True Identity

Nobody is going to get the shakes about being in a gunfight with a guy named Marion. Call the same cowboy John Wayne, however, and the town clears out.

Similarly, Bernie Schwartz doesn’t exactly ooze virility. Call the actor Tony Curtis, though, and women swoon. Men may not pine for Betty Persky, but Lauren Bacall makes them melt. Bobby Zimmerman sounds like a pimple-faced, garage-band wannabe—but Bob Dylan is a legend.

In entertainment, it’s a well-known axiom that the first step to success is a moniker with moxie. And business has stolen the script. Car companies, for example, spend small fortunes on name consultants who come up with Acura, Expedition or Mustang.

As dry a group as financial consultants play the name game—even when they don’t have to. After all, Andersen Consulting had plenty of push already; is the company really better positioned now that it’s Accenture?

Of course, creating provocative names for products and services is a core advertising function. The tendency of agencies to change their names at the drop of a syllable is a frequent target for satire—and at least among the public, a source of confusion. (My 5-year-old cousin, reading Adweek for the first time, thought Omnicom was the name of the super computer that enslaved humanity in Terminator. I told him he was right.)

On the media side, this tendency has been around for some time. MindShare leader Irwin Gotlieb has talked about “implementation,” not “buying,” since he was at Benton & Bowles in the ’80s. But now retitling is becoming epidemic.

There are no media specialists anymore. Now, they’re communications agencies. Forget about media planning. Now it’s communication channel planning. Starcom has “investment officers”—who don’t sit in the accounting department.

Even the media departments of full-service shops are playing musical names. Team One sent out a memo announcing it was closing down its media department. That was a cute way of saying it was renaming its media operations the communications department, thereby changing the “media” in everyone’s titles to “communications.”

This isn’t as funny as it sounds because names matter. Human beings instinctively try to simplify. That’s why they stereotype. We all judge books by their covers. Even clients. Especially clients.

That’s why the identity dance is important. There really aren’t media buying firms anymore—so changing the name of the company or company titles sends an important, unambiguous signal to existing clients, prospects, staff and the industry.

This is particularly true of the word “strategic,” which used to be owned by creatives, but has been co-opted by media agencies to refer to their planning departments and staff.

After all, Marion was pretty tough, Bernie was pretty, well, pretty, and Bobby wasn’t too bad at writing songs.

But it’s a good beginning.

As for me, I’m changing my name to Brad Pitt.