Thursday, August 5, 2010

Name Changes have Screwed up Ad Agencies' Own Branding

I would like to thank Al Ries for inspiring this blog. Yesterday, August 3, AdAge.com published his prescient article entitled, “Two Names Are Better than One”. The subhead said, “Marketers lucky enough to have a nickname shouldn’t abuse it”. http://bit.ly/dh8YWt The gist of his article is that brands that have nicknames (Chevy, Coke, etc.) should recognize the strength of those names and use them wisely.  He made a point of saying that General Motors was wrong to tell its employees not to call Chevrolet Chevy.  I couldn't agree more.  It made me think about ad agencies and their names and nicknames.

I had been thinking about a blog post on just this subject because so many ad agencies have messed around with their own identity, some successfully, but most, in my opinion, not.

When Ogilvy & Mather was called Ogilvy it was a sign of familiarity and even esteem.  Young &; Rubicam was always Y&R.  The shorter version of their names were/are terms of endearment.  Which brings me to my point. I can’t for the life of me understand why some ad agencies have walked away from their own equity and heritage by unnecessarily changing their names. J. Walter Thompson became JWT, Doyle Dane Bernbach, when it merged with Needham more than twenty years ago became DDB/Needham,  and now is just DDB – in its case, I wonder if people even know what the initials stand for.  Pity.  All of them should have left well enough alone.

I can certainly understand why some agencies actively use or used shortened versions of their names.   Bartle Boggle Hegarty is called BBH, Batton, Barton, Durstein and Osborne was always BBD&O (They dropped the & many years ago). Most agencies were named after their founders with good reason. Their founders were talented, smart and had something to say to clients.  As those agencies became successful their founders became icons. Fairfax Cone at Foote, Cone, Belding is a perfect example. With few exceptions, Grey and Publicis being the ones which come to mind first, ad agencies almost always became successful with the names of their founders on the door.

I believe that ad agencies work best when the principals' names are on the door - just like law firms. Clients need to know who and what they are buying. As those agencies grow or when the founders sell or retire or pass on, their names connote a sense of what the agency is about. Jay Chiat set a tone for his agency which was so strong that even today people refer to TBWA as Chiat, at least in the U.S.  Agencies should revel in and perpetuate the names and persona of their founders.

The first thing that seems to happen after a purchase or merger is to obliterate the names of the founders of the less dominant agency.  Then there are the newer agencies which seem to eschew the names of their founders all together.

The contemporary agencies, in order to communicate their modernity and fashionability, are now called names like Mother and Taxi and Strawberry Frog. No clue as to who runs time.  I wonder if those names really have staying power.  Calling an agency Iris or Blue Dingo is an attempt to circumvent the problem of individuals. And in and of themselves, these names need to be explained and because no one's name is on the door there is no one to become an icon.  Perhaps this is why so many of the agencies founded in the last decade are having trouble gaining traction.

I understand why the big agencies changed their names. I can hear the deliberations in their respective board rooms. “We need to modernize.” “People call us by our short name, anyway.” “Our old name is stodgy and does not connote all the great new communications tools we are now using.”

A great lesson was learned by Y&R when it changed the name of Wunderman to Imperic about a decade ago. (For those of you new to the business, it lasted about two years before they had the sense to change it back). The business should have taken note.  They literally walked away from their identity and their heritage.   Lester Wunderman stood for and still stands for all that is good and innovative in direct marketing.  And, indeed, he is an icon.

It was perfectly permissible that people referred to J. Walter Thompson as Thompson or Jay Walter. I for one can never remember calling it JWT and still, like most people, call it Thompson. Leo Burnett is still referred to as Leo or Burnett, but that doesn't mean they should  officially change their name to Leo.  One could argue that no one knew the Mather in Ogilvy, but there was something strong and indestructible about Ogilvy and Mather which is missing now, which was Mr. Ries's point.

In advertising, it is the work which creates the meaning of the name.  If anyone doubts that this is so, just take a look at what Grey has done in a few short years. Advertising people are begining to recognize that Grey is no longer gray.  Ad agencies are still all about the work. And the work makes the name, not the other way around.

I would love to hear your opinions about agency names. Please share them with my readers.


  1. For me, EURO RSCG will always be Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer -- or basically, Messner. I recall when I was there we had a contest for who can come up with the best quip about the agency name. I think the winning entry was "Good Morning, Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer, how can I help you this afternoon." I think that was actually Tom Messner's entry! Or it might've been "Is that a business card in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?"

  2. Great post, Paul. It's why we started as an acronym but ended up putting the name on the door. Mergers have definately done much of the damage. I was at Ted Bates when it became Backer Spielvogel Bates, and was then just referred to as Backer. The joke at the time was that the mosquito had swallowed the elephant. Remember Saatchi and Saatchi DFS Compton? But the true black hole of agency branding is from Ammirati & Puris to Ammirati Puris Lintas to Lowe Lintas to D'arcy to Lowe to Deutsch. Think of the legends swallowed up in that vortex of consolidation: Ammirati, Puris, Lowe, D'Arcy, Massius, Benton, Bowles. It's a graveyard of great names, and in the end, it's just Donny.

  3. Names are loaded with meaning. Take the change from New Amsterdam to New York. The move from agencies named for their founders to agencies named, it appears, solely to create the perception of “hipness,” or at least difference, follow changes in the industry.

    Like you, I too grew-up in an era of firms named for legendary figures, the people who invented the business we now know. We identified with them or their names, took pride in being part of a tradition or a blood line and could even, generally speaking, describe what kind of work came from what shop and why.

    This is no longer the case because agency marketing needs have changed. The founders introduced advertising to corporate America. Their job was to prove it worked. They put their name on the door to prove commitment, credibility and accountability. The business no longer requires this. Agencies are now public corporations in a share fight. Their goal is to draw attention from the competition. Fanciful names like Mother and Taxi draw attention, yet curiously, also simultaneously and comfortably situate themselves in the anonymous corporate milieu that is now the agency business.

  4. John, just to clarify, my business cards say "Deutsch, a Lowe and Partners Company."

    Rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?

  5. Bravo! Nice post. But when it comes to selling an agency, is there a valuation difference between an agency with principals' names on the door vs. a Taxi or Mother? I wonder.

    In our business, the Fairfax Cone and Leo Burnetts of the world still exist with folks like Donny Deutsch and Alex Bogusky. Seems like some things will never change. For good reason! Growth through a personality will always help keep names on doors.


I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

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