I’M ONLY A CLIENT BUT: doesn’t the management consultant’s task end at the very point where the client is getting interested? Keith Lucas gives some pointers on how ad agencies can win back clients by learning to be strategic as we

Saatchi & Saatchi’s recent announcement that the word advertising would be dropped from its title is evidence that the narrow discipline of advertising is too tight a pigeonhole for a modern agency. It is also symptomatic of the fact that agencies face increasing competition for their clients’ time and budgets from some interesting new directions; one of the most dynamic of which is the management consultant.

Saatchi & Saatchi’s recent announcement that the word advertising

would be dropped from its title is evidence that the narrow discipline

of advertising is too tight a pigeonhole for a modern agency. It is also

symptomatic of the fact that agencies face increasing competition for

their clients’ time and budgets from some interesting new directions;

one of the most dynamic of which is the management consultant.

The subject has become an uncomfortable bone of contention among


Attitudes range from an insistence that ’consultants will never do what

we can’, to a dismissal of the threat as ’an over-hyped


It is still rare to hear a positive response and a constructive argument

for agency change. Meanwhile, the consultants continue to make inroads

into agency territory.

Agencies would do well to take the threat seriously. First, because it

is specifically for strategic planning, the intellectual heart of the ad

agency, that clients are now forsaking them in favour of the management

consultant. This was the very discipline that raised the status of

agencies, from creative execution shops a generation ago into today’s

intelligent communications partners. Without strategic planning,

agencies would not only lose creative focus but professional

credibility. Given that, for all their foibles, few clients would be

naive enough to invest the sums charged by consultants without

reasonable justification, there must be a significant degree of

disenchantment with what ad agencies are offering.

The door is then left open for the management consultants to move in and

seize the opportunity with the analytical precision for which they are

renowned. Of course, some agencies write off the popularity of the

management consultant as a passing phenomenon - merely the latest in a

series of client fads. There may be an element of truth in this, but it

conveniently ignores the fact that the door is only left open when the

client does not shut it.

So what are the consultants offering that agencies are failing to


Evidence suggests that clients now feel that they are outgrowing their

traditional ad agency partners, that they have moved on while their

agencies have stood still (or, at best, moved too slowly). With ever

more complex briefs and an explosion in communications opportunities,

their demands are growing beyond the ability of most agencies to

respond. They are, more fundamentally, disillusioned by the fact that,

for all their pretensions of being ’full service’ and ’media neutral’,

scratch below the surface and most agencies remain in that traditional

advertising pigeonhole. So, when the management consultant arrives

promising a comprehensive and holistic solution to their total

communications needs, the client, dazzled by the scope of the new

arrival’s intellectual insight, needs little persuasion to hand over the


If this analysis is true, how have agencies arrived at this dilemma, and

why are they struggling to compete against the capabilities of the

management consultant? First of all, agencies always seem to be too busy

(with their client’s business, naturally) to have a strategy for their

own business. For example:

- How many agencies have really focused on the changes that

globalisation will have on their business - as opposed to simply

pursuing a policy of relentless expansion and business acquisition?

- Apart from the more progressive media specialists (many of which are

now independents), how many agencies are actively engaged in realigning

their product to meet the needs of the radically different media

landscape that is now emerging with the advent of digital TV and the

explosion in computer-based media? It is a sad indictment, given the

changes taking place, that so many agencies are still without a


- To what extent have agencies put into place the practical operating

systems needed to manage pan-European campaigns for international


Too few, for example, offer an integrated network of local offices -

making do with an assembly of local agencies trying to hide internal

dissent about whose work should run where. One of the major problems

that faces clients when setting up international advertising is the

difficulty of maintaining centralised control (which is often based on

informal rather than organisational authority) to reconcile local

differences. Imagine then, the added complication of working with an

agency network whose local offices are also pulling in different

directions with vested local interests. Improved internal communications

are needed within and between both agency and client as campaigns go

global; few networks make adequate use of e-mail and video conferencing

- fewer still can offer multilingual account management teams.

- With the exception of the international planners, how conversant are

most agency staff with, for example, the fragmentation of international

consumers into horizontally-segmented tribal clusters? Or, for

argument’s sake, Michael Porter’s five forces?

