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Post-megamerger, agencies must take their own brand as seriously as their clients’

By Joe Daniels, Strategic Director



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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November 15, 2023 | 7 min read

Joe Daniels of agency brand and positioning shop Treacle issues a call to arms for agencies everywhere to treat their brand as they would their clients’.

A man in a labcoat at a computer in front of a curtain

How are agency brands like doctors' white coats? / National Cancer Institute via Unsplash

The agency world has recently found itself in the middle of a scandal. Or at least you’d think that based on people’s reactions. The scandal in question is about the merger of two of holding company WPP’s agency brands: Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R.

All the gory details have been laid out elsewhere in The Drum. But cast your eye out over LinkedIn, agency forums, and Slack channels and you’ll find the discourse isn’t about the nitty-gritty business details. No, save that for the likes of McKinsey (oops, another scandal).

Most of the conversation revolves around the brands in question. The WPP merger may keep the businesses involved alive, but the brands have been stabbed in the back, dumped in the river, and won’t be seen again.

Which begs the question: For all their talk of brand power, why don’t agencies protect their own?

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Yes: Brand is important

Hopefully I don’t need to spell out why brand is such a powerful driver of growth. You get it. It builds trust and credibility, it improves market perception, it’s intrinsically linked with marketing and sales, it helps you stand out. Blah blah blah. We all know this stuff.

Or at least, I thought we did.

But this brand-killing merger is just the tip of the iceberg. All kinds of agencies fall into the same trap. They preach the importance of maintaining your brand but fail to practice it. They dish out the medicine yet fail to take it.

This results in two detrimental effects. One: agencies all look and sound the same. Every agency blends in with all the others. Two: agencies don’t look even remotely credible. And if an agency lacks a brand that stands out and inspires, why would clients trust them to do it for their brand?

Your agency is the brand

Let’s be clear about the differences between most brands and agencies. Whereas most brands are built around a product, agencies are built around a service. This might not sound important, but it’s the reason that brand is arguably more important for agencies.

If you’re selling a product, then a brand is a great way to differentiate it, to make sure it’s noticed, and to convey more than the basic functionality. But ultimately a lot of products kind of sell themselves. The brand is a nice bow on top.

Agencies don’t have the luxury of separating brand and product. The agency is the product. The agency is the brand. So it’s vital that the brand and ‘product’ work together in perfect harmony.

You know how doctors, scientists, and all-round boffins wear lab coats? They don’t do that because they all have the same weird fashion sense. They do it because it helps them be perceived as experts. Their lab coat is part of their brand and it changes patients’ perception of them.

Well, your agency has a lab coat too. Its logo, its website, its personality. And if your agency’s lab coat is torn and tattered, clients won’t trust that you’re the experts. That makes selling hard.

You talk the talk, now walk the walk

For most agencies, their own brand is like the cobbler’s shoes. It’s always the last thing on your mind. You have clients to help, fires to put out. You’re always working in your business and not on it. I get it, it’s tough.

But it’s not impossible. Once you shift your mindset and realize that your agency’s brand is the most important brand you’ll ever work on, you’ll find the time. You’ll prioritize it.

Failing that, bring in external experts to help you get your brand in tip-top condition. It’s one of the best investments you can make for your agency’s growth.

Failing that, just wear a lab coat.

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