What's in a name?

Talking to someone tuned in to the wider world of advertising the other day provoked a very interesting question. The discussion focused on who were the hot people creatively in London at the moment and the person I was with couldn’t name a person but could name an agency. For example Adam & Eve have had a great deal of well deserved publicity but the person I was with couldn’t name who was at the helm.

This got me thinking because in the past as it would have been the ‘names over the door’ and very rarely an abstract name. So is it just a difference between personal profile versus the business name?  Or is it something deeper?

I wonder if there are crossed wires going on due to the impact of the internet and the emerging brands such as Facebook or Google or Yahoo! They, like all other customer facing brands, have a catchy name like Kelloggs/Bisto/Hovis. So do more and more ad folk these days believe they should also create a brand that is more in tune with the internet revolution? But Facebook is a B2C brand whereas the ad agency is B2B and I would suggest there is a big difference.

Bear with me on the splitting the atom on naming. For example a 30′ish marketing person oversees an agency review and reports back to senior management and confirms they are down to two shortlisted agencies; BBH and Balcony. The choice is a bit of Sir John Hegarty or someone you have never heard of from a business called Balcony. We are talking about very brave choices within a client organisation. The question has to be “why are they called Balcony?” “They are the ones with a great view”. I would also guess Balcony will need exceptional credentials to overcome the easy buy of BBH.

My business ex-partner, Carl Johnson, set up a new agency in New York called Anomaly which I get because it reflected their intended positioning versus the traditional agency. Makes complete sense because the person hiring them has a rational reason for the decision.  However the trend towards abstract names is a bit like the names of bands, they get more and more obtuse.

In the past ad agencies mostly had the names of the principals over the front door. One consequence was very well known names such as Saatchi, Abbott, Trott, Lowe, Wight, Hegarty, et al and I would suggest the names also defined the culture of the agency concerned. Abbott was ”Good food costs less at Sainsbury’s” whilst Trott was ” Hello tosh gotta Toshiba”; Wight was BMW, Lowe was Tesco, Hegarty was Levi. It has been said many times that clients struggle to a) remember more than a handful of agency names and b) struggle to name more than a few clients each agency works for.

I tend to believe that people’s names are somehow bigger than abstract names. We have for example Sir Frank Lowe, Sir Martin Sorrell, Lord Saatchi, Lord Bell, Sir John Hegarty. Are they not more influential than Bill Smees from Balcony?   

However it that was the blue corner what about the red corner – when it comes to selling your agency?

I would guess it is better to buy an enduring asset in a name rather than one that is going to walk after the earn-out has been completed. So Mother will always be Mother irrespective of who is running the place tomorrow (assuming they are capable of sustaining the goodwill and reputation of the business). My friend Carl Johnson has alread sold a chunk of Anomaly and of course the brand will continue after he has decided it is time for 24/7 R&R.

My guess is we will see a shift back to people’s names as abstract names become too numerous and confusion follows. A bit like “The Artist” – a silent movie shot in black and white – very, very distinctive.

Returning to the original question about who is hot creatively these days I would speculate it is tough for clients because they will not know the name of the creative leaders in places like Balcony so the ‘colour’, ‘personality’, ‘character’ is harder to recognise and remember. The person I was talking to by the way was a senior marketing executive from a large client organisation.


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