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Stock photo (Yanik Chauvin/Yanik Chauvin)
Stock photo (Yanik Chauvin/Yanik Chauvin)

They’re cool and creative. So why do ad agencies have such boring names? Add to ...

Advertising is a marriage of creativity and commerce. It is an industry built on the idea that an artful brand with the right strategy behind it can provide real, tangible economic value to companies. Branding is crucial.

And yet, judging by the nameplates on many agencies’ doors – the brands they choose for themselves – a passerby would have a hard time discerning that anything creative is going on inside. They would have a hard time, in fact, telling an ad agency apart from a law firm.

That is because many of them, over the years, have chosen to name themselves after their founders. Take Pereira & O’Dell; Saatchi & Saatchi; Lowe Roche; Ogilvy & Mather; Leo Burnett; Crispin Porter + Bogusky; Bensimon Byrne; MacLaren McCann; Goodby Silverstein & Partners; Cundari; Wieden + Kennedy.

Or, when those become too cumbersome, there are the abbreviated versions of the same: KBS+P; Y&R; DDB; BSSP; BBDO; TBWA; BBH; and JWT all fall into that camp.

Last month, Toronto agency Doug & Serge – named for its founders, but using first names to give the shop a different feel – announced it was rebranding following the hiring of two new co-creative directors and partners, Denise Rossetto and Todd Mackie. The new name: DS+P.

There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, of course. But it is curious that such a jumble of founder names and letter combinations abounds in a business built on the concept that a good brand can set you apart from the competition. What’s behind it?

Partly, it’s a throwback: in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s (and earlier) this model was the naming convention for agencies. They were built on big egos and legendary creative minds like David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach (the B in DDB), for example. In the case of such giants whose names are tied to the history of the industry itself, an agency brand like these can communicate the founders’ legacy and authority.

“It’s very old school,” said George Nguyen, chief strategy officer at TBWA in Toronto. However, he points out that this can be an advantage: agency brands such as this can be recognized for long track records and past successes; and for big multinational clients, they can also signal the kind of well-established networks (often with global offices) that can handle complex accounts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

But they are not only found in agencies with long histories.

Here in Canada, for example, Aldo Cundari and Jack Bensimon are still involved in the agencies that carry their names. Zak Mroueh decided to have the best of both worlds when he named his agency using the NATO phonetic alphabet to spell out his own name: Zulu Alpha Kilo. Doug Robinson and Serge Rancourt riffed on the convention when they teamed up 12 years ago. Doug & Serge sound like a couple of guys you’d like to have a beer with. DS+P does not.

But, Mr. Rancourt explained, the change was necessary as the agency grew. “We wanted the agency to be very personal, but it became a bit of a negative for us,” he said. “We’re a mid-sized agency with over 40 people, and we’ve missed a few new business pitches. And the reason that we were given was that maybe we were too small.”

There were concerns about joining the pack of firms with letter-combination names, Mr. Rancourt said. But they believed there was equity in the brand they had built.

However, there has been another convention afoot for some years now as newer agencies have increasingly been shunning this branding model.

“Apple could have called themselves Jobs & Co. but they didn’t,” said Jason DeLand, a founding partner at Anomaly in New York. “That’s something we took strong note of. ... We didn’t want the emphasis to be on the people founding the company. We wanted it to be about the idea behind the company.”

In 2001, the founders of Toronto advertising agency John St. had scribbled out pages and pages of possible names – but there was “no way” they were going to call the shop Fleischmann Jurisic Tucker Tucker Bain, or even FJTTB or FJT.

“There are five of us and it just sounded terrible. If you acronym it, it just sounds like every other agency,” said partner Angus Tucker. “...And do you really want to hang your hat on someone that is getting older and older in an industry that is all about what’s new?”

They eventually settled on the name of the street where they opened their offices, because it is a vibrant part of downtown Toronto, because it sounded good, and if they moved, they would always remember where they started. This was after other ideas were axed – including one Mr. Tucker was temporarily pushing for, “Sponge,” which was ruled out for sounding like a contraceptive.

For all that, however, Mr. Tucker and others believe a name only takes you so far.

“The name eventually becomes secondary. It’s like naming a baby. It’s not what you call the baby, it’s what it becomes,” said Steve Carli, president of Red Urban in Toronto.

Mr. Carli and others single out agencies such as BBDO, Leo Burnett and DDB for their great work, for example; it hardly matters that the names sound pedestrian because by now, everyone who knows advertising knows what they stand for. One of the most exciting creative agencies in the business at the moment only deviates slightly from the norm: Droga5’s founder is David Droga, who is the fifth child in his family.

And by contrast, an unconventional or even goofy name can be taken seriously if the work stands up. The Wexley School for Girls has won business from Microsoft, and 72andSunny has helped Samsung to take on a formidable competitor in Apple. Young creatives are lining up to work at ad agency Mother.

And some caution is warranted, as the trend toward more differentiated names could itself become a bit hackneyed. For a time, one-word names such as Mother or Taxi became all the rage; then combination names with a bit of pirate edge such as Mad Dogs & Englishmen or Heroes & Villains came into fashion. Still, many believe names that are different serve a purpose.

“I have a great deal of respect for agencies that put a stake in the ground about what they want to stand for,” Mr. Carli said. “We expect our clients to be brave, and we’re going to be brave as well. I like agencies that do that. It says something about who they are.”

Follow on Twitter: @susinsky

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