This past year had consultancies rushing to get into the ad business, with Accenture acquiring London-based Karmarama, Deloitte snagging Heat in San Francisco and Epsilon winning the Del Monte creative review, as Publicis Groupe announced plans to embed teams of data analysts from Sapient into each of its creative agencies.
In turn, strategy departments have borrowed a page from consultancies' playbooks, helping clients with everything from web design to product development while they hire more employees from outside the traditional agency world.
The result is a marketing ecosystem destined to look much different by this time next year.
Chief strategy officer Andrew Dawson arrived at Deutsch in March after serving as chief creative officer and head marketer at electronics brand Master & Dynamic. His chief goal is helping the department move beyond its conventional role guiding the creative campaigns of its clients. "I want to make sure our strategists are as well informed and curious about business models and operations as they are about consumer behaviors and culture," he explained.
Dawson said the agency's social and digital departments were working more or less independently when he arrived. As part of an effort to unite them, he made "biodiversity" hires like vp, strategist Garett Awad, former retail marketing director at shoemaker Toms, and strategist Gustavo Malagon, a former business consultant at NASA.
Dawson envisions a future in which creative campaigns are only one of his shop's best-known products. "I'd like our strategy department to be top of mind when people think, 'Who could help us sort this problem/opportunity/idea out in the next four to six weeks?'" he said.
Evolving client demands also require more intensive onboarding processes, something Ken Lomasney, COO at unified.agency, knows well. His agency offers content, creative and data/analytics audits to new partners, for example.
However, clients are not always receptive. "In-depth discovery is really hard to sell," Lomasney explained. He acknowledged that many clients have taken their marketing in-house but believes that trend will reverse as more realize they can't do the work as effectively as agencies.
"I don't know how larger agencies can shift their gears fast enough to protect the foundation of their business and their staff," Lomasney said.
Jason De Turris recently left traditional creative shop CP+B to become chief strategy officer at Phenomenon, a Los Angeles digital shop founded on the idea that the old agency model is broken, explaining, "When the rebels become the establishment, it's time for new rebels."
Strategy, he observes, has become a "black ops" unit tasked with acting as the voice of the consumer while designing content and business strategies that go beyond communications to more directly drive product development and sales. He describes Phenomenon's approach as "consult creatively but make strategically," and would like to see a more prominent role for experiential analytics within strategy groups.
"In the same way a copywriter has an art director partner, strategy and customer experience need to be … finishing each other's sentences," he said, noting that data is "an input, not just an output" and should help facilitate difficult conversations with clients.
For their part, clients have signaled they are onboard with sweeping digital solutions in the interest of future-proofing their brands. But as agencies seek talent from disparate fields, they face new recruiting and retention challenges from the same consultancies and tech companies with which they now compete.
Debra Sercy, joint CEO of executive search firm Grace Blue, has seen many agency leaders transition into roles at analytics firms or in-house marketing teams, estimating that some 80 percent of her clients said they wanted to do something different for a living.
Agency talent is highly valued by consultancies, Sercy said, because it enhances their ability to move beyond suggestion into activation. "I absolutely don't believe agencies are dying, but some are complacent and must evolve to prove to clients that they can work in seamless, integrated fashion," she said. Agencies will remain at an advantage, however, as long as they emphasize the "creative, dynamic force … that doesn't exist on the consultancy side."
Forming units that mimic consultancies will aid agencies in adjusting and contributing to a more simplified, integrated model.
Sercy noted that the process of shaping a diverse talent pool boosts retention rates while it creates new client opportunities. "The good news is that clients are open to different solutions," she said. "It's a great time to be in the agency world for those brave, deliberate leaders to create something different."
This story first appeared in the January 16, 2017 issue of Adweek magazine.