• Transform magazine
  • June 16, 2019

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The simple life at Siegel+Gale

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As global brand strategy agency Siegel+Gale gears up for the autumn publication of its annual Global Brand Simplicity Index, Transform magazine catches up with co-CEO and chief creative officer Howard Belk.

Howard Belk is not an unassuming man. Over 1.9m tall with great hair and a beard that only a creative director can sport, his entrances command attention. He’s been with Siegel+Gale for 10 years and with parent company Omnicom for 15, since selling them his corporate reporting firm, Belk Mignona in 1999. A stint at Omnicom sister agency Interbrand followed in 2002, before Alan Siegel targeted him to join the agency he founded in 1969.

His admiration for Alan Siegel  is striking, “It was extraordinary. Alan completely nurtured us. He plucked David Srere [co-CEO and chief strategy officer] and me out of Omnicom. He first put us in charge of New York. Then he made us co-presidents, then co-CEOs and then he retired. It was an eight-year grooming process. He was like a father figure to both David and I and there’s a lot of very authentic love there.”

Siegel first developed his brand simplicity ideology in 1976 and it has been central to the agency’s positioning ever since. Belk, when asked whether there were times, perhaps when a client doesn’t have a good story, to give into the temptation to dress it up with a complex narrative, responded, “No, never. Never. That kind of approach will always backfire. If a company doesn’t have a good story then you really have to take a look at its business. For some companies it’s not so much that they don’t have a good story but that obfuscation is a key part of their business model. Those aren’t the kind of clients we want to work for, those are the clients we walk away from.”

There are a number of sectors that S+G sees as poorly suited to its simplicity mantra. “You’ll run in to it in certain kinds of industries. Insurance for example or finance. Car rentals are a good example – where they don’t want you to realise all the things you’re going to be charged for. Their business model depends on the confusion with all those ancillary charges. It’s not so much that we’ll walk away from it, but because we will always advocate transparency and clarity, and we’re always very clear and upfront about that, there’s a kind of self-selection that happens. If there’s a client that’s cynical about that then there is no way they’re going to hire us,” says Belk.

This attitude has been consistent, even over the past five years, despite the global downturn. Belk is dismissive about agencies that he says have compromised their positioning. “The point that they do that is the point they lose their way. And really it’s the road to perdition. What I think, what I saw in that whole shake-out was that some firms came out in good shape and others less so. The ones that suffered the most were firms that didn’t have a brand of their own. They didn’t have an identity. There was no clarity around who they were and why a client should hire them. Particularly firms that had no strategic capability,” he says.

Belk is keen to praise the agencies whose identity he admires; and equally happy to damn those who don’t share his ideology. “Wolff Olins – ‘game changers,’ it’s clear. Interbrand – ‘brand value.’ I mean that was an idea a client could put right there and say ‘I want that’ or ‘That’s not right for us now.’ Firms that didn’t have that clear idea I think really suffered. Brand Union doesn’t have that and I think they struggled during that period. FutureBrand, they had an idea, and it was a great idea, but they’ve slightly lost their way.”

Like many of his peers, Belk feels that the digital agencies are the ones to watch. “It’s an interesting time right now with digital. Because that’s how brands are happening. You’ve got firms who have historically been around digital and experiences and who are realising these are the defining features of the brand and so they’re moving towards the brand space. So you’ve got companies like RGA who are big in the States and doing more in Europe, Frog who are moving towards brand.”

What is questionable, in Belk’s eyes, is whether the digital agencies can attract the right people. “The question is do their people really want to be there. Because you can’t just impose that on the talent.”

He doesn’t just see this as an issue for digital agencies. “The ad agencies are talking a big game about being multi-dimensional. All the big ones, you know. Ogilvy, BBDO, AMV. But what is interesting is what does their talent want to do. In Omnicom we’ve got some of the best ad agencies in the world. But when it gets beyond the brand strategy and get into the ‘pick and shovel’ work of developing a brand and implementing a brand around the world, the ad agency talent doesn’t want to do that – they still want to do TV spots. They don’t want to do that critical work of implementing a brand cohesively around the world. I mean do AKQA, do RGA want to do that? I don’t know.”

Belk tells a story from when he was recently hiring a global head of content and design. “I interviewed a super-talented woman who was coming out of McCann, but was also ex-RGA and she asked me at one point, ‘So, in this role do you expect me to look at logos and fonts and comment on kerning and refinements at that level?’ That’s not an everyday job, but it isn’t something you should be disdainful about. I mean, it matters. And she’s like, ‘That’s not for me.’ She wanted to do stuff for Nike, competitions, games and stuff. So the point is that whether these agencies end up in this space or not depends on what the talent wants to do. And whether they want to do what’s required to implement brands.”

I keep Howard on the subject of talent attraction and retention by asking him about the recent move of Wolff Olins’ CEO Karl Heiselman to Apple and why there seems a reluctance of senior in-house brand stewards to join agencies. “I think one of the reasons is that when you get to the top of an agency, more of your expertise is about running the agency and less about coming up with fantastic work. Running an agency is very different to running creative campaigns. It’s a bit hush-hush on Karl’s role but apparently Apple is building a vast design team and one of the things that agency people can do is build and run design teams.”

Belk makes no secret of his admiration of Apple. “Apple is really great. If you read Jobs’ book or other biographies, simplicity was a hallmark of the way he worked. I can’t tell you how many meetings when Apple have been held up. Less so in the last 18-20 months, but they’ve really held up as the one that big companies aspire to: on innovation, on the UI, on clarity of message, on so many levels. I think they’re absolutely brilliant.”

Apple isn’t the only one. Belk has seen IBM, particularly its smarter planet campaign, getting much attention. He speaks of the way the organisation has elevated the conversation above products and he admires the way the organisation has evolved from showing how IBM makes a smarter planet to showing how its customers make a smarter planet. However it’s Google who he sees as the new poster boys in the brand space. “Google is incredible right now. That is a really innovative company. We were talking about talent earlier and we are in a talent battle right now as are so many companies with Google. We had a guy all hooked up to join us in a really exciting global role and right at the last minute he took a job at Google Labs. And they’re just engaging in so many different things.”

Belk still finds it challenging, but is proud of what his agency is achieving right now. He feels that part of that has been down to the clients it has worked with. “We’ve been very careful about the clients we take on and we say no a lot. If it’s not clear about how much the CEO cares about the project and if the company is not going to properly fund it. For example, in the Middle East,  if they’re not comfortable with the talent being in London, New York or LA and if they’re not comfortable with our contract terms, because we have an owner, then we will respectfully decline.” It’s obviously not a simple operation running an agency rooted in simplicity, but it’s clear that Belk doesn’t feel jaded by his 10 years at Siegel+Gale. “It’s taken us two years and a couple of million dollars to get there [in the Middle East], but since we’ve started operating like that we’ve been very successful. And we’re enjoying what we do.”

Siegel+Gales annual simplicity index comes out this autumn. Previous reports can be found on their website.