Tear Down the Agency Wall

Taking a Page From JFK's 1963 Berlin Speech, a Call to Marketers to Direct Their Own Brand Strategy

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Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
In the aftermath of WWII, the Soviets built a wall around Berlin, dividing its community from those around it and defining how it would interact with the world. Similarly, many agencies today have encircled their client marketing departments with a particular viewpoint on the proper way to engage with their communities; these walls are built of ideas and technology instead of politics and barbed wire, but they're no less real. So I imagined President John F. Kennedy speaking to one such constrained brand in 2011, much as he did in his famous speech in Berlin in 1963. The phrasing is his, but the adaptation is mine ... with apologies to him, everyone who has ever lived in Berlin, and anyone who knows anything about Cold War history:

"I am proud to come to your brand as a guest of a marketing department that has symbolized the fighting spirit of your business. Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was "civis Romanus sum." Today, in the world of marketing, the proudest boast is "Ich bin ein brand."

There are many people in the agency world who really don't understand, though they say they do, what is the great issue between you and your consumers. Let them come to your brand and listen, instead of telling you what you should know.

There are some who say that engagement is the wave of the future. Let them come to your brand and see what a real balance sheet looks like.

And there are some who say, in publications such as this and elsewhere, we must work with agencies on their turf. Let them come to your brand and discover that you're connecting with you consumers far beyond their most brilliant creative conceits.

And there are even a few who still say that it is true that we should give things away for free, because it permits us to make economic progress.

Lass' sie nach brand kommen. Let them come to your brand.

Freedom has many difficulties and communities are not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep ideas in -- or to prevent them from leaving us. I want to say on behalf of consumers who live far away from your latest social-engagement campaign, that they take the greatest interest, that they have been able to share with each other, even from a distance, your brand. I know of no funny viral campaign, page full of friends, or other agency program that lives with the vitality and the meaning, and the relevance, and the utility of this reality.

The agency wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the marketing system -- for all the world to see -- we take no satisfaction in it; for it is, as your CMO has said, only a sliver of the truth, only a mistaken focus on the medium of communication and not its messaging, separating content from meaning, dividing your brand into ever-finer programs and campaigns and other agency tactics that make it harder to understand and control without their involvement and approval.

What is true of your brand is the reality of its experience: Real, lasting brand strength can never be assured as long as you live in fear of disappointing your agency; fear of not believing what it tells you is true; fear of failing to do what it tells you to do. In accomplishing the hard work of operating a business, your brand has earned the right to be free, including the right to direct your brand strategy, and to affirm the principles that matter across your enterprise (and not presume to dictate new principles to them).

You live in a defended island of marketing, but your brand is part of the main. So let me ask you, as I close, to lift your eyes beyond the glib social campaigns of today, to the hopes of contributing to, and participating in, the conversations of tomorrow, beyond the freedom merely of promoting your brand, to the advancement of substance and truth with it, about it, and around it, beyond the wall to the communities of reality, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.

Community is indivisible, and when one campaign enslaves with silly ideas or no purpose but to entertain, your brand is not free. Only when we realize that everything your business does is part of the conversation that is your brand, then we can look forward to that day when this brand will be joined as one. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of this marketing department can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines.

All -- all free men and women, wherever they may live, are citizens of your brand. And, therefore, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein brand."

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at dimbulb.net and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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