Who needs a brand agency?

In the digital world, what’s the role of brand agencies? What value can they bring? Does anyone really need them?

For Wolff Olins these are not abstract questions. In fact, almost 40 of us have just spent three days in New York exploring them in workshops about our industry and our company’s growth. That’s just the start of a project that will involve everyone in the company, and the Wolff Olins that emerges is unlikely to be the same as the company we work in now.

So why are we agonising about all this? Business is good. We still offer great value to our clients, by helping them define their purpose, wire up their customer experience, and equip their people for change. And we hope we’ll carry on doing this for years to come.

But we also know that digital inevitably disintermediates. Authors no longer need publishers. Filmmakers no longer need studios. Companies can negotiate advertising space without media buyers. Will the corporations of the future need brand agencies? They can already get freelance designers to bid to meet their logo and web design needs, through platforms like 99designs.

More specifically, most digital brands don’t seem to need brand consultancies. The big traditional consumer brands depended on ad agencies (and still do). The corporate brands that emerged from the 1980s onwards needed brand consultancies (and still do). But the new digital brands – everything from Google to airbnb – don’t rely on advertising or logos. Contemporary brands work differently.

And the economic engine – certainly the innovation engine – at the moment is small businesses, start-ups often, who can’t afford a conventional brand consultancy, even if they wanted one.

So where will the value come from?

Partly by making more things for our clients, not just offering strategic advice and strategic design. We’ll get much deeper into the tactical detail, particularly in service design and the creation of digital user experiences. Indeed, we’re already doing this.

Partly by broadening our offer to reach small and even micro-businesses. We’re exploring a new model called ‘minimum viable brand’. Like a minimum viable product, a minimum viable brand does the job, proves the concept, and is open to future development, by both the company and its users. And it’s quicker and cheaper.

Partly by offering our clients things we don’t currently sell, like access to our skills through a brand school, access to our original research, and access to our network of clients, past and present.

And we’re also shifting our focus from corporation to individual. Our latest research shows there’s a new mainstream among consumers (which is itself an increasingly unhelpful word). These people are sidestepping big companies, making things themselves, and expecting to get everything on their terms, not the corporation’s. People are taking power, and are looking for a new relationship with organisations: a more adult relationship, one that admits there are conflicts of interest, and one that therefore looks for some kind of fair exchange. Brands, rather than being gadgets owned by companies, will be the markers of these relationships.

One future value of brand agencies will therefore lie in serving these individuals, alongside our corporate clients, and through those corporate clients. Using our brand-making skills, we’ll be providing tools and platforms (as yet undefined) to ordinary people, and to the informal groupings they belong to, enabling them to gain the maximum benefit from something that isn’t changing: the amazing power of brands to help change the way people think, feel and act.

The New Mainstream: gamechangers.wolffolins.com

Robert Jones is head of new thinking at Wolff Olins and visiting professor at The University of East Anglia.

Five questions with Zena Bruges


In the first of a series of interviews with inspiring female leaders, Wolff Olins’ global COO, Sairah Ashman, interviews Zena Bruges. 

Zena Bruges is managing director of The Future Laboratory, a business that helps clients look into the future to understand how consumers will behave. After studying at Edinburgh University, she has led a number of successful creative consultancies.

What are the most significant shifts influencing your business?

The need for speed and flexibility.  We’re increasingly working at an accelerated pace and need to be agile in our business planning, so we can adjust and adapt easily.  Clients are relying on us to help them understand what the world will look like in 2, 3 and 5 years ­ it used to be 10.  Consumer tastes change far more swiftly now with product innovation and cycles needing to keep up.  This is definitely influencing the needs of our clients and how we work.

What do you see as the key growth accelerators for you over the next 12 months?

We’re sitting on a product that not a lot of people know about, so we’re very focused on raising our profile as a way of unlocking growth.  We’re also looking at expanding into new markets where our offer is attractive and effective ­ which means mature markets rather than developing ones.

What role do you see brand playing in helping achieve your goals?

We’re hugely aware of the power of brand in the marketplace ­ for ourselves and for our clients.  Studies continue to reinforce this and and it’s especially the case for younger generations.  Brands are very much an integrated part of life. Like you, we believe brand is an entire experience and not simply a corporate identity.  Staying true to this philosophy as we promote ourselves and grow will be critical.

 What or who inspired you in the early years of your career?

