It's advertising, but not as we know it

Hugh Aldersey-Williams investigates an idea put forward by a new communications group that the old ad campaign has had its day
It costs the same these days to make a typical feature film as a 90-second television advertisement. This may say terrible things about the state of cinema, but it should also give advertising agencies and their clients pause for thought.

Are companies really getting everything they should from laying out such enormous sums? Could they spend much of it in better ways, employing a broader range of creative services in order to achieve the results that advertising has to strive so hard for? British Airways' new corporate identity, for example, attempted to signal a new image, but it clearly didn't reach the many staff who embarrassingly threatened to go on strike just as the identity was unveiled.

The new communications consultancy, Circus is as likely to send round a troupe of actors as to recommend an advertising campaign to its clients. Circus was set up in January by four equal partners. Paul Twivy and Tim Ashton are respectively former chief executive and creative director of Bates Dorland. Tim O'Kennedy, the former marketing director of Nike, also has an advertising agency background. Dilys Maltby has a CV in design which includes Fitch, Imagination and the Body Shop. "We are from different walks of life but we all shared the same frustration at the way the communications industry worked," says Maltby.

Circus isn't the first group claiming to be "media-neutral". Four years ago, Tim Lefroy left Young and Rubicam to found Radical, another hybrid consultancy seeking to exploit the fact that clients are growing cooler towards advertising agencies, and want to turn to a less biased source for strategic advice. Some leading advertising groups have responded to this shift by acquiring a range of marketing and communicatons companies which they use with varying degrees of effectiveness. Circus saw a minority of companies being braver than others in prescribing solutions to their problems. "There is a fantastic investment in risk aversion and conformity, but it is already far smaller than it was 10 years ago," says O'Kennedy.

Circus believes that if properly employed, creative interventions can permanently transform the corporate culture. In the US, O'Kennedy worked with Apple and Nike. "Two practically religious brand experiences. Those companies had a sense of mission and purpose that went beyond selling computers and footwear, and advertising doesn't provide this."

Circus have built up a network of collaborators that will ensure they don't revert to type. "We're not prescribing which way is appropriate. We have a range of contacts from space planners to poets," says Maltby. They have no studio or extraneous creatives to keep busy. On the other hand, although they may cast envious eyes at management consultancy fees, they feel they are less academic. "We are not as proficient as a McKinsey," Ashton admits, "though we are in touch intuitively with the new world of brands."

The new world of brands is not a pretty place according to The Global Trap: Civilisation and the Assault on Democracy and Prosperity, by Hans Peter Martin and Harold Schumann. The German best-seller outlines the scenario as companies react to new technology and globalisation. Ultimately, a few global brands will grow to dominate, driving down taxes, starving public services of funds. Nike is one of its principal villains.

O'Kennedy is "more threatened by what brands are doing to the world, rather than one brand in particular". Circus believe that the tendency to monopoly exhibited by the rush of mergers and the rapid growth of technology leaders such as Microsoft has the seeds of its own undoing. "Microsoft has glorious opportunities for local innovation," suggests Simon Mottram, who came to Circus from Interbrand, "but its entrepreneurial culture is not focused in that direction yet."

Circus requires potential clients not to feel that advertising is the solution to their problem, but that they don't know where the answer to their problem might lie.

But its first client will help Circus live up to its "media-neutral" ideals. With McKinsey's, Twivy is examining how the BBC can improve its business-to-business communications, and how it can make contact with its audience in more imaginative ways. What Ashton calls its 22,000 "embittered, cynical but very bright staff who have seen superficial change before" won't take kindly to brandspeak. "Communications within the BBC have to be faster, more honest, more informal, and use their own media - audio- visual, not paper," says Twivy.

For prospective clients in retailing and financial services, Circus is likely to recommend staff training and retail space planning before any advertising is contemplated.