25 years and counting: How one agency has evolved alongside the financial industry

Sullivan NYC and 25 years branding financial firms

When Barbara Apple Sullivan founded branding and communications agency Sullivan twenty-five years ago, agencies typically flew with their financial industry clients at an altitude of 30,000 feet. They focused on building and communicating their clients’ brands, but when it came time to supporting products themselves, that role was left to in-house professionals. The result was that financial services and products were somehow disconnected from the mothership and rarely infused with strong brand and values.

“When I was head of marketing at Chemical Bank, there were literally 6 different brochures for the 6 different types of checking accounts we offered,” explains Sullivan. “Each one looked like it was produced by a different company. No customer or prospect is going to read through 6 different brochures.”

Indeed, when New York-based Sullivan, the firm, began working with clients like Amex, JP Morgan, and TD Ameritrade, it focused on bringing its cruising altitude down to the product level to help make its clients’ cash registers ring. Doing that required breaking down walls. Financial institutions, like Merrill Lynch, for example, have multiple constituencies they have to market to, including internal sales staff (like brokers), outside customers (like brokerage clients) and institutional partners (like clearing).

Sullivan believes financial services is moving away from dealing with the members of the ecosystem as separate properties to manage. Distinctions and barriers between the business lines are melting away as firms work instead on their core messages that resonate throughout their businesses.

“We never though of ourselves as B2B or B2C,” says Sullivan. “We think about the brands for each audience. This distinction between channels is something we believe the financial industry would be better off leaving behind.”

The resulting model is that today’s agencies that work in financial services take a much more customer centric approach. It forces firms to dig deeper to really understand who their end clients are and how best to serve them. For its part, as an agency, Sullivan has honed its chops through its work around customer experience. It uses workshops with clients like Pershing to really understand buyer personas and map user journeys.

It’s precisely here — where individual clients and large financial institutions meet — where new tools can enable increased engagement and sales. But Sullivan cautions that new tools, including financial technology as well as marketing technology, aren’t always a panacea. Instead of using tech to solve all challenges, success comes through understanding when technology is appropriate and when it isn’t by mapping the user journey. Through this process, financial services companies can build seamless experiences across the growing number of communication channels modern organizations must manage.

“We publish a study of investor trust every year and it turns out that people really want a human touch,” says Sullivan. “Even as we get more immersed in new technology, people still want to have relationships.”

As technology has proliferated since Sullivan opened shop 25 years ago, it’s shifted decision-making responsibility more on to the shoulders of  individual clients and prospects. Customers have to do a lot of homework before they even reach out to a financial institution. A longer sales funnel means the deliverables of an agency are changing, too. Whereas agencies used to create marketing materials further down the sales funnel, financial services firms now require educational and editorial content. In 2013, Sullivan created Imprint, the firm’s own content studio, to service the evolving needs of its clients.

Over time, the agency is increasingly working with fintechs alongside the firm’s incumbent clients. But founder Sullivan doesn’t really see the startups displacing large financial institutions. For her, it’s all about options: providing the tools and experiences people want when they’re ready to have them. Digital joins other channels as another option for customers.

“I don’t think the incumbents are thinking about ‘either-or’ — they’re thinking about ‘and’,” explains Sullivan. “They’re saying digital is part of our offering but we’re not undertaking a sea change to make technology all we offer. Financial institutions want to provide options. They don’t assume tech will always be a better solution.”