The recent outpouring of emotion that greeted the integration of Y&R, Wunderman and JWT into VML reminded me of a merger I stuck my ample-sized nose in to prevent some 20 plus years ago.
Not this time in the creative hotbed of adland, but the hard nose business of banking. Back then DBS had acquired Singapore’s popular savings bank POSB, an institution generations grew up with. Most had opened their first account there as kids, and where heartlanders financed their homes and kept their savings there. Especially the elders. And that was a problem.
DBS aspired to escape its own origin story; no longer being a development bank, nor being constrained by a single domicile, even one as imposing as Singapore. It now aspired to be a regional Citi-kind-of-bank, one that put Asia first. This would entail putting affluent and progressive segments at the heart of their strategy. POSB, with branches teeming with kids and grandparents didn’t fit.
So, the answer was obvious: Just kill off the brand, first by removing the seating that encouraged people to linger, then shutting it altogether. After all running multiple brands is inefficient and expensive, more so, if you’re shooting for a different view of the future.
Can you now see why the news from WPP triggered the memory?
A nascent TBWA was DBS’ brand and cards agency, and we had just won the pitch to launch First Asia, the brand DBS was set to become. As all talk swirled about the excitement of launching a shiny new brand, there was also palpable relief at closing a soggy old one. Except, as a student of the school of consequences, I foresaw a problem.
Where would all the kids and their grandparents go? After all, they still needed to bank. And as everybody knew it now belonged to DBS, I had a strong conviction that if POSB closed, they’d simply migrate to the new shiny DBS, filling its artesian branches in vast (and likely confused) numbers.
And here’s a lesson about what ad agencies should be all about. Even though it was a decision above our pay grade, we saw it as the agency’s responsibility to shine a light on the things others missed. To point out how something seemingly obvious can mask something decidedly counterproductive.
My then CEO, the late Johan Fourie, encouraged me to step up and speak out. And, as fortune would have it, I personally knew the bank’s incoming CEO from my previous time with StanChart. So I called him to lunch and played out the scenario.
It turned out in running all the numbers, the bank hadn’t fully considered the human factors. I was tasked to prove it, so we commissioned a research project that first demonstrated how deep the public affection for POSB ran. It unequivocally showed how it’s gleaming new bank would be overrun by customers migrating from its old one. Oh!
The Chairman (whose plan it was) was persuaded, and POSB lived on to become a stronger neighbourhood institution, and a brand DBS has done a tremendous job of fortifying in the years since.
I learned a powerful lesson from this too. An ad agency’s voice matters (even when it’s not been asked for). When motivated by doing the right thing by the brands we serve, it’s our professional duty to speak truth to power. Arguably doing this with the likes of SIA, SCB and STB, led to two decades of growth. It’s not enough to just produce disposable content, cheaply, and distribute it en-masse.
As it happened, escalating costs and a financial downturn would put paid to rebranding DBS. No bad thing perhaps, as it’s grown to become everything First Asia envisaged, without needing a change of name.
But every time I see a POSB, I’m reminded of just how close this beloved icon came to becoming yet another piece of misty nostalgia. And I reflect how every decision carries consequences.