It’s tough making a name for yourself in this business. This old world of marketing can be a ruthless place, full of unforgiving clients and even less forgiving competitors. Some companies spend years slaving away, attempting to bring themselves to the attention of larger clients with little or no luck. Others don’t.
Take Merle, for example. Based in Glasgow’s Sky Park, the agency counted Highland Spring and Wiseman Dairies amongst its founding clients and has built on that rock-solid foundation with a stream of business wins that must have turned several rivals green with envy.
It’s been five years since the company was born from the ashes of Morgan, the larger Glasgow agency originally named The Morgan Partnership and which, in its heyday, employed more than 100 staff.
Named after the old Scots word for a blackbird, Morgan believes rising like a pheonix was good for the company.
“It was good that we had a metamorphosis because, although we had staff that unfortunately had to go, we were left with a core of good clients and good people,” says John Morgan, Merle’s chief executive.
“What’s happened is you’ve got a smaller company and a different approach. We were the biggest agency in Scotland for a couple of months. But what did it do for us? It did nothing for us.”
Morgan [the agency] had operated on the principle of building a base of huge clients and employing a small army of staff to work on them. When it regrouped, Merle slowed the pace down, working closely with a smaller base of core clients and attempting to really get ‘under the skin’ of these companies.
The agency would abandon the more traditional positioning of an ‘ad agency’ and replace it with an approach which focused more closely on brand strategy.
Diane Lurie, planning director at Merle, explains: “One of the key things we do is try and build rapport. Not all clients are for us, and we’re not for all clients and we’re quite glad about that.
“What we want is to create good work and the way to do that is to have a really good relationship with your clients. That way they’ll trust you more but also they’ll tell you more, which enables you to get under the surface. I’d say we have quite intimate working relationships with our clients, so they’re able to tell us things that they might not particularly want to share, but it means that we might see a nugget in there that helps us define who they are or who they want to be.”
This philosophy has led the agency to help Highland Spring become the second largest bottled water brand in the UK, behind only Evian. It’s a doubly-sweet success story for Highland Spring when taking into account that the company spends only around 12 percent as much on marketing than Evian’s parent company Danone.
For garden centre chain Dobbies, the agency has been hard at work re-defining the public’s perceptions of exactly what a garden centre actually is, promoting the variety of different lifestyle products which Dobbies stocks. So far, Merle’s strategy has successfully attracted a younger target market to the company’s centres.
Past Merle triumphs for Wiseman Dairies have included naming the company’s 1 percent fat milk, The One, as well as designing the product’s packaging and creating advertising.
More recently the agency has been commissioned to handle all of the advertising for Macdonald Hotels and Resorts, numbering over 60 resorts throughout the UK, as well as promoting the company’s overall brand. This was followed by a win from Tiso, the chain of outdoor goods shops.
Tiso tasked Merle with launching its e-commerce website in September, and, following the success of this project, appointed the agency at the close of the year to promote its brand throughout the country.
Another newcomer has been TSC, the UK-wide call centre company, which recruited Merle to reposition its brand.
However, perhaps the most unusual of the agency’s newer clients is Orajel. The American brand, which will soon be available over the counter in Boots, Asda and Tesco stores, offers fast relief from toothache.
While the early marketing for the brand is centred around the trade, raising the profile amongst supermarkets and pharmacies, future activity will involve promoting the brand to the general public.
“What we’ve got here is a real brand nucleus and we really do believe that has a much more important role to play than it did ten years ago,” says Morgan.
“When you consider clients like Highland Spring and Dobbies, there are brand stories to be told in there and very successful brand stories, at that.”
“If you start with a good strategy then many other things follow,” adds Lurie. “It’s something that we’re really concentrating on and it’s for the benefit of everyone. I feel that the market has come round to what we’re offering.”
“What people want are ideas that have longevity. Strategic ideas, and from that, creative ideas that they feel they can apply whenever they want to. That’s what we’re good at doing.
“They give us carte blanche by sayingâ€š this is the situation we’re in, this is where we want to go. Can you give us a route map and sum up the path we need to go? And that’s what we love doing. It’s really the investment in strategy and the creative work that makes us happy, whether it’s TV, or a brochure or a sales promotion idea.”
Another part of the agency’s approach over the past five years has been to avoid the limelight, something that Morgan states is much easier to do on the West coast than the East.
“We’re very happy to be in Glasgow. The Edinburgh scene is a lot more incestuous and they pay a lot more attention to what everyone else is doing,” he says. “We don’t spend a lot of time on that. We just want to develop what we’re doing and we’re quite quiet about that. The market itself is not something that we pay a lot of attention to.”
It’s been a common complaint in recent years that Scotland is continually losing business to the industry south of the border, with several of the country’s largest-spending client companies choosing to shop in London for their marketing needs. Morgan, however, is not convinced that this is as big a problem as it once was.
“There’s been the normal hobby horse which comes up every now and then about Scottish companies taking their advertising south and not finding what they want up here. I don’t think that’s so much the case now,” he says.
“We don’t see it as a problem and I think there’s plenty business up here. I think any time we go into a situation where we’re looking at national business there’s never any issue about the geography of it. I think there’s a better quality coming out of Scotland now than there was.”
The agency now employs a team of 24, and the directors are keen to see that it doesn’t grow too much more than that. Morgan states that 30 is the round-off figure in terms of staff, with any more than that creating the need to win business merely to be feeding mouths.
Merle - as an agency - is keen to ensure that it doesn’t get into the situation of having its destiny decided by any one client, and this is supported by Morgan’s hesitance in answering which are the agency’s biggest clients. He says, “If you look at the spread of clients we’ve got, they’re all key.
“Highland Spring and Wiseman, for instance, are ones that were there right from the beginning, but they’re very key to the agency.
The biggest significant wins have been Dobbies and Macdonald, but I don’t think it would be fair to separate them out. Some of them spend a lot of money, whereas others would be strategically quite supportive from our point of view. Tiso is one that we’ve just picked up. We’ve just started off with that, they’re recently into the fold but they’re going to be very important going forward. I think they’re all important.”
Despite its relatively low profile, Merle’s combination of national business and solid clients should continue to turn its rivals green for some time to come.