This Ad Agency Decided Now Was the Right Time to Launch Its Own Brand Consultancy

Hill Holliday bucks the trend with new division

Calvin Klein was HHBrandable's first client. Hill Holliday
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

Traditional ad agencies and consultancies are converging. It’s no longer news. Accenture and Deloitte continue to acquire creative shops around the world, but this week, two major industry groups, the 4A’s in the U.S. and the IPA in the U.K., even hinted that they would begin letting such organizations join their ranks.

Some agencies have, in turn, begun launching their own in-house consultancy divisions to help clients better understand how they can stay ahead of rapidly evolving consumer behaviors, especially in the digital realm.

Last month, Boston-based IPG agency Hill Holliday quietly started HHBrandable, its own take on the larger trend.

Lesley Bielby

The offering was born of chief strategy officer Lesley Bielby’s pre-existing relationship with fashion giant Calvin Klein, which handles its own creative work in house but sometimes looks to third-party firms for help in developing its brand. Bielby began working with the company while running DiMassimo Goldstein’s consulting unit and brought the business along with her when she joined Hill Holliday for the second time.

“Brand anarchy is a real thing,” Bielby said, explaining the origins of the HHBrandable division. “To be a contemporary agency, it’s critical to understand all points across the customer journey.”

After Bielby returned to Hill Holliday in 2015, agency leadership agreed that they could no longer rely quite as heavily on agency-of-record relationships, and they saw brand-development services as another potentially lucrative revenue stream. Today, the division is staffed by both Hill Holliday planners and independent employees, and the CSO estimates that most of the agency’s planners will eventually work on the HHBrandable team as well.

“We’ve been doing this unofficially for smaller clients, and we’ve been on retainer for Calvin Klein for almost two years,” Bielby said, emphasizing that HHBrandable has primarily focused on what she calls “adolescent brands” that may have venture capital funding but aren’t quite large or mature enough for the agency at large. “We’re not going to compete with the Lippincotts or the Landors of the world,” she added.

The division also differs from other such offerings recently launched by agencies like R/GA and 360i in that it focuses on brand purpose, positioning and visual identity rather than general marketing strategies. Hill Holliday also utilizes its internal research division, Origin, to provide predictive modeling, brand tracking, experience design and related services.

“The best-case scenario is that clients grow large enough to work with [the agency],” Bielby said, emphasizing that many of HHBrandable’s partners sign short-term contracts and that they can “buy pieces” of its product. “The concept of a trial run is not a bad one because clients are becoming more fickle now.”

One unnamed client, for example, hired the team for brand planning and ended up signing a contract for a six-month media project.

The larger point is that modern agencies are increasingly providing services beyond advertising.

“We can’t do what we did 25 years ago in writing a creative brief and executing it through ads,” said Bielby, who told Adweek that only “a handful” of agencies provide similar services. “If we don’t extend ourselves, then we’re commoditizing.”

An internal memo in August announcing the official launch read: “Whatever the program, HHBrandable works to help clients fight the daily share battle with stronger, more strategic brand identities.”

“Judging by the response to date,” Bielby said, “there is a huge need for these types of services from a broad range of different types of clients.”

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.