I spent an early part of my career in New Zealand.  It exposed me to a really positive can-do spirit and gave me a sense that anything is possible.  My boss at the time was also really good at helping me stretch, giving me room to deliver, encouraging me to trust my own judgement and to just get on with stuff.  It’s really stayed with me and stood me in good stead as I’ve set up and run multiple businesses ­ that sense that everything is possible.

What advice would you pass on to others just starting out?

Be entrepreneurial.  Think about what’s good for the business you’re in. And what could be a new business ­ even if you don’t want to set one up. Develop ideas and be an opportunity spotter.  Be curious and confident, but never arrogant.  And have fun!

Sairah Ashman is global COO of Wolff Olins. 

Resting not dead

By Sairah Ashman

Is growth dead?  We’ll be hearing lots from the business community this week as the great and the good mingle at Davos.  The theme this year is ‘Resilient Dynamism’ (a Davosian phrase book might be rather handy if you’re attending).  There’ll be a lot on the economy – fiscal cliffs, triple dips, a return to the gold standard etc.  And a lot on innovation – antidote to our fiscal woes and all round growth tinkerbell. 

Technology (information mainly) is the platform from which most innovation is seen to spring these days and some believe it’s reached a plateau in terms of GDP (or productivity) growth around the world.  Why is growth slowing and have we really run out of gas?  According to The Economist, the argument runs along three lines. 

The first is that ‘extensive’ growth is delivered through volume – adding more or better labour, capital and resources.  Over time returns diminish as things begin to flatten out.  In simple terms, you can’t produce more workers or educate them more highly, not in a way that propels you forward in leaps rather than small steps compared to your neighbour.  We’re told this is where the developed world is, with the rest of the world not too far behind.  Even China is outsourcing these days. 

The second theme is around ‘intensive’ growth.  Where we find better ways to use labour and resources.  Powering along improvement in welfare and incomes, with the economy growing even when the population decreases.  This kind of growth is often credited to ‘technology’ and a rising middle class.  Although technology is a catch all title that includes things like laws and regulations.  Developing countries can still manage fast growth in this area, while richer nations struggle under the weight of ever increasing legislation and bureaucracy.  Making ideas like Kickstarter, operating outside of the usual restrictions, feel like a breath of fresh air.

The third theme is basically experiential, ie ‘progress’ appears to have slowed down and we can see it with our own eyes.  In the early to mid-20th century we went from riding horses to driving cars, lighting our houses with candles to nuking our food in microwaves.  If we’d carried on at the same rate of progress I’d be teleporting to New York while writing this rather than sitting on a 7-hour flight from London.  And the seat would be more comfortable.

Is progress and innovation simply a matter of taste?  Are we enjoying the application of ‘social’ technology more than broader (more productivity friendly) forms of technology advancement?  Would we be figuring out how to build teleporting infrastructure if time on Facebook wasn’t so much fun?  Would this type of technology innovation drive GDP growth statistics more clearly? 

The optimistic view is that we’re simply experiencing a time lag.  That big shifts take decades, even generations, to fully mature.  And that plenty of innovative bets are in play, many off the back of healthcare such as the ability to ‘print’ new organs.  A time lag is certainly what some research findings out of Boston College and the San Francisco Federal Reserve are suggesting.

At Wolff Olins we talk about optimism and ambition – a lot.  We focus on positive impact and changing the status quo – it’s our obsession and what makes us special.  And we work with businesses and people that feel the same way.  These same businesses and people are changing the world, how we think about it, how we interact with it and what we put in it - in small and big ways. 

The spirit of innovation is very much alive and well from what I can see.  The biggest handbrake looks to be our own ability to adapt speedily and the rigidity of some institutions standing in the way.  I see this frequently in both companies and government bodies failing to create the kind of cultures where innovation can thrive, and where bureaucracy often wins.

It’s such an extraordinary time of change and so much seems possible.

Wouldn’t it be great to hear those smart guys (there appear to be no female CEOs attending) at Davos talk creatively about how where we can take the world next?  

Sairah Ashman is COO of Wolff Olins.

Image of knitted caps on Davos smoothies via The New York Times

A model for social value

By Robert Jones

It’s a grey December evening in Copenhagen. Just the place to be flicking through a utopian book called Betterness: Economics for Humans on my Kindle app. In it, Umair Haque makes an over-the-top case for businesses to create social value – natural, human, emotional, intellectual, creative capital. Which made me think: what’s the role of brands in this?

We all know brands create huge commercial value – which places like Interbrand try to put a dollar value on. And we can imagine the chain of cause and effect that creates the value.

