Australian branding is populated by burnt-out, hollow-eyed, tearful and angry professionals, says Luke van O, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Australia is dominated – in design as in most sectors – by a small number of large incumbents. These firms, and their publicly-listed owners view the
Australian branding industry as a low priority relative to their other concerns.
Why? The first factor is money: marketing budgets for brand work are small compared to those allocated for media buying and tactical comms.
The second factor is location: eight-to-12 hour time differences and 24 hour flights create a psychological distance that amplifies the significant tyranny of the physical one.
The third is the size of the pie: Australia has a small population and a small economy – dramatically so, when you park primary industry to one side –
so the rewards will never justify the level of investment the major economies receive.
These factors compound to create a situation where the local operations of the non-independent, foreign-owned brand consultancies are qualified
primarily on financial metrics – if not solely. Incentives are aligned to growing business by any means; normally by boosting revenues and improving
margins at the same time.
How do you easily boost revenue? (I say ‘easily’ because the path of least resistance is generally the preferred choice of the under-pressure executive) By saying yes to each and every project, even when it sits well outside your established area of expertise.
How do you easily grow margins? By under-resourcing the work.
The ‘one stop shop’ approach to marketing services is a myth. The chances of all the agencies put forward from within one group being the best fit for your project are astronomical, just as is the likelihood of any one agency being able to meet all your needs across different disciplines. Surely you’d prefer to use the best specialists available for each discipline required by the project?
Wouldn’t it be great if your branding agency was happy – and allowed – to introduce you to the most fitting specialists in advertising, research, media,
whatever, instead of directing you to the ones they’re mandated to recommend?
Wouldn’t it be wonderfully refreshing if your agency said ‘no’ to the parts of the project they’re not best placed to deliver, rather than saying ‘yes’ and learning how to do it on the fly, by trial and error, with your money?
This is so commonplace in Australian branding it’s tragic, as are the burnt-out designers, hollow-eyed consultants, tearful project managers and angry directors that result from under-resourcing. They’re everywhere. It’s like a post-apocalyptic world where the creativity was carpet-bombed by accountants in budget-shaped airships and the final outposts of financially-ravaged talent hide together on Insta, stealing scraps off the big clients as they take their final lumbering steps to death, while all the time trying to dodge the Sorrellian robots of acquisition.
Arguably the best design work comes from small studios and independent consultancies, of which there are many. With this proliferation comes the risk
of not knowing who to believe and who to choose. Look at the client page on your average agency website and you’ll discover everyone’s worked for Coke, everyone’s worked for Australia Post.
It can be very difficult to make a decision at all, and fatal to make a bad one.
Branding isn’t solely about design and unfortunately the small studios tend to lack the strategic and analytic firepower of the top-tier consultancies. This is partly because they’re expensive to employ, and partly because their typical clients recoil at the effect using consultants has on the budget. Similarly, the small consultancies tend to lack the design talent of the independent studios as the majority of talent wants to work where the creative leads.
Creativity and strategy, however, aren’t separate disciplines.
They need to do more than co-exist, they are co-dependent and the best of both are required to do branding properly at any scale. The best creative work is strategically effective, and the best strategic work creatively conceived and delivered.
Over the years, we have built relationships with the best independents in every marketing discipline. They’re businesses like ours, who do different things to us but just as well. Or they do the same things in different ways. We like our partner agencies because they do good work which fits in nicely with our own. Working with them makes our own work better, and we’re collectively proud of the work we do together. No-one’s precious about who owned which part and – most importantly – the client has a result that shines from every angle.
It’s been said to be a difficult balance to strike, but it’s one we’ve managed to do so at VAN O by taking the best people from both sides of the line,
removing the layers of ownership, structuring everything around doing the best work, and sharing out the profits that come from doing so.
Not all of these ideas are unique – far from it – but in this configuration they may be. And if they’re not? Great. The more agencies that work this way the more competition we’d have who’re trying to deliver the best possible work.
The more competition we can create, the more internationally-lauded Australian brands we’d have; creating more jobs, raising GDP and offsetting
our dependence on primary production.
The more we focus on quality over profit, the more we’ll stop the loss of talent to markets that value creativity more – or pay better than our own.
The more we raise our expectations, the more we’ll achieve. And what I can say with absolute confidence is that if we continue on with the way we’re going, dragging out the status quo for as long as the money keeps dribbling out, the more we’ll all lose in the end.