Agencies and management consultants are not from different planets

Never before has the advertising landscape looked so volatile. Advertising is less trusted than ever. Digital media is the solution to many marketers’ growth asks but is simultaneously facing up to its own challenges around quality and transparency. Facebook and Google are eating up any growth and Amazon is looming large on the scene.

The Big Four, namely GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) quartet of frenemies dominate business headlines and there are some common factors in their continued growth: thinking five-10 years out, investing significant amounts back into research and development, and constant experimentation in to adjacent sectors. Meanwhile, closer to home, Accenture has become the fastest growing agency group with impressively deep digital capabilities. Whilst the Big Five consultancies also have deep pockets and are fast evolving their capabilities, arguably they still lack the requisite strengths around understanding consumer behaviour and building brands.

That said, never before has the opportunity been bigger for agencies. As brands all prioritise their own flavour of digital transformation, the opportunity presents itself for agencies to act in a more consultative way to support the shift to a data driven, content-powered future. The regular focus of client and agency conversations today is around connecting audience data sets to inform paid (increasingly addressable), owned and earned media activation and content creation that maps to a customer journey.

It’s one integrated conversation yet on the brand side can involve more than a handful of departments, and agency engagements across planning and activation can easily enter double figures.

Few CMO’s would claim they are fully ready for this brave new world, so the agencies’ task is to lead, to outline the blueprint. This demands different skills and starts with solutions that either unlock growth or address business problems. Account management evolves into a more T-shaped, strategic marketing skillset, tasked with knitting together squads of specialists, technologies and partners and orchestrating multiple stakeholders. Sound familiar at all?

The closest analogy I can think of is that of a Managing Partner in a consultancy who oversees C-Level stakeholder management whist orchestrating their many different disciplines to deliver multi-faceted recommendations. Where a consultancy comes unstuck is they over-index on infrastructure and organisational design but lack the human, or customer, angle. Importantly most rarely go as far as execution, so they are unable to close the loop in a way that agencies can; that advantage is however not leveraged anywhere near as much as it could be by agencies.

We find ourselves at a fascinating tipping point; most businesses now recognise “what” they need to do to transform their business for a digital world, but are grappling with the “how”.

In the main, brands lack the necessary skills and resources internally or find it challenging to retain this talent. When looking for support from the outside, there is arguably no single partner today able to provide both the answers and the specialist deployment skills. Consultancies excel in creating digital experiences and deploying cloud and mobile led solutions. Agency groups are rich with an eclectic mix of planners and specialists, but more must be done to better orchestrate and integrate that talent to align with higher level business priorities.

The agency community must also admit that there remains a skills gap in adland for this brave new world. There are just not enough T-shaped strategic client leaders that get digital, data, content and tech. These will only be created if agencies invest both in developing the leaders of tomorrow from within, whilst also bringing in hybrids from non-agency backgrounds.

To come out on top, agencies must also borrow from the wider business (and consulting) world. Agencies need to be closer to the board table more frequently, which means spending less time obsessing around big ideas and social media and more talking the language of business, commerce and transformation. Elevating the conversations back to a place where marketing investment is seen as a proven driver of growth is business critical. This demands a laser focus on effectiveness in business terms, not through the self-fulfilling lens of its own industry awards.

The consulting firms are well schooled in focusing on business outcomes and in the intersection of business and technology. They are however, yet to master the art of long-term brand building. For me, the nirvana lives in the intersection of brands mastering technology to better serve people’s needs and deliver hyper-relevant services.

To navigate these current stormy waters, agencies must act more like businesses themselves. Fame is oft chased with no roadmap for converting that engagement into fortune. Often for good reasons, agencies allow an unreasonable client or new business prospect to take them off course. If the media industry, in particular, continues the current race to the bottom on price, rather than focusing on business value, it will forever be a commodity. Agencies are superb at staying close to the developments in their own industry but at worst could be judged as being overly insular. To compete with the likes of Accenture or Deloitte, agencies must invest in deepening their knowledge of the industry verticals their clients operate in. At all levels, agencies need team leaders to operate more like business owners and apply these skills as portfolio managers and growth architects to the advertisers they serve.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating that the ad industry should aspire to being accountants or even management consultants; the industry’s strengths must be retained but never has evolution been more urgent. As I mentioned in part one of this essay , I believe this is not an “either/or” conundrum, but about combining business acumen “and” creativity. Creativity is one of the 21st century’s most critical business skills but it is more potent when it can be measured, replicated and scaled systematically. Technology, data collection and consistent process make that much more achievable today. In my humble opinion, to counter trust issues and competition, the agency community must pivot rapidly to become more consultative, business-focused and accountable. It must do this whilst protecting its unique culture of human understanding and flair for storytelling and brand building.

Doomsayers may argue...

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