If you winced at that last point you will appreciate the next: it is

that agencies generally place too little emphasis on education and

developing their own strategic vision. How many agency practitioners

(excluding, once again, those from the more erudite planning

departments) have seriously studied the theory of their subject? If

advertising is to raise its professional status this must surely be a

prerequisite (imagine your surprise if your lawyer had never opened a

textbook dealing with the issue on which you were consulting him). It

may sound cruelly sceptical but whoever got promoted in advertising for

knowing about the theory? The way to the top seems to be a narrow,

well-trodden route for shrewd movers hopping from one agency to the next

to secure each successive foothold - education is rarely going to get

you there any quicker. So, after years of being immersed in an exclusive

world of their own, it is hardly surprising that some agency chiefs have

become rather myopic about their agency’s direction and corporate

mission. For the same reason, agencies tend to be equally myopic about

recruitment. How many for example, have had the foresight to bring in

senior talent with a fresh business perspective from outside the

industry? (Saatchi & Saatchi springs to mind but how many others can you


In contrast, one of the key success factors of the management

consultants can be attributed to their broader intellectual platform

which enables them to be totally ’solution neutral’ (and not simply

’media neutral’ - which is the broadest claim most agencies are prepared

to make). This perspective is further enhanced by their survival not

depending on the selling of campaign executions, which means they have

an uninhibited view of the big picture and can recommend solutions well

beyond the confines of traditional advertising.

This less inhibited outlook also leads to a greater awareness of the

strategic opportunities for their own future which is precisely why

advertising agencies are now having to compete against them. What is

more, management consultants often have a more aspirational image than

their agency competitors.

Why? Because they have been working hard to develop their own

identities. Unlike most agencies, consultants have been using their own

skills to build their brand images (witness the image-building

initiatives from Andersen Consulting). How many ad agencies have enough

confidence in their skills to use them to solve their own communications


Does this mean agencies are destined to regress into little more than

execution shops, handing over the strategic planning to the consultants

having lost the plot irretrievably? Not necessarily. Agencies have a

wealth of experience and possess unique qualities above and beyond the

scope of most management consultants. Most agency reels can celebrate

several miraculous transformations of timid brands turned household

legends (Tango, Boddingtons, Peperami, Martini, the Economist,

Brylcreem, Lucozade ...)

The imaginative inspiration that sees the potential in a dormant brand

cannot be replicated by strategic analysis. The impact of a truly

memorable ad campaign that expands the potential of the brand or

proposition far beyond the client’s declared commercial strategy is no

more than an anomaly to the consultant. It is the spark of creative

genius at the core of any successful agency that sets it apart from the

studiously worthy but rather anodyne analysis of the management


So, if agencies really do have the potential to succeed, what must they

do to regain lost momentum and rejuvenate their client offering?

PAgencies should take a more progressive attitude to their staff. They

should be better trained and educated, they should recruit more from

non-classical agency backgrounds and there should be systematic

client/agency role-reversal. Career progression should recognise wider

experience and more clients should be encouraged into agency jobs and

vice versa.

PThey must widen their scope to offer solution-neutral answers to wider

marketing problems. Building on a broader experience base and a higher

level of theoretical expertise, the agency should exercise its skills in

more diverse areas of marketing communications. To support this

strategy, agencies should also aim to work on a consultancy fee basis

wherever possible and so avoid being compromised by a perceived vested

interest in any particular solution.

PThe benefits of being responsible for the final execution should be

positively exploited. Provided that their strategic thinking has been

set free from the formulaic execution process described earlier,

agencies have a powerful and unique advantage over the management

consultant in also managing the campaign execution.

This factor alone can give a progressive agency the potential to crack

the client’s brief successfully in, perhaps, a quarter of the time (and

at a fraction of the cost) taken by most management consultants.

Furthermore, the strategic solution then naturally flows into the

creative presentation that exemplifies it. In contrast, the management

consultant’s task ends at the very point where the client is getting


PAgencies should use their own skills to help themselves. It might be

argued that an agency’s credentials may be judged in the work it

produces for its existing clients (which is a bit like expecting someone

to buy an Armani suit just because it looked good on the person last

seen wearing one). We should expect to see confident agencies that are

proud of their capabilities, advertising their competency and meeting

their competitors (from wherever they may come) with a genuine USP in

their armoury.

There is some serious self-appraisal called for if agencies are to

revitalise themselves to meet the challenges of the next millennium.

That spark of ingenuity that sets agencies apart from management

consultants provides not only their critical point of difference but

should also now be used to help define their own solutions and re-ignite

client confidence for the future.

Finally, I would like to reassure any indignant agency chiefs that my

observations refer to the agency world at large and are not aimed at

you! They are, however, the personal and unprejudiced views of an

advertising client and will, I hope, help to stimulate the kind of

debate needed to get to grips with the challenges that lie ahead.


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