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May 21, 2007

Ad Agency Hires Ad Agency

According to Ad Age, Campbell-Mithun, a Minneapolis-based advertising agency that’s been around since the 1930s, recently hired another ad agency to solve its branding/positioning issues. (Yep, you read that right. Read on for more.)

Unable to define or articulate why Campbell-Mithun is indispensable and how they go about helping improve the branding/marketing efforts of their clients, Campell-Mithun hired Cue, a Minneapolis-based ad agency, to solve for these communication issues.

The end result was the creation of a branding ethos for Campbell-Mithun. This branding ethos consists of seven tenets derived from quotes spoken by Ray Mithun, the agency’s founder. Murals were created and posted inside the Campbell-Mithun offices with the artwork depicting these seven tenets. Plus, these seven tenets are also featured in Cambell-Mithun’s capabilities marketing materials.

I applaud Campbell-Mithun for having the courage to admit they lack the capabilities to define and design branding work for themselves. But that admission could (and should) scare off current and potential clients. Would you want to trust your company’s branding efforts to an ad agency that can’t solve its own branding issues?


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I think it could actually help them define *exactly* why clients need them:

It's very difficult to see yourself the way an outsider can.

Just as no lawyer should defend themselves, perhaps no ad agency should advertise itself.


I'm with Mike on this one. I am currently experiencing a job transition and finding it challenging to articulate exactly my point of difference -- I take myself for granted.

Thank goodness for professionals who can lend a hand in those cases. Also, why take away important internal resources dedicated to clients for an internal rebranding? I actually led one of those at a tech start up I worked at. It's very difficult to use valuable (and billable) internal talent, navigate the way people see themselves and the company and contend for time with paying clients.

Valeria and Mike ... I appreciate and understand your perspectives. But you gotta admit, it is really odd to have an ad agency hiring an ad agency to solve for its branding challenges. Doesn't mean its wrong or bad business. Just odd. The "expert agency folks" cited in the piece said that they couldn't recall another instance where an ad agency called upon another agency in such a capacity.

To outsource creative/communication design as Campbell-Mithun did feels awkward to me. As a client or potential client, this would give me cause to question the capabilities of Campbell-Mithun.

Although I appreciate Mike and Valeria's point, I would compare this to a signage company using FastSigns outside their own business. This is the best chance for any creative business to show what they're made of. It is the only client that will let the agency do ANYTHING they want, without limits.

The bottom line to me as a possible client? If a branding firm cannot create their own branding, I would never trust them with my own.

I don't necessarily think it was a bad idea to engage another agency (for the reasons articulated above), but it might not have been the best move to be so open about it.

On the other hand, I respect their transparency and unflinching introspection. I'm sure that's what they ask of their clients, so it's reassuring to see that they're not afraid of it when the shoe is on the other foot.

Theoretically, it may seem awkward initially. But, strategically it is important to take a third party external view of the situation. Because, we are not known to be great judges of ourselves,and hence of our stuations. This applies to all businesses and professions. Rather, it is wise to do so.
Yes, whether they sould have been publicly open about it reamains debatable.

There is something to be said for getting a different perspective on your business. Hiring an agency to look at an agency does just that. I would suggest that they should have hired their loyal clients to help develop a map on what their points of difference are vs. letting a competing agency see all the naked truths within the company. I think outsourcing the delivery is smart thought.

I think that many companies - especially those with a real client focus - delay and postpone needed branding and core business upgrades because they are too busy with client work. I liken it to the mother dog who, in order to ensure all her pups get fed, doesn't eat and starves to death. The result is all the pups perish. Taking the time to feed itself may cause one or two of the litter to perish or suffer but it ensures the survival of the rest. Too many companies forget they need to survive before they can thrive.

Outsourcing the work to another agency allows that agency to focus on the work and therefore it gets done ensuring the survival of the company.

At a certain level, they can use the process to prove (not disprove) the point of their own value as an agency. They will sell themselves to a client as a talented, creative third party who can take an objective look and help the client distill the essence of their brand. And see - we take our own medicine!

I have to say, the worst clients I've ever had have always been the agency itself on internal branding projects, agency brochures, and the like.

The fact is, a barber can cut their own hair, but it will never look as good as their clients' cuts--regardless of what the barber thinks.

This really is a tricky one. The points raised previously are very valid ones. I can understand wanting an external view - sometimes we tend to have a blind spot for some of our weaknesses. Then there's the issue of implementation. Is there enough staff to handle clients' and the company's rebranding, so that one does not thrive at the expense of the other?

On the issue of it scaring off current and prospective clients. I'd say look at the track record. If your current clients are pleased with your work, and think you're excellent at what you do, then I'd like to think they wouldn't question your ability because you outsourced expertise for your company's operations. After all, an agency is like any other company that needs resources for marketing and business development.

If your track record is great, and you've communicated that hey we're outsourcing not because we can't do it, but because we want to focus on clients, then hopefully prospective clients will say, hey they've done and continue to do great work for other people. Plus, who else is in a better position to critique a branding proposal than a marketing communications/ ad agency?

