The death of Wally Olins this week marks the end of an energetic life and long and distinguished professional career, but, more than that, it seems to signal the end of a phase of corporate identity and brand activity.
For years it was the big, powerful corporations that attracted the attention of consultants such as Wolff Olins and Lloyd Northover. We followed in the footsteps of the Americans – Bass, Rand, Eames and Noyes. We believed we could effect change in businesses and bring a kind of order to way they thought about and ran their organisations. Sometimes we did. Today, the branding world no longer looks to those corporations as ideal clients, at least not unless they are also perceived as ‘cool’ in some way. Even so, brands such as Apple or Nike, who have built their own communities of admirers, now find themselves dealing with detractors too.
Big business more often repels rather than attracts talent. As Wally acknowledged in his recently published (and somewhat valedictory) book Brand New, corporations are no longer venerated or trusted in the way they once were. And often with good reason.
Moving as he did from advertising towards design Wally saw the chance to take a big picture view of businesses, not just sell the client ads. More recently the ad men have moved into the brand consultancy world, easing the designers aside, with implications for creativity insight and strategic thinking.
Wally was a fearsome competitor. More often than not we met passing through clients’ reception areas and lift lobbies, as he left and we arrived (or vice versa). No doubt he prepared the ground with new ideas, many of which we shared or adapted. For those clients who found Wally too much to take, there were always opportunities for others, like John Lloyd and me. That’s how it was back then. Now branding is established, but the clients making the running are often smaller and with a better story to tell.