Accenture Interactive, the consulting giant’s marketing services arm, fuelled speculation that it could bid for a larger ad group last year, in which it eventually acquired 10 small or mid-sized agencies.
However, Pierre Nanterme, the chairman and chief executive of Accenture, gave a strong signal on his most recent quarterly earnings call that he is not interested in large-scale M&A.
"This is not our game at Accenture," he said in response to a question from a Wall Street analyst about whether Accenture Interactive might make "larger deals, rather than tuck-ins".
Nanterme explained: "Our game is to drive organic growth on top of acquisitions of very specific companies with very specific and differentiated capabilities.
"And then what Accenture is offering to these companies we’re acquiring is our unique access to the best brands in the world and our unique geographic footprint."
He said he was opposed to buying a large agency group because his chief financial officer, David Rowland, has told him that "100% of the big transactions in professional services and consolidation failed".
Nanterme was upbeat about the prospects for Accenture Interactive, which he described as "the darling of Accenture".
It has bought a string of creative and digital agencies including Karmarama and Fjord in the UK, Sinner Schrader in Germany, The Monkeys and Maud in Australia, and AD Dialeto in Brazil.
He claimed Accenture Interactive has "amazing momentum" and pointed to its recent appointment by Maserati as global experience agency of record – an all-encompassing role that includes creative, content, design and programmatic.
"It means something for us because it means that indeed, we are now a key player in the agency world," Nanterme said.
"We are gaining massive market share. We’re becoming certainly a leader in digital marketing solutions."
Speculation that Accenture could make a big acquisition peaked in September 2017 when Jerome Bodin, an analyst at Natixis, a French investment bank, published a research note that said Publicis Groupe and WPP were takeover targets and Accenture looked "a credible buyer".
Accenture’s stock market value climbed steadily during 2017 to pass $100 billion.
That makes it four times larger than WPP and other ad groups such as Omnicom, Publicis Groupe and Interpublic, which all saw their stock prices tumble.
Bodin subsequently published a less bullish note, entitled "Let’s be clear: consultancies are not the biggest threat", about the agency sector in November 2017. He suggested tech and IT giants were a bigger threat.
Accenture has been the most aggressive of the consulting firms to enter marketing services as they seek to challenge the role of agencies by offering what they claim is a more "joined-up" solution that covers every aspect of the customer experience.
Nanterme highlighted four areas that are driving Accenture Interactive’s growth: digital design, content production, e-commerce, and analytics and artificial intelligence.
Accenture has recruited Nikki Mendonca, president of Omnicom’s OMD in EMEA, to be president of Intelligent Marketing Operations, a new unit specialising in marketing analytics and AI.
Nanterme said he hoped Intelligent Marketing Operations can be "an accelerator" by adding new capabilities "on top of the good momentum" that Accenture Interactive already has.
"I’m extremely comfortable that we will continue to gain market share and to grow significantly with Accenture Interactive," he said.
Accenture expects to spend between $1.1 billion and $1.4 billion on acquisitions across the group, not just on Accenture Interactive, during its current financial year.
Rowland said Accenture spent slightly more on M&A last year.
"It just so happens that last year the nature of the opportunities in the marketplace was such that we went above what would be our typical strategic range," he said, adding that it could spend more again "at any time in the future" if the right opportunity arose.
Accenture made the comments just before Christmas in its first quarter earnings call for its 2018 financial year.