But can we do the same for social value?

If commercial value is a product of short-term (profit) and long-term (growth prospects), can we think about social value in the same kind of way? As the product of short-term happiness and long-term sustainability?

This diagram suggests how it could work. Improvements, please:

And here’s how the model maps to the five key behaviors of today’s game changing brands.

Robert Jones is visiting professor at University of East Anglia and Head of New Thinking at Wolff Olins.

How to grow everywhere

On 25 October we held our first summit on brand growth, ‘How to grow and change the game’. This video is the second in a series showing the highlights of the day. 

In the part of the day entitled “how to grow everywhere” Allan Pamba of GSK, Frederik Ottesen on Little Sun and James Turner of Dyson discuss how to reach new customers in new places. The discussion is facilitated by Robert Jones, visiting professor at University of East Anglia and Head of New Thinking at Wolff Olins.

Watch an earlier video in the series here: How To Grow - overview

Twenty ways to grow

By Robert Jones

On Thursday 25 October Wolff Olins held its first brand summit, “How to Grow and change the game”- an event that welcomed twelve speakers from some of the UK’s most progressive brands and over sixty guests from great established brands and innovative start-ups.

The summit revealed a host of game-changing ways to spark growth. Here are my top twenty things I learned from the panelists at yesterday’s How to Grow event at Wolff Olins in London.

Getting everywhere

1. Be a start-up – however old or young you are (EE, Dyson, Little Sun, GlaxoSmithKline)

2. Don’t chase the money, let the money find you (GlaxoSmithKline)

3. Take a hit on profit in the short term, to create long-term market growth (GlaxoSmithKline)

4. Be hated as well as loved – the deepest responses are created by brands that polarize opinion (Dyson, Little Sun)

5. Enjoy inventive competitors, but not mere copy-cats (Dyson, Little Sun)

6. Use tech to outsmart the counterfeiters (GlaxoSmithKline)

7. Change the model – whatever market you’re entering, do things very differently and (through design) much better (Dyson, Little Sun)

Becoming everyday

8. To earn a place in consumers’ daily lives, understand those lives (Faber, National Trust, Skype, Virgin Media)

9. Be canny about free – make sure there’s a strategic dose of free stuff in what you offer (Virgin Media, Skype, National Trust)

10. Use ‘social’ literally – events where you meet your consumers face-to-face (Faber)

11. Use ‘social’ virtually – the fastest way to learn about the good and the bad from your consumers (Virgin Media, National Trust, Skype)

12. Adopt the latest tech – but give consumers a choice to use the gadgets that work best for them (Skype, Faber)

13. If you have content, make it as widely available as you can (Faber, National Trust)

14. Stay restless (Faber, National Trust, Skype, Virgin Media)

Growing better

15. Go beyond the fashionable idea of ‘exchange’ (of goods or skills) and think about ‘giving’ (Impossible)

16. To get things done, match ‘bees’ (small, buzzy organisations) with ‘trees’ (big, rooted ones) (Young Foundation)

17. Offer your employees shared parental leave, to help both women and men climb the career ladder (Fawett Society)

18. And get more women at the top of your business (Fawcett Society)

19. Plan your business to operate within the ‘doughnut’ (maximizing social impact while minimizing environmental harm) (Oxfam)

20. Be optimistic (Fawcett Society, Impossible, Oxfam, Young Foundation)

Robert Jones is visiting professor at University of East Anglia and Head of New Thinking at Wolff Olins. 

How to become everyday

By Morgan Holt

The year is drawing in, and as it gets colder we find ourselves reaching for the Kleenex. And if you can’t find a Chapstick, often Vaseline will do just as well.
Being everyday is the jackpot for brands, so how does a modern brand win that elusive prize of being on everybody’s lips?

Despite what some agencies try to convince their clients, no one person or company is telling the mass market what a branding word will be – any more than you can commission a ‘viral’ video. (It’s a video. Viral just means ‘popular’ and the only person who decides that is the customer.)

But what clearly stands out this past decade is the shift from passive consumption to active consumption. Twenty years ago a marketing department could create a message, add a sprinkle of creative, and pump it out on channels of their choosing.
Branding was more passive then. Products were put on a pedestal and presented in a regal and timely fashion. Success was when people wanted a ‘thing’. A Frisbee, a Coke, a Jacuzzi. Success was a noun.

These days, brands come alive by being used. They are carried and passed on. Their passage is owned by customers, not by brand police. They are rewarded for being portable. For adding to the electricity of a person’s life through the activities that the brand helps them to do, or do better.