The crucial thing now is that the rebranding better work. If it doesn't, well then that's when the worrying should start.

Ironically, most advertising agencies (as communications-based firms) aren't all that good at building strong brands. (I said MOST, not ALL.) Their emphasis on creative, messaging and developing communications products may be the icing on the cake, but not the cake itself. Brand development is a completely different type of endeavor that involves tweaking the very DNA of a company - not just how it looks, sounds, tastes and smells.

In that light, I can completely understand why an ad agency would hire an identity company or Brand strategy firm to help them out with brand-related projects. Actually, I would recommend it. But... hiring another ad agency? Strange choice. They had the right idea, but I'm not sure that they picked the right tool for the job. I guess only time will tell. Great post.

Interesting to see the split between "physician heal thyself" and the "doctors shouldn't self diagnose". I think both are right in different contexts though. Yes, the agency couldn't self define itself (possibly bad) but wasn't too proud to be able to go for specialist help when needed (good). If I hired Campbell-Mithun, I'd feel confident in knowing that if they lacked to skills to solve part of the problem, they'd have no ego investment/fear of being weak and would bring in third-party help where necessary.

We've had a handful of agencies - very large ones included, talk to us about changing their name or revitalizing their identity. I was surprised when the first one came to us, but it does make sense...the cobbler's shoes and all that.

Probably a smart move, hiring an outsider. Otherwise the project would have churned around internally forever, without producing a concept everyone could agree on. I've been involved in many of those.

But still, it is an odd thing, considering that agencies are generally skillful at creating concepts that clients will like. Why not merely create some 'brand' that client companies would find attractive? And never mind what the REAL attributes of the agency were.

Just think of the internal politics involved in doing this internally .....

Just for that reason alone I applaud it

Great story, but I would be interested in three things:
1. What steps did Campbell-Mithun take to address its issues before hiring the outside agency?
2. What has been the bottom-line result, and how much of this bottom-line result is due to the recommendations, and how much to the increased attention/focus on branding internally -- aka a placebo effect? (Granted, this differentiation would be hard to measure.)
3. What were the management and other lessons learned during this process?


Don't snicker too loudly.

The "request for assistance" may have been a clever method of obtaining branding techniques from Cue. Campbell-Mithum learned a lot just by having Cue ask them questions, which would allow Campbell-Mithum to study their approach.

If so, that would be lousy. I'm surprised Cue actually "displayed itself" to another ad agency.

Leslie ... I like your thinking here. Clever indeed. Thanks for sharing this perspective!

To be more specific, Campbell-Mithum learned about Cue's:

- Marketing approach
- Branding techniques
- Pertinent client questions
- What client personnel they talk to in order to drill down
- Their insider sales pitch
- Their scheduling
- (And worst) Their pricing


I love this debate -- only partly because I’m from Cue and we did the Campbell Mithun re-brand work. A few ideas to stir the conversation…

While the headline reads ‘agency hires agency’, Cue is more a brand/design agency than ad agency. The core disciplines are similar but different enough to matter. I can’t fault AdAge for the more interesting headline.

The comments on the value of an outside perspective are right on. Inviting other people into the room and putting yourself on the table is scary, and super smart. Insecurity is thinking all the good ideas are already in the room.

Campbell Mithun was a great, sharp client and we’d work for them, (or with them) again in a minute.

Interesting story !! Thanks :)

Deesha Communications

Cue hit the hammer on the nail–Campbell Mithun is an ad agency. Ad Agencies tend NOT to have the branding building adroitness of a PR firm. Why? Ask Al Ries: PR builds brands, advertising maintains it.

But why, then, would an ad agency not advertise? Drink what you're prescribing, should you not?

Consumers are jaded to advertising. In order to reach a demo, it takes a REALLY amazing campaign from a brand that already exists in one's mind.

I love Get a Mac commercials. I own a Mac, of course. I love Southwest commercials. I fly Southwest at all costs (which, coincidentally, are not very costly).

Campbell Mithun is hurting because ad agencies have a bad stigma. If they want to try and reposition themselves, hiring a branding firm is the smartest thing they could have done.

If, however, they try to go out and build brands, those clients should be wary. Sign on to Cue, not CM, for those branding concerns.

I run a branding firm in Phoenix, but I am originally from Minneapolis. I have set foot in high-rise halls of Campbell Mithun numerous times. It's an impressive place. All of that comes at a cost. They just want to make sure that their brand speaks their cost.

It's a crazy, mixed up world. (So said Snoop Dogg.)

John, this is an excellent discussion. Here's my two cents for what it is worth.

I have worked with ad agencies in business development for over a decade. I can tell you from experience that self branding and positioning is one of the most difficult exercises they try and undertake. Most are excellent branding their clients but they are at their worst when it comes to their own. I think there would be a great niche for a brand specialist group to do nothing but help ad agencies brand themselves. I know many that would sign up in a heart beat. But the vast majority wouldn't allow another agency to do their branding for them.

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