Name calling

24th February 2021

Name calling

Naming a business can be a tricky business, particularly an advertising agency. Do you go traditional and feature the founder’s name (or names)? Do you come up with something sharp and hip, like Oil, The Bank, Mother or The Glue Society? Or what about a name that will demand attention? The Three Drunk Monkeys, Strawberry Frog, Moosylvania and Kids Love Jetlag are pretty good examples.

Like any brand name, humans love a story that tells us something about why the business chose that name. If the name is connected to the founder, the back story is obvious. But it’s still a story and it can be a fantastic story. Look at Mojo. If you choose to be more adventurous, with a name involving monkeys, moose (not meese) or frogs, you still need some kind of relevant backstory. Otherwise, you can appear self-indulgent, flippant or just juvenile. That’s the power of a name. If you’re going to have a great and memorable name like Three Drunk Monkeys, you’d better be pretty bloody good – and they were ­­– so good that they were named agency of the year a few times. They’re just called The Monkeys now. Maybe they went to AA or maybe they wanted to recognise there were more than three people behind their success. Who knows? But that name worked brilliantly for them.

My thinking is that, while your name is clearly important and gives the market some idea about your personality and character, the bottom line is that your name means nothing if you don’t deliver. It’s kind of like the name of a band. If their music sucks, so does their name. No-one thinks, “What crap music, but gee, isn’t Milli Vanilli a cool name”. On the flip side, we’d all think Nirvana was a crap name if their music wasn’t so good. In fact, there have been bands called Nirvana pre-90s that no-one remembers or even knows existed. And just like the more radical names for agencies, after a while we get so desensitised that their name is almost irrelevant. While they were outrageous or just weird in the beginning, Sex Pistols, Lady Ga Ga and Radiohead just roll off the tongue and don’t raise a wildly mascaraed eyebrow. Don’t get me started on the Dead Kennedys. But this principle applies to agency names too. We get used to names very quickly and the radical becomes mainstream over time.

Just like naming a baby, everyone’s going to have an opinion. A very fleeting opinion. The only difference is that, if it’s your business or baby, you’re committed. You’re the one who had all the choices in the world, and you chose that. It’s something you need to be comfortable saying out loud to a stranger in a crowded elevator.

Back to the beginning, where I touched on some of the more common territories where businesses mine for names. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the name featuring the owner or owners’ names. Leo Burnett, George Patterson and Dave Droga managed it just fine. But no-one knew them when they started either. Using your name is kind of old school and transparent. But it has its own power. Standing behind your name is very much making a personal promise to your clients. It is, however, old fashioned and says to the world, “I’m a traditionalist”. It can also give the impression that your work may be safe and traditional too. Therefore, it feels like you may have to work harder to show the market that while you have a conservative name, you can still deliver creative work. I once worked for a business that named itself after the three initials of the founders. Yes, it sounded like a law firm or worse, an accountancy business. They sounded solid, and they were. However, they unfairly developed a reputation around town as being conservative and uncreative, which wasn’t true. But names are powerful things. That’s the power of a name. An observation: bigger places seem to have more boring names.

Having a look at a more seemingly creative approach, when you have a name like Oil, Three Drunk Monkeys or 72 and Sunny, you’re already demonstrating your commitment to irresistible storytelling. That’s the power of a name. But like anything in life, you have to be authentic and walk the talk. Clients may be attracted by a name, but it’s the reputation they ultimately buy.

There is also a line of thinking that a name can be entirely random and a job that can be left to a name generator. This approach works for plenty of businesses which I suppose is a story within itself. Personally, I’m not sure if I’d want to work with an agency that couldn’t come up with its own name and story.

As we know, the world is changing. But one thing that will never change is that humans will always crave stories. A business name should allude to an inspiring and authentic story at some level, whether it be Smith & Co or Big Spaceship.

Jeff Smith (J Smith – now there’s name)
Senior Creative