It’s funny how subtle shifts in collective thinking can take place.
One minute, spooked by the likes of Martin Sorrell and Graham Hinton,
everybody’s wondering how ad agencies can stop management consultancies
from eating their lunch. The next minute, charged up by spirited
attempts to slay the dragon by luminaries such as Andrew Robertson and
Winston Fletcher, everyone’s saying ’maybe they’re not such a threat
after all ...’
Fletcher’s tack is that marketing-related work is an insignificant line
of business for management consultancies. Robertson’s argument is that
agencies provide creativity - of which strategic thinking is a by-
product - of the kind that cannot be replicated by a management
consultancy. His view, shared by many on the consultancy side, is that
there is enough lunch to go round for agencies and consultants to co-
There is much to be said for these positions. After all, despite the
talk, can anyone name a case where a management consultancy has stolen
an agency’s lunch? Better still, name a campaign where the strategic
insight came from a management consultant? Can’t? Thought so. One
reason, of course, is that the classic management consultancies, or at
least the ones everybody refers to as the bogeymen (Andersen, Coopers
PriceWaterhouse, McKinsey and so on), tend to be more focused on the
client’s internal activities and business processes than they do on its
outward-looking (and therefore marketing-related) activities.
What they do, therefore, is often invisible to the outside eye.
However, it is one thing to say that agencies aren’t threatened by
management consultancies, quite another to say that they aren’t at risk
from their own inadequacies. It goes without saying, for example, that
like all service businesses, agencies stand or fall by the talent they
recruit. One of the obvious failings, therefore, is in the way agencies
no longer have first pick of the brightest graduates, many of whom are
opting instead for careers in, you guessed it, consultancy (hats off to
WPP for trying to tackle this problem).
The second is in the way agencies sometimes fail to see the wider
business context in which their clients operate. This leads to a culture
in which the solution to all client problems is advertising. Is it a
surprise, therefore, that clients are nervous about asking agencies for
advice and therefore turn elsewhere?
As always with these arguments, the truth, one suspects, lies somewhere
in between. Perhaps, as one agency head put it to me last week, it’s
about as meaningful as arguing whether a brain surgeon is more important
than a heart surgeon. ’It all depends,’ he said, ’on what your problem
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