Ron Berger has Messner aimed at a future beyond advertising

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I used to pity receptionists at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG. I no longer do because when it comes to such pressing issues as the agency's role in the future of brand development, the folks at this firm with the eternally unwieldy name appear to understand where their industry-and consumer marketing in general-is heading.

Before I get to the reasoning behind such kudos, let's stipulate a few arguable facts--what management consultants out to stimulate debate call "straw man thinking."

* Brands reign supreme. In an era and economy characterized by information overload, consumers require a shorthand system for identifying an embedded proposition about a product's or service's content, quality and service. The brand is that abbreviated offer.

* Brands are being decoupled from specific goods and services. The pace of technology transfer makes proprietary positioning around a precise set of wares or features dangerously difficult to support. It also makes it ever easier (and equally risky) to extend the brand into uncharted territories. Hence Branson in banking, Swatch in autos, Oprah in magazines, etc.

* Brand expertise does not reside solely with a brand's proprietors. At the best companies, the best managers intuitively understand their brand's values, and can train their staff in the appropriate stewardship of that brand. McDonald's "Brand Foundations" program is a good example. Except for a few truly superior brand stewards (The Gap, for one), most companies must employ skilled outsiders to help them understand, plan, program and extend their brands.

* Walls that once cleanly separated different forms of brand expertise have grown porous. Time was, R&D folk made products, management consultants advised CEOs, design firms drew pictures, architects built structures, ad agencies made ads, etc. With "branding" encompassing and the Internet collapsing these and other activities, it stands to reason that branding companies are extending tentacles into more than one of these areas.

I still remember the start I got when Internet ad pioneer Mark Kvamme told me the last five interactive advertising account reviews he'd been in had included IBM Corp. or Microsoft Corp., or both. This was 1998. Imagine what such reviews look like now.

What does this have to do with the Messner shop? From its start 15 years ago, when it overturned the reigning art director-copy chief-account man paradigm of agency leadership and positioning in favor of a balanced partnership model, this agency has been willing to rethink and reconstruct its place in the marketing complex. Today, with management newly concentrated in a single CEO, it's rethinking the role of agencies themselves. As CEO Ron Berger says, "Agencies have got to be intermediaries between marketers and audiences in the entertainment economy."

This qualifies as a big idea-as big, in its way, as Bernbach's inspiration to join writers and designers into creative teams, the better to craft holistic, attractive, consumer-centered advertising. For by defining the entertainment economy as the canvas, consumers as an audience and the agency as an intermediary, Mr. Berger is affirming that communication and consumption are part of a complex ecosystem-and that companies like his have a broad advisory role to play in it that stretches well beyond the creation of ads.

Consider what Messner did recently for Hallmark. Answering a call from the greeting card marketer's CEO, the agency developed an analytical framework for the brand that uncovered several new product and service areas that fit Hallmark's values, and into which the company could profitably move. At the top was the flower-delivery business.

Good agencies have long been involved in identifying new brands, brand positions and extensions. But Messner took the Hallmark job a long step further. "We also developed a new business model for the flower business that would be up to Hallmark's standards, and which took advantage of new technologies and delivery capabilities," Mr. Berger told me. "And of course, we also showed how all this could be communicated." The result: Hallmark's new flower business is in five test markets.

Whether this project succeeds or not, the Messner agency is establishing itself as one of the new hybrid strategist/communicators that will survive the latest ad industry evolution. "Now," says Ron Berger, "everyone is being forced to look at the world differently." Yes, but only the winners understand what they're seeing.

Copyright March 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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