Simon Bolton, Worldwide CEO of The Brand Union: “Storytelling is the most critical part of our business now”**

Mr. Simon Bolton, a silver-haired noble English gentleman, who dedicated a few decades of his life to the advertising industry, met with us on a chilly Tuesday morning earlier this week to talk about TBU’s business plans in Moscow, to discuss opportunities and threats from the latest Publicis-Omnicom merger for WPP, and to share his vision of a sustainable brand.

Photo: Simon Bolton, Worldwide CEO of TBU
Photo: Simon Bolton, Worldwide CEO of TBU

—Probably, the hottest topic in the advertising industry this week is the latest Publicis-Omnicom merger. How would you comment on this? What opportunities or threats for WPP does this deal bring?

—It is clear that the joint Publicis-Omnicom will greatly influence and define the industry rate card. Of course, they can set it down or try to hold it, or slow down the speed with which the rate cards and fees grow within the industry. Previously, WPP was the largest media buyer in the world having 1 in 3 TV spots around the world. Now we will have a new company that is going to have a significant buying power that would be extremely potent in terms of competition.

Regarding the negative sides of this deal, I hugely doubt if there is a real benefit for clients, if they get more choice. Secondly, what will happen to the brands and talent within those organizations? Would they feel comfortable in the new environment, or probably leave? Third off, some clients may feel that they are not consulted well enough. So from WPP’s point of view, we see the opportunities to acquire some talent and gain some clients that would feel destabilised.

 —Every quarter, global media and research companies evaluate the advertising market volume —the ad spend. Do they include expenditures on branding and design in calculations? Why don’t we see a separate research on branding market volume on the global scale?

—I don’t think there is any scientific way of measuring that market. We’ve got rate cards and media units in the advertising industry—so we can easily track the ad spend. However, it does not apply to branding. At WPP, we have several design businesses, so we internally do the benchmarking to keep track of the rates and the market volume.

Let’s imagine that the company “A” did the rebrand. But what do we mean under the cost of the rebrand? Do we mean the money spent on fees for the logo? Or all the changes in their stationery? Or the change on their website? Or ad spend? Or the amount they spent on the refurbishment of their retail shops? It is quite difficult to define exactly the cost of the rebrand. Thus, no transparent measurement system can be applied.

—In recent years, the “positioning vs storytelling” dilemma has been widely discussed in the industry, as well as the death of branding as we know it. On a conceptual level, what tools does TBU use to be good at storytelling, when traditional visual attributes of branding (i. e. graphic design, brand identity etc.) are becoming less important to the consumer?

—Storytelling must be the most critical part of our business now. In ten years industry has changed a lot. Clients used to come along and say: “I want a new logo design for my brand. I want it to look fresh.” It was a common mindset—a change for the sake of change, as if change of color could recreate the excitement and energy around the brand. Now, the story is the centerpoint around which a brand builds its strategy—and not only for the next month, but for 10-20 years.

In terms of branding tools, we previously used semiotics and visual identity itself. Now the responsibility of the branding agency is to think far more deeply—to create engagement and many touch points.

Our industry is converging along with lots of other service suppliers— whether with marketing agencies, or PR companies, or digital agencies. So we have to develop the new tools. Now we do more of envisioning as opposed to “can you just change something”.

Last year, we re-defined ourselves around the whole topic of experience—and now it’s on our website. Every time you have an encounter, the brand pinches you and you get an experience from that—whether bad or good. So TBU developed a new framework called the Imprint tool. You take a look at the brand in the real-time moment: you look at the north, south, east, west, see the key dynamics to that brand—and you get an impression of that brand, you get the picture. You look at that picture and ask what are the strengths of that brand, what’s its innovation capability?And then define where you as a brand want to be. So, now branding is much more scientific, strategic and considered. I think that agency that dies is the agency that answers the brief. While the agency that lives, is the one that goes beyond the point and looks at things deeply and far more widely.

—One of your long-standing and biggest global clients is JTI, the tobacco company that produces cigarettes—a product proved to cause cancer. How does that affect JTI’s sustainability and ethical principles? What’s your vision of sustainable branding?

—How can you prove sustainability of a brand? All brand owners make mistakes, and if the brand is powerful, it will get forgiveness. Let’s take Apple. When they launch new products that are not as great as those they had in the past, they still retain loyalty. For me that is the absolute core point of strength of the brand—it can achieve forgiveness when it screws up. On the other side, sustainable brands are those who can see their future far ahead, gradually evolve over time, creating new value. Think of Wells Fargo. Over 150 years ago they were just a small American courier company. Now they are one of the world’s largest banks. So what a long journey the brand had made! Another example is IBM. Twenty years ago they were into hardware, now they provide intelligence solutions, analysis, they contribute to a smarter planet.

—And what does it have to do with sustainability?

—Everything. Think of that as a high ground intellectual point. If we talk about sustainability in terms of growing health issues, new farming techniques etc, the same principle applies here. We live in a less tolerant, more mature and more sophisticated society, where has been much more knowledge about tobacco smoking and its impact on health. Answering your question about JTI, yes, they are a highly ethical company of the Japanese provenance. As an organization, they have one of the highest rates of employee satisfaction and very high ethical standards. Being a cigarette manufacturing company, JT in Japan is also a huge food company that operates in agribusiness.

 — It’s been 3 years since the company opened the Moscow branch. Has it been a success?

—Truthfully, we’re now looking at how we can invest in Russia and Moscow to build up business more. And investments could be made either in more people and a new office space, or refining our offer in the market, or a possible M&A. I think we’re going to look at both roots. It all started just 3 year ago when a French man (Ismael Ibnoulouafi, founder of TBU Paris—Ed.) was managing a two-people team, now it is headed by Oleg (Kuzmin—Ed.), and it is a 4-people team now.

 —Do you think the political situation in the country is safe enough to invest in the extension of your business in Russia? Think of the Navalny’s case—a protest leader sentenced to 5 years in prison earlier this month.

—I may be not that well informed of the latest political news in Russia, but anyway, it’s not Iran… Of course, Russia has got its internal challenges as a country that’s going through a maturing process. In terms of economic development, Russia is a stable region, safe for investment—and I’m not employing a strategy of greed here. I consider it a stable market full of ambitious opportunities. Its economy is mainly built on oil and gas, it shows a continuous growth in GDP index—and we see no signs of instability caused by political risks. That’s why we need to be there. I think it is a safe and exciting place to do business.

* Updated on August 6, 2013, 08.25 am.

** Updated on August 12, 12.32 pm. The headline was changed by request from TBU.