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Family Firms

By The Drum | Administrator

July 28, 2005 | 8 min read

Advertising legend David Ogilvy once said: “If the client hems and sighs, make his logo twice the size, if he should still prove refractory, show a picture of his factory, but only in the direst cases, should you show your client’s faces.” It’s easy to pass off clients in ads as megalomania, but what’s it like actually being the agency that has to deal with the family head as a client?

Sixty-nine per cent of Scotland’s firms are family owned, so by the law of averages, every Scottish ad agency is likely to work on a family firm’s account at some point, so what is it actually like and how do they differ from other private and public companies?

Writing this feature was like doing an objective analysis on the Mafia. Everyone who’s ever worked with a family firm was happy to extol the virtues of the relaxed attitude to procurement, fast decisions and passion. But when it came to horror stories, trying to find someone who was willing to go on the record was like to trying to find someone who hadn’t heard about the Michael Jackson trial.

The two traumatised sources we did manage to convince to share their experiences, said – when asked if they’d be named – “No way. Scotland is such a small place, you just don’t want to burn your bridges.”

One man’s poison and all that, Levy McCallum has specialised in working with family firms, having worked on Dunn’s Food and Drinks, Maryhill Carpets and, currently, Tunnock’s. Roy McCallum’s experiences have been nothing but positive. “We prefer them because you get very quick decisions from family firms,” he says. “If you produce a campaign that’s sparkling, they’re quick to tell you to run with it; but if you produce a campaign that’s less than sparkling, then they’re just as quick to tell you that.”

He hasn’t experienced – or wouldn’t share – any nightmare experiences but said: “We have been fortunate in that we’ve not experienced any of the horror where family firms have imploded.”

Familial tension and sibling personality clashes aside, many agencies spoke of the passion they felt emanating from family firms. “There’s a different quality to working with a family business, if you’re dealing with family members direct,” says Ian McAteer, managing director at The Union, which counts Baxters and Sterling Furniture among its clients. “There’s more intimacy in terms of your relationship. You feel the responsibility in what you do more deeply. If you work with a plc, the ownership is more remote and you feel that. You feel it when you look at costs. This is their own money so there is an element of they’ve not got where they are without being canny entrepreneurs.”

McAteer agrees with McCallum that quick decision-making is a good thing and can result in great work. “Sometimes the decision-making is much braver,” he says. “It’s gut instinct; in a big corporate that decision is much more researched.”

That ‘gut reaction’ and decisiveness can often not be much fun for the marketers in the middle. One senior marketer we spoke to worked at a family firm for two years, before becoming frustrated with the ‘tokenism’ of their role. “I came from an FMCG organisation, which was process-based and had a support structure, to a very large turnover food company,” they said. “One of the problems was there was no internal support structure. There was no established documentation; the marketing plan was in the owner’s head. Trying to bring marketing disciplines into that environment was incredibly tough as the person who owned the company had a very clear view of what they wanted and your ability to rationalise is gone. The lack of discussion was a problem; there was a definite ‘just bloody do it’ culture.”

The owner having such a strong viewpoint has its positives – in terms of quick decisions – but what happens when they have strong views about payment. Another source told us that they’d experienced real resistance from a retail client. “We worked with a family retailer for quite a few years,” they said. “For that time, they had the same buyer who was in charge of overall marketing. They just kept cutting the budget year, on year, on year. They brought people in who weren’t interested in doing any brand-ownership stuff. There was no interest in any quality advertising, it was ‘pile-’em-high’ advertising. This brand should be an absolute joy to do advertising on, but they just don’t believe in doing high-quality advertising.”

The clients that do believe in quality advertising, however, often want to create the ads. When David Reid, managing director at 1576, took on the McLellands Cheese account, the agency inherited the company’s owners’ – the Irvine brothers – own ad campaign. “They were very proud of their own campaign, and to be fair it had been quite successful for getting trade listing,” he says. “I don’t think it was a consumer platform, myself. There were certain things we were suggesting that they didn’t want to do where we had creative differences. Ultimately that’s where, at the end of the day, they have the decision, because it’s their money.”

Reid doesn’t think family firms are any different when it comes to financial transparency, if anything they are more willing to invest. “We’ve never had to say to Walkers, McLellands or Drambuie ‘spend more money’,” he says. “I think the level of control from an owner-managed business is much more intensified because they’re in on everything. Every little decision is fundamental, which is good and bad. When it gets too involved in the creative process it can get too much. I think being a marketing director for a family firm must be doubly tough, because I think a family firm are more likely to go on subjectivity and gut reaction than, say, a bank or somebody. They’re probably going to look at it in a more logical point of view. I think sometimes it must be pretty difficult for brand managers. I’m not suggesting that the brand managers that we worked with found it gruelling in any way, but I think it must come with its own set of challenges.” The senior marketer agreed. “The creative process was even more difficult,” they said. “There was no creative brief, it was a ‘chat’. They didn’t understand marketing dynamics. It was ‘I want to make an ad’. They didn’t care about demographics or who the audience was, which made the evaluation process impossible. I really felt for the agency.”

You would also have to feel for the agency that wants to change the brand’s identity, if, say, it’s become old-fashioned and twee, because essentially you’re criticising the family. “The conversations like that are very grown-up,” says Ian McAteer, managing director of The Union, who has worked on family firms, Baxters and Sterling Furniture. “Sometimes the perception is that the brand – and therefore the family – is old-fashioned when actually it’s not. They’re not running a successful business by accident, the reality is, in the majority of cases, the person running the company is of a similar age and has worked in different sectors, such as Audrey [Baxter] who worked in the City.” Reid agrees. “You have to have some research to back up your claim,” he says. “Otherwise it’s like me walking up to you and saying, ‘I hate what you’re wearing’.”

Family firms often have a more relaxed attitude to procurement. Many reject the conventional ways of appointing an agency preferring instead relationships, as Reid found out. “Quite often nowadays, it’s the norm to get eight agencies to send in their credentials,” says Reid, “do a shortlist of four, get them all to do a creative pitch, go round their office and see how big it is, then make a decision. I think with family firms a lot of it is, ‘do I like this person, can I trust this person, yes or no’. McLellands have been the only family firm that has approached us, the others we went to. I think private companies are less bothered about going through a system like Procter & Gamble.”

Reid believes that all family firms are very astute, something our marketing source agreed with. They believe they were hired partly to show that the company was serious about expansion. “It’s not really about what you do, but how you’re perceived from the outside,” they say. “They wanted an experienced marketer so they could say to their customers, ‘We have a very professional and experienced team’. In my case, I think it was a matter of smoke and mirrors. It didn’t matter that I was sitting there not being allowed to do my job. Let’s just say I saw the bigger gameplan when I left.”

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