar yearning to be up there with the great and good from other disciplines such as finance, operations and HR.

If agencies want to share that journey from the back of the hall to the front, they must invest more in training, hire more MBAs, focus more on metrics and acquaint themselves with the unsexy, practical disciplines on which all communications decisions hinge.

Alternatively, why not just make nice ads and stay at the back with the servants, where it's probably more fun.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers

30 SECONDS ON ... THE 'TOP TABLE'

- Lodged in our psyche as a desirable place to be, the term 'top table' originates from the grand country houses of the 16th and 17th centuries. The head of the household and his family sat at the 'high' end of the hall on a raised table; the rest of the household sat in strict hierarchical order at the tables arranged beneath them.

- In the agency world, the toptable idea has been running for some time. In 2004, Campaign claimed agencies lost their place in the 80s when they dropped services such as market analysis and media planning to focus on above-the-line work.

- In 2009, BBH worldwide chief executive Simon Sherwood claimed agencies had moved from the top table to being bought alongside 'paperclips and printer paper'. The way back? Among other things, 'a wholehearted commitment to data and analytics'.

- The new kids on the dining block are not immune. In 2009, Campaign advised digital agencies on the best strategies to ensure they win their place at the top table.

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