Main Content

What it takes to be a ‘brand custodian’

Many design consultancies like to see themselves as their client’s ‘brand custodian’, ‘brand guardian’ or ‘lead agency’.

Such phrases certainly sound impressive but do they always stand up to examination?

As one client said to me recently, ‘When you have eight agencies working on the brand, they can’t all be the brand custodian.’

Perhaps the description is fair enough for smaller clients where fewer agencies are working simultaneously, or perhaps for clients who are more operationally-led than marketing-led and so rely heavily on their design consultancy to provide core direction. It is also true that marketing staff churn can create a knowledge vacuum. A design agency with a long standing client relationship can offer a level of consistency and an ongoing bank of brand knowledge that the client may lack. In these cases, the term ‘brand custodian’ can be justified.

However, sometimes the description can stretch credibility. For example, simply picking up a lot of work on a particular brand does not prove that you are ‘brand custodians’. So what does it take to be a true ‘brand custodian’? At Up to the Light we interview hundreds of clients on behalf of design agencies and we’ve been asking clients for their definition of the term. Here’s a summary of what they’ve been saying:

Time served is not enough

To have worked on a brand for ten years is impressive but you never want to be seen as wedded to the past. The strength of your client relationship is measured on the trust that you enjoy with individuals right now, not just on time served. Agencies need to be continually winning the trust of new client contacts rather than being seen to rest on their laurels. It’s what you’ve done this year that really counts not your ability to give a brand history lesson.

Be media neutral

The ‘brand custodian’ is media neutral and their advice should always be in the brand’s best interest, rather than being perceived as self-serving. In other words, you can’t be seen to be pushing one particular discipline. This raises the question of whether a specialist in one particular discipline can ever be a true ‘brand custodian.’ Of course, you can have main responsibility for a particular discipline or disciplines, but the ‘brand custodian’ has to see the big picture.

Develop a wider reputation

tree idea lamp creative creativity‘Brand custodians’ tend to enjoy a wider reputation at the client organisation, rather than a relationship focused upon the Marketing Director or one particular business function. A true ‘brand custodian’ frequently operates at Board level and its competitor is just as likely to be a management consultancy as another agency.

Not just executional

The deepest client/agency relationships are based upon far more than answering the brief. The ‘brand custodian’ is helping to shape the strategy and formulate the brief. They are involved in the stages prior to creative execution. Their view of the brand is bigger than the next project.

Be consistently proactive

Time and again in client interviews we find that proactivity is the crucial difference between merely functional supplier relationships and great client/agency partnerships. The ‘brand custodian’ shares knowledge, monitors brand competitors, keeps asking questions, initiates research and brainstorms new ideas. It is easy to be proactive in isolated bursts but more difficult to be consistently proactive. Proactivity needs to form part of a well-planned and structured approach to client development. If not, it tends not to happen or is inconsistent.

Work collaboratively with other agencies

Our ‘What Clients Think 2016’ report is based on 435 client interviews conducted on behalf of design agencies. In the report 52% of clients who want their agency to work more collaboratively with other agencies expressed frustration that this does not happen as effectively as it should. Problems mentioned included clashes of ego between agencies, overt competition for work where skills overlap, agencies looking to the client for leadership instead of sorting out some issues between themselves and overt jockeying for position so that a perception develops of an agency that is working for its own glory rather than the good of the client. In these circumstances, brand custodianship has become about effective agency teamwork rather than one agency claiming the glory.

Be more self-critical

Many clients have mentioned the importance of self-criticism in long standing
client/agency relationships. What they mean is the ability of the agency to not only pat itself on the back and seek client praise, but to ask the question, ‘How can we make things even better next time?’ Effective project reviews, two way client/agency assessments and independent Client Surveys to monitor the ongoing health of the relationship are all examples of self-criticism in action.

Challenge the client

‘Custodian’ means ‘responsibility for taking care of or protecting something’. Ideally, this is achieved in harmonious collaboration with the client, but it can also involve challenging the client when you believe that a particular course of action is not in the brand’s best interests. How far are you prepared to go in ‘protecting’ the brand and could you run the risk of biting the hand that feeds you? Herein lies the crunch. True brand custodianship and increasing agency profits do not necessarily go hand in hand.



About: Jonathan Kirk

Up to the Light advises a wide range of agencies regarding all aspects of business improvement and growth. The consultancy challenges some of the ingrained assumptions that exist in our industry and offers more effective, insight-led advice.

Jonathan is unusual amongst consultants in the level of contact that he has with clients. Up to the Light is the leading provider of Client Surveys to the UK design industry and publishes the annual ‘What Clients Think’ report, supported by the DBA. Jonathan is a member of the DBA’s Experts Register and is a frequent conference speaker and trade press contributor.


Image credits: © Kchungtw


We use cookies to help improve our website. By continuing to use this website, you agree to our use of cookies.