"The consultants are coming" – pub talk in Fitzrovia. The topic splits the pack. Some (holding companies) react with fear; others (recent start-ups) with excitement about an M&A pay-day and some, like Adam & Eve DDB's chief strategy officer Alex Hesz, argue it’s a wake-up call.
So why are the consultancies shopping in adland? The answer is found by asking, what does an agency really do for its fees? Is the client paying for ideas, creative content or, in fact, paying for impact?
When accountant James McKinsey invented the consulting profession in the 1920s he saw it as applying measurement to make management more efficient.
It has moved on: in your first year’s McKinsey training you are told, in no uncertain terms, you are in the "problem solving" business.
To quote Hesz in Campaign: "Every pitch they (McKinsey) make relies upon two things being understood by the client: 1) You’re fucked; 2) Thank God we’re here".
That’s directionally correct but not the whole story. Leaving aside the profanity (McKinsey doesn’t do profane) it is more like: 1) You have a really complex problem; 2) We have crunched a vast amount of information and have a clever solution; 3) Now off you go and implement.
And it’s that last bit – implementation – that is the clue to why Accenture et al have been buying up creative agencies.
McKinsey and its ilk think of themselves as "board level advisors". They focus on serving the chief executive directly. They cherish their top table seat. Their solutions frequently required an IT project, hence many consultancies have an IT division.
"The conversation has changed from "you need some marketing" to "we have colleague who can implement the marketing strategy"
But increasingly – post digital – the answer involves consumer communication.
Back in the days when that meant "make a 30-second ad; buy loads of TV time" the consultants were content to let their client (the chief executive) delegate to the marketing director. But now the digital landscape demands an integrated, enterprise-wide answer.
So marcomms has become a chief executive-level issue. The consultants see they were leaving money on the table. So the conversation is changing from "you need some marketing" to "we have colleagues who can implement the marketing strategy we just (expensively) developed.
The Fitzrovia pub chats often spiral down to "the consultants will never understand our unique creative culture. They will mess it all up when they integrate us." Will they? Any more than the global holding companies have?
The consulting firms will never (if they are smart – which they are) want to integrate agencies fully.
For a start, they pay their people more (a lot more) than agencies and the last thing they want is equalisation of remuneration.
And they charge a lot more. A consultancy director can command £6,000 a day – how many agencies can put that figure in their GCS tender pricing matrix? If you get acquired it is very unlikely that someone from HQ will be sent to "help" you run your place. They don’t want to.
In the 1990s the unbundling of media made a fundamental change to agency economics. The arrival of the consultants will prove just as momentous.
So I agree with Hesz when he says "we don’t sell ads we sell impact". We are "enterprise services". We use creativity but we sell outcomes. Sales boosted. Behaviour changed.
Campaign likes to argue success is all about The Work. The arrival of the consultants suggests, in fact, it’s all about The Results of The Work.
So the answer is simple. Sell out to a consultancy or work closely with one. In either case, seek to solve big problems, directly for chief executives, using the best of creative ideas, skills and content creation – and then put up your fees.
Roger Parry is the chairman of MSQ Partners