What It’s Really Like to Work at an Agency When It’s Bought by a Consultancy

From the perspective of someone involved in one of the first acquisitions

On the left is a man holding a building that says
IBM purchased agency Resource/Ammirati in early 2016. Getty Images

In late January 2016, I sat in a dark theater in Columbus, Ohio, surrounded by agency colleagues from offices across the country, staring at a large blank screen. We all knew it was happening. A buyout, most likely. But who was it? What was it? As it turned out, we learned that the who was IBM. The what had yet to be determined.

From my spot in the test market of the Midwest, I experienced a similar feeling this month as news came through of Droga5’s acquisition, a combination of shock, and then slowly, a dawning sense that I had been handed a crystal ball. The future of the industry had suddenly become very clear, and we were the test case.

When I started at Resource/Ammirati in 2015, it was the top agency in Columbus and had been independent for more than 30 years. My interview was conducted in the old offices, a brick building with intimate lighting, exposed beams and the ever-present scent of brewing coffee. Resource was known in town as the place to get real exposure to major national CPG and retail brands, and like my previous agency home of Mullen, it felt like things were happening here. The client roster included some big names: Procter & Gamble, Victoria’s Secret, Birchbox, White Castle, Jerry Seinfeld. Shortly after being hired, the agency moved into a sleek new building with higher ceilings and far more concrete and glass. Things were happening.

My background is a mix of copywriting, PR and account service, and I was hired as a hybrid marketing copywriter and PR lead for the agency. In addition to basic media management, our marketing team would review all the various creative work and cross-promote the work alongside our clients. We were the hype team. On my first day, I sat in a meeting discussing a potential project for Nike. It was not hard to find ways to hype Nike. At the time, the creative work spoke for itself.

The future for this industry is not decided by consultants or sales teams—it’s determined by emotionally resonant, impactful creative that drives response.

The day in the dark theater happened less than six months after I started. The trade media breathlessly covered the agency’s purchase by IBM, making it the first major agency acquisition for a consultancy, quickly followed by Deloitte’s purchase of Heat. We had just become the guinea pigs in this new era of advertising, the first to test the consultancy-agency model.

In the six months immediately following the news, day-to-day agency life did not significantly change. Like any merger or acquisition, things take time, and each increment of transition was on a three to six-month timeline.

Most of us didn’t know how any of it would actually work, but we heard lots of good news designed to calm our collective nerves. IBM has amazing employee benefits, and those benefits would soon be our benefits. For those who were worried that going corporate would cramp our creative style, fears were allayed in one early town hall meeting when we were told they were waiving the standard corporate drug testing. There were audible sighs and lots of laughter at that announcement. Overall, the vibe was generally positive.

While things were positive on the integration front, my own job changed almost immediately. I was suddenly on a marketing team for a massive global consultancy with plenty of marketing teams already in place. I wasn’t losing my job, which was good news. But my role had shifted into a different space, and in time I chose to leave the agency to consult and build my portfolio.

Most joint agency-consultancy merger PR announcements sound similar. The term “creative thinking” will live somewhere in the quote, and all parties will declare this is the future and a more efficient way to do business. The potential for the new model is very clear: building creative as an offering into a long list of offerings gives more access to clients for both parties. Making the theory work in practice is more complicated. Agency business development and consultancy sales operate differently and are incentivized differently, with traditional agency business development tied very closely to the quality of the creative while consultancy sales success is measured by hitting targets and goals. The friction of the two business models was an early concern for many at Resource and continues to be an obstacle to overcome for any of the dozens of agency/consultancy hybrids that follow on this path.

Three years after being acquired by IBM, the former Resource/Ammirati team and the creative landscape of Columbus both look very different. Reserving blame or judgement, but here are some facts: The staff is much smaller. The culture has changed. The creative client roster is currently shorter (although deciphering an integrated consultancy roster is often a challenge as they often won’t differentiate between creative work and whatever else consultancies do). Creative is pitched differently, sold differently and price disparities are resolved by offshoring. Many talented people still work inside the walls, but they are living a different reality than they were three years ago. Many others have moved on, voluntarily or through rounds of layoffs.

But there is good news on the creativity front. The crew of good, talented folks who found themselves inadvertently at odds with the new Resource didn’t leave the city; they found other ways to do what they love. Small agencies in Columbus are thriving and growing. Talent has also moved in-house. The 2019 local ADDYs saw a record number of wins for in-house client-side shops, a coup when compared to Resource’s total dominance over the previous two decades. The worst fears in the age of the agency hybrid have not been realized: Creative work has not been ground into capitalist dust here in Ohio. In an unexpected turn of events, it has actually strengthened the traditional advertising model.

For many industry experts, the Droga5 news was the final nail in the coffin for advertising as we’ve always known it. But from where I sit, deep in the Midwest and years after our own takeover, I see a resurrection. The future for this industry is not decided by consultants or sales teams—it’s determined by emotionally resonant, impactful creative that drives response. That can come from anywhere as long as there is an environment that nourishes that creativity free from competing interests.

Four years from now, I predict we’ll have seen a voracious return of small- and medium-sized agencies winning more business as clients recognize the original value of standalone great creative: It sells.

@sarahtrafford Sarah Trafford Koenig is an ad agency veteran and creative consultant based in Columbus, Ohio.