Breakthrough Masterclasses provide relatively small but fast-growing and ambitious businesses with the opportunity to spend a day with senior executives from market-leading companies. The series began with a visit to Google, followed by a session with British success story LOVEFiLM. Both companies helped delegates address key challenges associated with rapid growth and taking a business up to the next level.

However, the latest Masterclass was a little different, as John Williams, head of Santander’s Breakthrough programme, explains. “Google and LOVEFiLM offered advice and insight on a range of growth issues that didn’t necessarily relate to their direct offering to customers. For instance, the Google presentation on its approach to HR practice as a means of retaining a core identity during rapid expansion was of particular interest.

“In contrast, Saatchi served up a Masterclass that was based around one of its core services to clients – namely brand building,” says John. “We wanted the series to evolve and innovate,” he adds. “So when we were thinking about how a visit to Saatchi & Saatchi could be of most benefit, branding emerged as the key theme.”

A business icon

Saatchi & Saatchi is one of the world’s most celebrated and respected advertising and marketing companies. Brothers Maurice and Charles founded the London-based agency in 1970 and the business is now truly global, with offices in more than 70 countries. Although advertising is an industry that focuses on brands and creative content – rather than the agencies behind the campaigns – Saatchi & Saatchi is also a well-known name outside its own industry. In common with all companies chosen to host Masterclass events, Saatchi & Saatchi is a truly iconic business.

One attendee was Malcolm Duncan, managing director of Super Rod, an innovative company providing tools to thread cables through buildings. He says access to Saatchi’s marketing expertise was a key attraction. “For me it was an opportunity to sit down with some of the best marketing minds in the business. It was a chance to step back and look at the branding of our own business through fresh eyes”. 

Businesses from a diverse range of sectors were represented at the Masterclass. “We had retailers, manufacturers, engineering companies and a restaurant chain,” says John. “The common factor was that all the businesses present had an appreciation of the importance of branding within their segments of the market.” However, each business was different in terms of their understanding of the branding process. “Some were further down the road than others. There was a mix of understanding within the group,” he adds.  

Key themes

Saatchi & Saatchi developed a number of clear themes during the sessions: questions such as ‘what is a brand?’ and ‘how does a company develop a brand and recognise brand attributes?’ were answered, and key themes such as brand management, and developing a brand strategy were also covered. 

These themes were not only explored through presentations and question and answer sessions but also – crucially – through practical workshops. For that part of the session, business managers were split into groups, with each table working collectively to develop a brand strategy for one chosen business. “Those attending were not just learning from Saatchi & Saatchi, they were also learning from their peers,” says John. 

Lessons from the day

The workshops ensured that the Masterclass offered so much more than a broad skim across branding theory. It was a hands-on experience for all the businesses concerned, offering real insights into brand building and management.  

“I saw it is a chance to reframe the business,” says Malcolm Duncan. “You were encouraged to ask: what is your business? And then reframe it.” 

It was a process that ranged from the fundamentals of recognising that, while a brand can be managed and enhanced, it is essentially defined externally by customers and other stakeholders. Logos, colours, advertising campaigns and PR are all part of the branding process but so is the interaction between sales staff and customers, or the accounts department and suppliers. A whole range of factors contributes to the perception of the company within its marketplace. “In that respect, a brand is what other people give to you,” says John.

Going deeper, the Masterclass encouraged businesses to see their brand differently, as part of the reframing exercise. John cites the example of a restaurant business. “In one respect, it is simply that: a company that delivers food on plates to diners at tables. In another light it can be seen as a business that rents property to its customers for a limited period of time. Their perception of the brand is derived from their total experience during the period of the rental”, he says.

This reframing was highlighted by a simple exercise. Delegates were asked to describe their brands at the beginning of the day and again at the end. It was a way of crystalising some of the insights gained during a lengthy and busy event.   

There was a lot to digest, as Malcolm Duncan explains. “I think I was lucky to have a long train journey back to Wales at the end of the day, whereas some people were just jumping on the Tube and getting home quickly”, he says. “I had time to reflect on the experience and think about ways to reframe the business. This is something we will be doing both internally and in terms of our distribution.” 

“Each business went away with a paradigm shift”, says John. “The business didn’t change, but it’s understanding of the market certainly did.”