Select Page

The changing agency landscape, beware of bland

May 23, 2019 | POINTS OF VIEW

We can all learn a lot from management consultancies, opines Daniel Cohen, but, when cultures clash, does creativity win?


One of the many things that caught my eye about the British Army’s latest recruitment campaign, This is Belonging 2018, was not that it was created by Accenture owned Karmarama. It was the fact the quote was provided, not by someone from the British Army, but from a representative of its recruitment agency Capita – a “UK leader in technology-enabled business process management and outsourcing solutions.” So, here’s a campaign, created by a division of a management consultancy and endorsed by…hmmmm, kind of management consultants?  “WTF?” I thought.

Anyone remotely associated with marketing will already know of the rabid-like ambition of management consultancies into agency space. Which space? Every space. Creative agencies. Digital agencies. Ad tech. CGI. IT mobility solutions. You name it, ‘they is buying it’ and it won’t be long before they sweep head-long into buying media. And why not?  Accenture’s valuation is roughly four times larger than WPP and its share price is as healthy as any New Year’s diet. WPP, Interpublic, Omnicom and Publicis Groupe on the other hand? No “new year, new me” for them, more like “who-ate-all-the-pies share price slump”. 

Last year alone, Accenture, Deloitte and McKinsey spent $1.2bn on agency acquisitions but talk of a WPP or Publicis take-over is premature in my eyes.  But, silence from the big agency conglomerates, bar the odd quip of dismissiveness from WPP, does little to stem the rumour mill. And let’s face it, the big holding companies have had it their own way for too long; Goliath always needs competition but management consultancies are not David.  They’re another Goliath.

And therein lies the challenge for both clients and consumers. 

When does self-interest outweigh consultancy? Providing advice which is in the best interests of the brand, whilst also having to sell to keep the holding company happy is just one, big, tangled web of conflict for the publically listed agency groups.

In the long term, this might give the likes of McKinsey and Deloitte the edge over Accenture and Booz Allen Hamilton, but the challenge is the same. As they become more involved in digital, creative and media services – when the chips are down – how will they ensure objectivity never loses out to a P&L? They’ll need to figure it out or hope that clients are so embedded in their ecosystem that it just remains the elephant in the room.

Big corporates who are wedded to management consultants do so not because they are excited by them and their ideas. It’s often because an ecosystem has grown around the company which, when making decisions, uses management consultancies as some kind of insurance against risk. This is what’s going to make their move into communications fascinating. They need to either let the agencies get on with getting on OR start to adopt a change model which they probably don’t want to do given how successful they’ve been to date.

Management consultancies will succeed in selling ‘more stuff’ to more clients. No doubt about it. That’s what they’re built for. They will win business and enter awards in every category to prove they can sit more than comfortably at the table of creative agencies. But beware the encroachment of bland. Beware the march of the grey suit.Beware the erosion of risk which is often at the heart of great creative breakthroughs.

Risk is to be acknowledged and welcomed as any other guest, not shunned and shut out because it doesn’t fit management theory. It is creativity’s friend and the natural enemy of management consultancies.

Most of my proudest work has been with clients who recognised the value of management models but weren’t constrained by them. Enlightened by insight and an acute understanding of people, they make the brave calls when brave calls are required. And so it must continue for brands to be able to stand out amongst, what P&G’s Marc Pritchard labelled, a crap trap.

It’s all about the work. Ultimately, most of friends and colleagues who came into communications, agency side, did so to create great work. Agencies become great by creating a winning culture.  By hiring, developing and retaining top talent, talent that pushes boundaries and strives to find compelling solutions.

Talent and the retention of talent has always been a sweet spot for management consultancies. As James O. Mckinsey himself, once said, “We don’t sell products in the traditional sense. Rather, our product is personified in the integrity of our people and the quality of their work and behaviour.” 

It’s an approach which has reaped rewards since the 1920s but now it’s up against the likes of Lois, Bernbach and Ogilvy, masters of selling products. Here the two worlds will clash, and let’s hope creativity isn’t the loser.

“How many management consultants does it take to change a light bulb? Three. One to change the bulb, one to document the process and one to coach on how to conform to the process”. It’s an oldie but a goodie. Management consultancies are process driven. Nothing wrong with that to build efficiency into a business. But to keep up with consumers, brands increasingly want ‘better faster’. They also want robust process which is where our industry can learn so much from the likes of Accenture. However, as they continue to buy agencies at a rapid rate, the proof will be in (1) how quickly they can integrate them all to provide a seamless service which doesn’t take months to get an idea to market and (2) how they will create a culture that retains the best creative talent. 

I end with one more quip which a client shared with me many moons ago and it applies, just as well, to the agency conglomerates: 

“The manifesto of management consultancy: if you’re not part of the solution, there’s good money to be made from prolonging the problem”.  

Both agencies and consultancies will need to adapt quickly if they’re to remain relevant to clients and, more importantly, to consumers.

We aim high. Every time.

Get in touch to start the
conversation and learn
how we can help you.

+44 7730 711923