Dating back to the 1930s, Campbell-Mithun, Minneapolis, has been helping marketers fix what ails their brands, but the shop recently found a brand-repair project it had to outsource: its own.
Management at the Interpublic Group of Cos. agency found its brand meant little in the marketplace — and that many prospective clients saw it primarily as a solid account-service shop that offered middling creative. Even worse, executives there said, its own employees were beginning to buy into that perception.
So, perhaps at the risk of some embarrassment, C-M asked another agency — Cue, also of Minneapolis — for help. “It’s a bit like heart surgery,” said Campbell-Mithun CEO Jack Rooney. “You can’t operate on yourself.”
Agencies — particularly bigger, older ones such as Campbell-Mithun — are beginning to pay far more attention to the state of their own brands as they try to confront the reasons for sluggish growth in recent years.
Some, such as J. Walter Thompson and the Chicago office of BBDO, have opted to change their names entirely, either to imply a larger streamlining of operations at a place previously seen as siloed and lumbering — as in JWT — or to disassociate with its hometown’s sluggish reputation — as in Energy BBDO.
Other shops, such as Leo Burnett (which like both C-M and JWT is associated with charismatic, Depression-era founders) have struggled to confront a branding dichotomy. Burnett’s creative in Asia, Europe and Latin America is seen as edgy and envelope-pushing, while its U.S. flagship is seen as the stodgy shop best known for wholesome creations such as the Keebler Elves and the Maytag Repairman — a reputation executives said has hindered the shop’s efforts to add new clients in recent years.
“When you’re a large, iconic agency brand, you get painted with the brush of being old and stodgy,” said Tom Bernardin, CEO of Leo Burnett Worldwide. “That’s not where we want the brand to be.”
Shuffling the deck
In an attempt to fix that, Mr. Bernardin is reorganizing Burnett, realigning the shop more closely with its direct/interactive sibling Arc Worldwide, and also promoting the head of the agency’s hot Latin American outpost, Juan Carlos Ortiz, to co-president of the U.S. outpost. (Mr. Ortiz shares an office with Rich Stoddart, who formerly had the presidency to himself.)
Tom Bernardin, CEO of Leo Burnett Worldwide said Mr. Ortiz’s presence has already generated “powerful buzz” he thinks will improve the U.S. agency’s image. But he said he didn’t think the agency would go so far as to hire an outside firm to help it achieve that end, as Campbell-Mithun did.
Mr. Rooney said he took that drastic step because, upon arriving at Campbell-Mithun in 2004, he inherited an agency that had a nondescript business proposition — a vague boast about creating iconic brands — and little apparent sense of itself, which he attributed to a succession of ownership changes.
“Ogilvy, where I used to work, had a real sense of itself and a marketing proposition,” Mr. Rooney said. “What [Campbell-Mithun] had was potentially generic, a little thin and a little limiting. … We don’t just want to be known for creating icon brands; we want to be known for solving business problems.”
The reputation of the shop was equally nondescript. “They were always given credit for being good with account services, because Ray Mithun was an account guy, but the creative was thought of as a second-rate product,” said Cue President Ed Mathie. “That’s what the image was.”
Cue, Mr. Rooney and the agency’s then-new chief creative officer, Jonathan Hoffman, worked first to convince their own staff that wasn’t the case. “They needed permission to do great work,” Mr. Mathie said.
The result of that collaboration was the internal launch of the agency’s “Seven Tenets,” a series of mantras attributed to Mr. Mithun. Cue helped the agency refine the tenets and illustrate them into graphics that now adorn the agency’s once-Spartan walls.
Writing is on the wall
Some of the wall-size murals use symbols as well as the likeness of Mr. Mithun in a cross between an Andy Warhol silkscreen and 1930s communist propaganda posters. The design help extended to literal branding as well, such as logos, stationery, business cards — even the agency’s website.
That work wrapped up in February 2006, and Mr. Rooney said he and his team spent much of the rest of the year working on ways to incorporate it into new-business pitches and other external communications.
None of those efforts have come to fruition yet, as the only major review Campbell-Mithun won last year involved retaining H&R Block’s $80 million account. (Block’s resulting “I Got People” campaign that launched earlier this year has drawn nearly universal praise.)
Mr. Rooney said he was confident the new-business wins would come eventually but denied that was the primary reason for the agency’s brand revamp. “We haven’t thumped the drums real loudly yet,” he said, “because this was something we had to do for ourselves.”