Initiative repositions as 'cultural branding' agency

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 19 May 2017

Initiative has repositioned its focus to help clients drive cultural branding in a bold move that aims to mix short-term performance with long-term strategic outcomes.

The agency, which unveiled the rebrand and its new leadership team to trade press yesterday, says it wants to redefine how clients go to market with a heavier focus on brand building in a culturally relevant way.

This aims to challenge the cancer of short-termism that is increasingly shackling marketing to short-term results at the expense of brand health initiatives.

This doesn't mean ditching performance altogether, but rather a more balanced approach that combines short-term success with long-term marketing outcomes which have been forgotten in recent times.

“The core essence is how we start to help grow brands,” Initiative CEO Melissa Fein said.

“There's been a lot of pieces written around short-termism and agencies going into transactional-led relationships on how we transact our clients' spend and the relationships that we have.

“[My approach] is probably opposite to that. Client relationships are first and foremost absolutely pivotal and as a group we are very passionate about growing clients' brands. This is very close to my heart.”

Melissa Fein

Initative Australia CEO Melissa Fein.

The new direction was conceived by Initiative global CEO Mat Baxter in New York. Australia is one of the first markets to roll it out.

Fein, who has only been at the helm of the agency since November, said she was immediately hooked by the vision when Baxter presented it to her.

“We're now about seven months into that journey and we've got the team that we want,” she added.

“We're starting to see some some success and we've been on a few pitches since we started.”

Examples of this include winning Pizza Hut media account, which went to market to further extricate the brand from its former parent company Yum. Initiative's Perth operation, led by Clive Bingwa, also won Murdoch University, which Fein said “loved the new positioning that they saw”.

Fein says Initiative doesn't want to be an agency that “works with transactionally-led clients”.
“All of our clients have been open [to this approach] in some shape or form. Our clients that have been more traditional have said 'great, we'll take this just this component and make it work'.”

Initiative chief strategy officer Tristan Burrell explained the cultural branding approach isn't a one-size-fits-all for clients, rather it's a spectrum.

“It doesn't mean every campaign we do is going to be some huge cultural disruption, award-winning thing,” Burrell said.
"Cultural branding could just take us down to an interesting micro-culture targeted audience or a certain time of year to focus on or a certain day of the week.

“The outlook can be what on paper looks like a traditional media plan but is just more culturally informed and showing up in more considered places in more considered ways.”

Giving marketers a stronger voice

Trying to shift the needle back towards longer term thinking is a noble idea and, undoubtedly, would drive better business outcomes.

But for this to happen requires marketers to exert more influence over budgetary decision-making, which increasingly is being driven by accountants looking to curb costs.

Mediabrands Australia CEO Danny Bass told the room Initiative would try to help CMOs rediscover their voice at the boardroom.

“I'm yet to meet a marketer that says 'I'm not interested in growing my brand'. We as an industry face challenges where budgets are being cut at boardroom level where marketers no longer have a voice or have the same voice they used to have,” he said.

“That's not beneficial for anyone, whether it be media agencies, creative agencies, media owners. We need more education around marketing, growing brands and the growth that gives to a business.

“When a decision has been made looking at the P&L and a CEO a CFO or a COO, which more often than not it is, we need to make sure marketing has a show business that it's not just a utility expense like electricity or anything like that. This grows your business."

Bass explained the industry needs to move away from short-termism, so that conversations about reducing media budgets and expecting the same results shift to increasing the budget and proving the benefits this gives to business.

“This new positioning gives us a different conversation...certainly the machine gun approach that agencies have taken in the past of 'let's pitch for everything' doesn't make sense [for us],” he added.

How are they going to do this?

Initiative has recruited talent to several key positions in the past year to inject new skills and a fresh mindset – jokingly referred to as the 'media avengers team'.

Aside from Fein, the business hired Burrell to drive strategy and creative Michael Stanford as chief client solutions officer. Stanford has previously worked as creative director of Ten's branded entertainment division as well as GPY&R and McCann.

Shaun Briggs was recruited from Dentsu Mitchell to lead Initiative's Melbourne office.

In Sydney, John Dawson will lead Initiative's communications design division, Andrew Cambridge is head of digital and Ian Smith is head of partnerships.

The only 'old timer' presenting Initiative's new vision was chief operating officer Geoff Clarke.

These recruits will lead the four divisions in which Initiative plans to help clients drive cultural branding: sports partnerships, communications design, strategy and content partnerships.

The agency will also restructure how it operates to move towards a client team approach, where resources are built around client needs. This means having resources from support businesses like Cadreon, Society and Ansible sit within client teams rather than drawing on them from different parts of Mediabrands on a needs basis.

“Not every client needs a mobile specialist or a client specialist, but for those that do that's exactly what they'll have. The people who work on the client will have access to the right people, the right tech and everything else,” Bass explained.

“Someone might be employed by Society but will be located within Initiative on a specific clients. What the client wont see is seven different logos.”

This recognises the fact that many clients are increasingly frustrated at dealing with too many agency partner contact points.

This doesn't mean support businesses will be broken up; Cadreon's 120-strong workforce, which pretty much occupies a whole level of Mediabrands HQ, will still sit together where they can power thinking and activation for the group.

Initiative no longer sits within the Mediabrands mothership, it recently shut its 'blue door' to move offices to a new 'blue house' down the road.

It's another step towards giving Initiative its own look and feel, away from its larger stablemate UM.

Initiative – the cultural branding agency – has now launched. Time will tell if it succeeds in driving longer term thinking in marketing.


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