Ad Agencies Are Building Out Their Own Consultancies to Better Compete for Digital Dollars

Traditional shops are fighting back

Traditional ad agencies are adjusting to the new normal.
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As consulting and IT firms continue to acquire agencies and add marketing services, traditional advertising companies have begun to fight back by launching practices to provide business-transformation counsel to help clients more effectively compete for customer dollars in the digital age.

“Marketers are keen to remain innovative and future-focused, so having consulting solutions available helps to ensure they’re always one step ahead of disruption stemming from technology and consumer change,” says Richard Hartell, global president of transformation at Publicis Media.

The media arm of the Paris-based holding company is taking a two-pronged approach. Its $3.7-billion acquisition of Sapient in 2014 added digital design and related services to the fold. Two years later, Publicis Media launched its global business transformation practice. As an example of tangible value, Hartell points to the group’s new “Predictor” study, an analysis of how AI, evolving payment methods and seamless shopping will impact banking, cars, consumer electronics and other sectors in the next five years. He also cites work for an undisclosed client that involved “an in-depth audience insights project with a panel of over 200 participants.”

"Helping clients transform is core to what we do, not a new experiment."
-Saneel Radia, global head of business transformation, R/GA

As a result, the client “was better able to understand granular behaviors of millennial consumers within specific sites and across different devices,” he says. “This led the client to invest in new digital channels and change their content strategy for paid social activity.”

Though digging deeper into client budgets sounds alluring, experts caution agencies to proceed with care and cultivate a clear understanding of the craft, along with the vision to integrate new disciplines across the enterprise.

“Thinking about consulting as merely another service offering seems a bit opportunistic,” says Lee Maicon, chief strategy officer at 360i, where he leads a dedicated 50-person practice. Maicon joined the Dentsu-owned agency in 2010. “That same year,” he says, “we began counseling brands on how to organize and prepare for social media, and that has evolved into broader consulting on marketing design.”

At IPG-owned R/GA, Saneel Radia—one of Adweek’s Young Influentials for 2016—leads a similar-size practice, which grew out of the shop’s work with Nike+, and launched as a dedicated unit five years ago. Currently, the team is working with Campbell Soup to identify emerging consumer shopping behaviors and recommend steps the marketer should take to more effectively meet the challenges of an evolving global landscape.

"Great agencies have played a large role in the evolution of brands’ business for decades, and that should not be discounted."
-Lee Maicon, chief strategy officer at 360i

Such an undertaking “isn’t just communications,” he says. “It’s a shift in how you think about data, a shift in how you go to market, a shift in essentially your business model. At its core, your entire value proposition is to help C-suite clients innovate.”

Though agencies have made strides in the consultancy arena, some experts believe the ad business isn’t putting any real pressure on the global giants just yet.

For example, industry adviser Avi Dan dismisses most agency initiatives focused on business transformation as “usually just a couple of people [on staff] to give the impression that they are ‘beyond advertising.’ I think the so-called trend will continue because agencies are hungry for added revenue. But these services are bottom feeders—they are not competing with McKinsey or Accenture and will disappear as soon as the agency goes through cuts.”

360i’s Maicon views developments differently. “Traditional consultants are valuable thanks to the myriad analytical frameworks they bring to the table, but tend to have a superficial relationship to the transformative power of creativity to shape client’s businesses, as they lack hands-on experience in this respect,” he says. “Great agencies have played a large role in the evolution of brands’ business for decades, and that should not be discounted. Plus, we move more quickly and cost-efficiently than traditional consultants.”

Radia adds, “I believe helping clients transform is core to what we do, not a new experiment. What’s changed are the tools, rigor, consistency and ambition with which we do it.”

This story first appeared in the March 13, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.