How Brian Whipple Turned Accenture Into the World’s Largest Digital Agency

'We do advertising, but do it in the context of reinventing clients'

Accenture was looking for someone who was part business strategist and part ad executive to lead its digital-marketing venture, so it called Brian Whipple.
Sasha Maslov for Adweek

(Disclosure: Accenture Interactive is an underwriter of Adweek’s Digital Transformation Playbook. This feature is independent of that relationship.)

Brian Whipple, the longtime CEO of Accenture Interactive, loves fishing; casting his lure into deep waters of the Atlantic.

And from his Boston office, where since 2010 he’s run the world’s largest digital agency—to the tune of $6.5 billion in revenue in 2017—he’s reeled in some pretty big clients, overseen dozens of acquisitions and more recently, this summer, made big waves with the announcement that Accenture Interactive would offer marketers in-house programmatic services.

Yet Whipple is not your garden-variety consultant. Yes, he grew up in the firm, starting his career there in 1987 and spending the next 18 years building up a knowledge base and Rolodex. But by 2005, he moved on to the agency world, with senior leadership roles at RAPP and Hill Holiday. It was here in agency-land where he saw an opportunity—and the future.

“There was little talk, but no action, about the intersection of marketing and technology,” Whipple remembers. “The broader things of connectivity, mobility, the internet was not leveraged in a scalable way for marketing. It was more systems integration. Things were just beginning to wake up in this intersection.”

This intersection, he realized, was coming to a crossroads sooner rather than later. And in a bit of serendipity, Accenture was looking for an executive to lead its fledgling digital-marketing venture; one who was part business strategist, part ad executive and who could talk directly to the CMOs like the consulting firm was already talking to CIOs.

So the big consultancy called Whipple.

“I was interested in growing a scalable business in the billions, not in the millions,” he says of his decision to move over. “And while I am a big fan of various agencies, and the agency culture … they are by their very nature, intrinsically nonscalable.”

Whipple’s latest strategic move is programmatic buying.
Sasha Maslov for Adweek

A medium-sized agency might generate $200-250 million in revenue, and Whipple believed that if you could tap into the fusion of marketing and technology, those numbers might be the sum of two or three clients, rather than 80 clients.

“I thought there was an opportunity to build something really, really big,” he says. “It’s the scale that was there. That’s what I saw.”

Martin Sorrell, also building a digital agency via his new holding company S4 Capital, believes the Accenture Interactive chief’s strategy is on point. “I was struck by Brian Whipple, who recently said, ‘We don’t compete with the agencies. We go in at the CEO, CIO and CMO level and sell big digital disruption projects. We’re not fighting for $5 million or $10 million tactical implementation projects. We buy [the world’s largest design consultancy] Fjord to implement what has already been won at a senior level.’ I think that’s where it happens. It impressed me,” says Sorrell.

Nancy Harhut, chief creative officer at HBT Marketing, worked for Whipple at Hill Holliday when he headed up the Boston creative shop’s relationship marketing group. Whipple, she recalls, told the team they each needed to think of five ways they could help their clients grow beyond the work they were already doing for them.

“Looking back, it’s no surprise he became an empire builder,” says Harhut. “He was always taking a look at the big picture. With Brian, it’s all about the thinking.”

That thinking has led to Whipple’s latest strategic move: programmatic buying. In May, the company announced it was throwing its hat into ad buying, with the philosophy that in a digital age, it is key to winning more accounts. It also happens to eat into the agency business.

This story first appeared in the September 10, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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