Raising the creative bar for 60 brands

Steve’s breakdown: Virgin is taking a second look at every brand under the company name. Brand director Lisa Thomas is the lead contact to discuss any creative projects.

NEW YORK, NY & LONDON, UK: Virgin is embarking on a group-wide review of its advertising output to “raise the creative bar” across over 60 of its different brands. This doesn’t mean agencies will face the chop, but they will be under a microscope as brand director Lisa Thomas looks at how the company will “push its creative voice” over the coming years.

The news comes a little over two years after Thomas moved from agency side to the top marketing job at Virgin. She’s already overhauled its ‘masterbrand’ guidelines and is now looking at exactly which elements of Virgin drive customer engagement and, more importantly, how all the different businesses interact within their branding and marketing activities.

She told The Drum that as a result she is planning a wider review of the creative output across its plethora of brands to gauge effectiveness and how well it brings connects with the other brands under the Virgin umbrella.

“One of our strands of work this year is raising the creative bar. We have been very good at tactical work, but there’s an opportunity to think more strategically about how we build the brand,” she explained.

“That sits within the chief marketing officers of each of the businesses, but we are really starting to think about how we deliver innovation and really exciting creative work and how we really push our creative voice.”

Thomas stressed that this review will not necessarily result in any changes to its ad agency roster, although its agencies will be under closer scrutiny.

It’s already consolidated the creative accounts for Virgin Holidays and Virgin Atlantic into AMV BBDO as it looks to “deliver greater creative synergy between the two brands” while Virgin Media – the eighth biggest advertiser in the UK in terms of spend – has worked with BBH London for the past seven years.

Thomas said that she’s encouraging the individual brand chief marketing officers across the group to “think differently” about the relationships they forge with ad land’s biggest agencies.

The marketer spent much of her career on the other side of the table, rising from account director at Wunderman to group chief executive at M&C Saatchi and most recently chairman at Lida.

“My pet [peeve] is that creative agencies have been as they are for a long time. They’ve been the top of the tree in agency land for so long and there’s a bit of arrogance in that. They’ve struggled to embrace what they would consider to be the slightly inferior: data and digital,” she said.

“They’ve become so big and have such an entrenched way of working that they’ve really struggled to adapt to how quickly brands are thinking about how they evolve and change. It’s really tough. A lot of agencies – not all – are big and committed to a way of doing things, and are really struggling to manage the commercial model and innovate at the same time.”

It’s for this reason that Virgin has been investing heavily in its in-house advertising department across the business and although there’s no immediate plans to fully in-house its creative work, Thomas said she wants to see agencies “evolve to be able to think more broadly about how they answer challenges that meet the business needs”.

“This ‘raising the creative bar’ project is about how we promote that kind of thinking,” she said.

One model that’s being looked at with a mixture of interest and trepidation is that of Proctor & Gamble. The world’s biggest advertiser revealed last month a ‘People First’ model, which brings together teams from rival holding groups Publicis, WPP and Omnicom under the same roof as one single creative agency to service its North American fabric business.

It’s part of a much wider drive to “reinvent” agency relationships and put the focus back on creativity.

“If they can make it work it’s interesting,” Thomas said, however warned that in her experience, these sorts of “experiments” fall flat when the loudest voice in the room ends up leading the brief, rather than it living up to the promise of the best talent coming together in collaboration.

“But [the agency model] is ripe for experimentation and brands should definitely try new things.”

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