Brand custodian in a digital world

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In the early 1990s, the agency I was working for had a big name bank as a client. The agency’s list of deliverables were these broadly: brand & communication strategy, creatives including press ads, TV spots, radio, outdoor, leaflets and direct mailers, a media plan and media placement, language translation, print production services and account management & co-ordination. Almost all of the services were in-house and the account head had access to all the ‘specialists’ in the chain – from creative to media to production. I would add that the account team had the basic knowledge of disciplines like direct marketing and media planning. Admittedly, things weren’t that complex when it came to media and creative platforms. But the client could rely on one business partner who drove the brand strategy and got the best out of specialists in media and creative. The consumer interacted with the brand through a limited set of touchpoint – at the store or service location (like, say a hotel), the adverts and during actual usage.

Cut to 2016. A partial list of agency (not necessarily an ad agency) deliverables would include: brand & communication strategy, creatives across television, print, radio, outdoor & digital media, media strategy & plan, activations, social media strategy & creatives, programmatic buying, maybe a mobile app, native advertising and so on. Needless to say, each discipline requires specialist knowledge. Invariably, a handful of specialist shops are involved in most cases. Often, the account management team has no involvement in brand communication beyond producing the TV spot. The digital strategy and creatives, media planing and everything else are with other agencies with whom the account management team has no contact. Even in rare cases where almost all of the brand’s marketing communications activity is with one shop, it is likely to be with a single holding company but with different agencies. Naturally, it is impossible to find that one brand head in the agency team, who is well-versed in all the disciplines. Result: there is a ‘team of teams’ for almost every client. In this context, who best plays the brand custodian or the captain? There have been different points of view on who is a brand custodian, with big network agencies appointing a brand head for large MNC clients.

In my view, a brand custodian is someone who best understands the core essence of the brand, charts a roadmap for brand growth in the long run, designs the brand’s communication strategy gives direction to how the brand speaks to suit a platform or medium and most importantly has the power to execute customer experience of the brand. It cannot be the consumer as some have opined. Is it humanly possible to find that one agency executive who is a ‘jack of all trades and expert in marketing, communication, technology and media’? Not a chance. Very few companies can afford and need specialist brand custodian too. In today’s world, it is also rare to find company CEO’s being hands on with brand management activities – that is left to the CMO and the brand manager. Brand Managers seem to best placed to coordinate, supervise various initiatives – creatives, media investments, research, design projects, activations and so on. Given their average tenure and the emphasis on short term results (there are exceptions to every rule of course) it is left to the CMO to the play a directional role.

In a Twitter ‘poll’ (with low vote count) , many voted for ‘team of teams’ as the brand custodians. In my mind, team of teams referred to the advertising, media planning, social media and various other teams who play a part in how a customer interacts and perceives the brand. Trouble is there is hardly any communication between such teams and the one who crafts a promise in one platform has no role to play in another. If an ad campaign promises great service but does not deliver on ground, the consumer can make sure the world comes to know about it. That wasn’t the case two decades ago – the negative word of mouth had relatively limited impact. So the default captain of a team of teams is the one who provides a directional role (actually the one who pays the bills!) – the CMO. Since the ad agency is just one of the many partners he works with it is he or she who is the true brand custodian ensuring a responsible for a seamless brand experience across touch points – be it an ad, a mobile app, a tweet, in-store experience or a native ad. What say?

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