JWT appointment reflects escalating brand stewardship fight

My wife is a speech and language pathologist. Her specialty is in identifying the neurological causes of language problems in children, and recommending the correct therapeutic solutions for them.
As an experienced provider of such a highly professional service, she is of course knowledgeable enough in related areas - behavioural and cognitive psychology, for instance - to recognize when a language difficulty is just a symptom of a much deeper social or psychological problem. But in these instances, she is often professionally constrained from commenting on the deeper issues. The regulations governing her practice do not permit it. In the unregulated world of brand strategy and communications, we are often, if not always, in a very similar position.

My wife is a speech and language pathologist. Her specialty is in identifying the neurological causes of language problems in children, and recommending the correct therapeutic solutions for them.

As an experienced provider of such a highly professional service, she is of course knowledgeable enough in related areas – behavioural and cognitive psychology, for instance – to recognize when a language difficulty is just a symptom of a much deeper social or psychological problem. But in these instances, she is often professionally constrained from commenting on the deeper issues. The regulations governing her practice do not permit it.

In the unregulated world of brand strategy and communications, we are often, if not always, in a very similar position. In the discovery phase of most strategic branding engagements, a good investigator will uncover all of the strengths and weaknesses of the business under examination, from operational to infrastructural, from supply chain to demand chain. And an experienced practitioner will always be knowledgeable enough about related areas of business to recognize when it’s the business that needs fixing before you can do anything positive with the brand.

The big problem is, of course, that brand strategists and communicators don’t have permission to deal with those issues. That’s when the ball gets passed over to the business consultants, who tend not to look at the world from our end of the telescope at all. They build economic decks. The economic decks are only half of the story, but they are the half that can be measured, so it’s an easier expenditure to justify.

We’re often still left with the same problems. Sometimes, we’ve even got new ones to deal with as a result of the business consultants’ advice. The difficulty is that the same need for quantitative analysis that compelled the client to go to the business consultant is creating a demand for the brand strategists and communicators to demonstrate a quantitative return on the investment in their services as well.

This is not in and of itself a bad thing. They pay us well and they should get a return. But no matter how good your metrics are, if the business strategy sucks, the brand strategy isn’t going to turn a buck either. Garbage in, garbage out.

Another interesting effect of the focus on business efficiency these days is the growing number of business consultancies that have hung ‘branding’ shingles on their doors. Recognizing that their relationships with the C-suite can be leveraged, they are stealing turf that used to belong to the agencies. Being quantitatively oriented, they tend to offer more expertise on the management than the development side of the branding table. It dovetails nicely with their technology and business intelligence practices. And their econometric expertise gives them permission to address the growing area of brand portfolio valuation.

The agencies, once the uncontested guardians of the brand, are scrambling to regain a foothold on the shifting terrain of strategic consulting. A recent notice in AdWeek highlighted JWT’s hiring of a new chief strategy officer. A clear response to the incursion of the Big 5 (or should I say Big 4, now that ‘Monday’ is no longer a day in the consulting week) it will be his task to demonstrate the firm’s business and not just its branding acumen.

Will the lines ever be clearly drawn again? Will the agencies keep trying to be business consultants, while the business consultants try to carve out bigger and bigger pieces of the branding pie? Two things are certain. First, it is a big, complicated pie. There’s definitely room at the table for both quantitative and qualitative cutlery.

Secondly, the competitive environment is not thinning out. And as an instrument of competitive strategy, brand is gaining importance. Whoever is able to more authoritatively identify the sources of unique value within a client firm deserves to become guardian of the brand, because it is upon that uniqueness that sustainable competitive advantage is built. With that as the focus, everything else in the business should fall into line.

May the best consultant win.

Will Novosedlik is a brand strategist based in Toronto. He can be reached at novosedlik@hotmail.com.