Success in the modern age is a verb. We Google and Skype. We look people up by Facebooking them, often to find thattheir profile picture has been Photoshopped. So then for fun we Pin it and tweet about it.

Being everyday cannot be guaranteed and you shouldn’t let any agency tell you they have a secret sauce that promises your popularity. Least of all trying to hastily force your name to look like a ‘doing word’ without changing your brand experience to fit.

But one thing you can definitely say is that if you’re not doing something, if you’re not putting activity and usefulness into your customers’ lives, then you cannot be everyday. You cannot be the Verb you want to be.

Morgan Holt is a senior strategist and principal at Wolff Olins. He is also a faciliatator at How To Grow and change the game, Wolff Olins summit on growth.

Morgan Holt is a senior strategist at Wolff Olins London.

To be part of our unique conversation on growth, join the summit LinkedIn group. Or follow our twitter stream #HowToGrow. For more information visit How To Grow.


Is your brand a doughnut?

By Robert Jones

Oxfam has come up with a neat model for thinking about good economic growth.

Picture a doughnut: good growth is the kind that doesn’t damage the planet (the space outside the doughnut) or people (the hole in the middle of the doughnut).

Outside the doughnut are things like climate change, biodiversity loss and ocean acidification. In the middle are things like jobs, income, health and equality. It’s an unprecedentedly comprehensive model, a great tool for policy makers.

But the model has implications for us branding people too.

After all, branding was invented to create growth – to get people to buy things. And while the western world, particularly Europe, is searching for growth, most people also recognize that we need a different kind of growth from the last ten years or so – more substantial than a credit-based bubble, and ideally something less destructive of the planet’s resources.

So what kinds of brands generate good growth? What would a doughnut brand be like? Is your brand a doughnut?

It would be easy to imagine some external, planetary factors. For example, doughnut brands might encourage re-use of resources, like eBay. Or sharing of resources, like ZipCar. Or encourage use of local resources, like CittaSlow. Or make things digital rather than physical, like iTunes.

And then you could imagine internal, people factors too. For example, doughnut brands might make worthwhile things more accessible, like Tate. Or make work more purposeful, like GE. Or just give people decent jobs, like Fairtrade. Or support small businesses, like Grameen. Or bring people together, like Facebook. Or simply raise money for a worthwhile cause, like (RED).

Interface is a brand that takes both parts of the doughnut model very seriously, with both EcoMetrics and SocioMetrics tracking.

The model needs much more precise definition, like Oxfam’s. But as the world searches for the right kind of growth, and as brands play a role in that, this thought-experiment might just turn out to be essential.

Robert Jones is visiting professor at University of East Anglia and Head of New Thinking at Wolff Olins.

Some ways to fend off growing pains


Groupon, the daily deals provider, has generated so many customer complaints about how it markets its deals that it could face legal action unless it improves. Why? The portal maintains that rapid growth is at the heart of its problems - its internal processes and procedures had struggled to keep pace with its expansion. This is certainly not the first time a brand has become a victim of its own success. So, how can high growth businesses ensure that its functions keep pace with its growth? We put our heads together to come up with some advice:

Learn to say no: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. This sometimes means denying the customer for a bit. Yeah. Heresy. The ‘customer’ is not an excuse for treating suppliers poorly, being underhand, or pursuing a business model that is actually inherently unsustainable.

Decide what you are going to suck at: Nobody is world class at everything. It’s a mistake to try to be. For Groupon, striking fair deals and marketing with integrity would probably be the ones to focus on…

'Going public' means just that: If you want to be treated like a big adult company, don’t expect to get let off because you’ve had to grow up fast. Make sure you’d be happy if everyone knew what you were up to. Adverts that make light of Tibet and unrealistic offers probably won’t cut it.

And if you want to hear a little more advice for businesses on this issue, we just published 10 Tips To Cope With Rapid Growth in FreshBusinessThinking.com.

(Wolff Olins London staff)

Image via H. Armstrong Roberts

Parts and Labor

By Alex Keith 

This October, a report was published by McKinsey estimating that the Internet has contributed more than a fifth of the GDP growth in mature economies over the past five years. That’s remarkable, especially at a time when these economies are struggling to get their populations back to work––producing and consuming the domestic product. So if the Internet is our ace in the hole for economic growth, and you and I are the prospective producers and consumers of the product in question, let’s take a look at the situation in front of us.

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