In a panel at Hong Kong’s Top 1000 Brands event, a number of marketing heads from leading companies discussed the state of the relationship between brands and agencies.
We are at a stage in marketing where brands are bringing more and more digital disciplines in-house, from social content to community management. Suresh Balaji, Regional Head of Marketing at HSBC, personally believes that rather than hiring and constantly retraining internal personnel in digital, it is better to turn to groups such as WPP, where his brand will benefit from the expertise of numerous agencies.
“These agencies are very nimble, very agile,” he says. “We will never be able to do that in-house because of governance, because of regulation, because of lots of things that you don’t have to worry about. So I will default to my agency partners to do that on my behalf.”
Balaji prizes the different knowledge and perspectives that can benefit a brand when it works with different teams on different media; “You don’t want all agencies to do everything,” he says. “You don’t want your entire roster to be thinking the same way. I want to understand my business the best… I want agencies to understand their business the best. They don’t have to replicate everything I do, or I don’t need them in the first place.”
A common purpose is crucial in brand-agency partnerships, says Balaji, and that should revolve around the business’s customers. Seraphina Wong, Executive Director & Regional Head of Advertising at UBS, agrees that working with secondary agencies needs to be perceived as a partnership, with constant collaboration and knowledge-sharing. Far too often, Wong says, agents sit around waiting for clients to give them all of the necessary information, rather than sitting down with them and shaping the brief together. She believes it is the “inherent responsibility” of the agency to understand the client’s needs and goals.
“You have to have a very clear vision, and share with your agency from the very beginning,” says Joseph Liu, Vice President of Marketing at Calvin Klein Asia-Pacific. In doing so, brands and agencies can strike the right balance between risk and innovation. One such campaign involved Calvin Klein targeting members of the “no shock generation” on platforms like Tinder, after agency research indicated this was where 15-29 year old consumers were spending their time, participating in peer-to-peer interactions. For Liu, the backlash from religious groups was worth it. “We’re not creating an advertising campaign to make people like us,” he says. “We’re creating content to create conversations.”
Agency research helped propel HSBC in the opposite direction, yielding insights which encouraged the company to pay more attention to its older customers, who were living longer and had built up savings, rather than focusing on selling products to millennials. The result was the successful ‘Passions Don’t Retire’ campaign which helped customers to plan and enjoy their retirement.
The true worth of agencies, all three panellists agree, is not in creativity for its own sake, but in coming up with ideas that add genuine value, based on a real grasp of the brand’s identity and audience. “I think agencies should not try to deliberately be too innovative for the sake of entertaining the clients,” says Wong. “I think they should spend more time in understanding the business, markets and consumers.”