Commentary

A Tribute To Wally Olins

Wally Olins, an early leader in a revolution of commercial branding and communications, passed away on April 14 at 83 years old. 

Olins co-founded Wolff Olins and served as chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants. He was an industry pioneer who transformed the way corporate management thought about strategic brand-building, expanding its scope beyond that of a single product and recognizing a brand’s holistic impact on how corporations are viewed and defined. 

I respected Olins greatly as a competitor who changed our industry for the better. In 2009, I read an article he published in Design Week, headlined “Brand Valuation is an Utterly Meaningless Process,” and felt his opinion contrasted the important work we were doing to help companies measure the impact and value of brand-building. 

In response, I penned an article for MediaPost, headlined “Old School Thinking About Brand Valuation,” in which I challenged Olins to a public debate on the subject. To my surprise and delight, he immediately accepted. The debate was published over a series of several weeks in 2009 in MediaPost. 

These thoughtful and passionate contributions from Olins help define an industry while challenging its thinking and leading to impactful innovation. 

In a tribute to Wally Olins, I’d like to share some excerpted highlights of those debates:

The Great Brand Debate: Jim Gregory vs. Wally Olins

Jim Gregory

Brands are not stronger than the economy, but they play a very important and measured role in market capitalization. We know from our research and analysis that the best brands rebound faster than weaker brands. We are also able to project the future potential return on investment for brand communications. We do this by looking at the current economic conditions and simultaneously evaluating our research with a client’s peer companies. So, if some major economic event evolves, we can update all of our calculations and determine whether to stay the course or change plans. Your system of “wetting the finger and guessing” provides no value whatever to the client. 

Wally Olins

You say, ”On the other hand we know from our research and analysis that the best brands rebound faster from a crisis than weaker brands.”  [You do not] need to do much research and analysis to know when to stay the course or change plans — events around you will indicate that. I’m not sure how much the kind of research that you are talking about gets you.

Jim Gregory 

A major point of measuring brand equity is to change the context of the discussion with senior management …transforming brand budgeting into a business decision. For example, if you know you can improve market share by X% by spending Y% more, then management attitudes change. 

Consistent, careful measurement and reporting make branding accountable. Gut feelings, however, are not accountable. 

Wally Olins

The observations that Jim makes are simplistic. In the first place, we are very often involved in a situation where an entirely new brand is created, e.g., a few years ago my former company worked on the creation of Orange and First Direct. How can you possibly anticipate anything that is statistically significant for a brand of that kind?
In principle of course it’s an excellent idea to measure everything so far as you can. The point that I am making quite simply, is that some things cannot be readily quantified and to pretend to do so is to fool yourself and fool other people as well.

Jim Gregory

No one is suggesting that a model can predict audience behavior towards a brand that has never existed, but we can measure reaction.

We are suggesting that the brand is a business asset. By treating it as such – providing real metrics for accountability – we can ensure that the brand gets the support that it needs. 

Wally Olins

Black swans are always there and you cannot accurately make predictions about almost anything, and that includes what is going to happen to a brand. That as far as I am concerned is the beginning, middle and end of it.

Jim Gregory

The branding firm that embraces both the creative process and analytics provides a more valuable service than one, which offers a single perspective. I wish you continuing success with your approach. I hope, however, that I haven’t convinced you to change because we don’t need any more competitors.

Wally Olins

We are going to agree to differ on brand valuation. It is clear that I believe in black swans and you don’t, although how you cannot believe in them after the recent economic collapse I really don’t know.

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