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.

“You’re seeing agencies behave more like consultancies, and consultancies behaving more like agencies,” says Barry Lowenthal, CEO of The Media Kitchen. “At the end of the day, the people who win will be the clients, because they’ll have more choices from companies that offer the same services.”

Concerned that the likes of Google and Facebook have too much control, clients are increasingly moving functions like programmatic buying in-house so that they can more firmly own their customer relationships and the valuable consumer data they generate.

Accenture counts HP, Melia Hotels and Radisson Hotels as clients. Radisson, for example, tapped Accenture to be its digital adviser, handle its paid media and build out its related technology infrastructure so it could bring programmatic buying in-house, letting the hotelier manage “a lot more intelligence-driven and personalized marketing,” says Kevin Carl, the hotelier’s global chief information technology officer. “We wanted to build out our own capabilities.”

How do ad agencies compete against a shop offering everything from defensive disruption strategies to creating actual ads? The answer seems to be if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Matt Prohaska, CEO of Prohaska Consulting, an ad-tech consultancy, says he’s busy advising agencies on how to cost-effectively leverage marketing technology, better target the consumer data that’s digitally out there and find the talent that knows how to use that data for clients.

Interestingly, in this land of frenemies, Google is a key Accenture partner helping to bring such capabilities in-house for clients. “Accenture is the general contractor,” says Chip Hall, managing director of Google Platform Demand Channels. “Their job is to take our great [information-gathering marketing] products and figure out how to make them work really well to transform somebody’s business.”

More businesses are clamoring for that transformation. An Interactive Advertising Bureau survey revealed that only 18 percent of marketers who purchased digital ads programmatically have fully moved programmatic buying in-house, but that another 47 percent intend to do so and have begun the process. The automotive, retail and travel industries have been the first adopters of ad tech, says Glen Hartman, head of Accenture Interactive North America, but now “we’re seeing a big push in b-to-b.”

Detractors exist, of course. The fact that Accenture is both an auditor and a player is, critics say, a conflict of interest.

“They get rates from agencies as part of their auditing. They’re privy to information that helps them,” says Lowenthal.

Adds MediaCom chairman and CEO Stephen Allan, in a LinkedIn post after Accenture announced it was getting into the media buying game: “You can’t ask for money to pay the piper and then play the tune yourself.”

In between chasing big deals for Accenture Interactive, Whipple catches (and releases) stripers for sport.

And while Accenture responds that it has guardrails in place, there are other risks to consider: Success breeds copycats, which leads to lower fees. Also, isn’t there a danger that once he’s taught clients how to fish for data they’ll simply cut away his hook and line?

Whipple says that will be the exception because new technology is always being developed. His firm is intent on investing in and staying on top of all the breakthroughs, some of which are occurring in Asia. “Clients don’t want the technology on their books,” he says. “They want the technology to stay current, have the technology stay on our books and pay for it out of services. We have to exploit that.”

In the last five years alone, Whipple has made 23 acquisitions, buying up, for undisclosed sums, the likes of London-based firms Fjord and Karmarama (creative shop), Media Hive (ecommerce solutions provider), Clearhead (digital optimizer), SinnerSchrader (German digital agency) and HO Communication (Chinese digital agency).

One of the competitive advantages of having a large consultancy behind you is its deep pockets. Whipple says, however, that the company’s growth has been 85 to 90 percent organic and not through acquisition. With the above purchases, Whipple offers corporate clients across the globe an all-in-one digital strategist, tech powerhouse and creative agency.

“We are not principally an ad agency,” Whipple says. “We do advertising, but do it in the context of reinventing clients.”

Whipple’s pitch falls on receptive ears. CEOs at large corporations are steadily taking power and budget away from CIOs and increasingly demanding CMOs build brand experiences that could translate into real sales in a digital world.

“The CMO became a business executive rather than a marketing executive,” Whipple explains. “Instead of being measured by brand impressions or share of voice—traditional marketing metrics—they were [suddenly] being measured on revenues, drop-off rates and profit by customer.”

The problem? Most CMOs do not have the IT skills or sales experience to deliver, and needed a reliable partner to help them shoulder that burden, pull all the parts together and radically reinvent their businesses for the Digital Age.

Enter the consulting firms

Accenture Interactive is, of course, not the only consultant helping corporate clients embrace ad tech. Deloitte, IBM, KPMG, McKinsey and PwC are all winning business.

In the past five years, Whipple has made 23 acquisitions.
Sasha Maslov for Adweek

But Whipple’s vision is to focus only on building winning “experiences” for clients and their customers, and not pigeonhole themselves as being creative– or technology- or process-led.

What that meant became clear when Accenture Interactive’s XR studio created a virtual showcase for BMW that not only allowed prospective car buyers to change the colors on models, but virtually placed that car inside the customer’s garage or in front of their house, allowing them to “sit” inside to really imagine what it would be like to bring home the latest BMW. This was a sales tool that was both an ad and an experience.

Whipple then created an “operations” division that promised to turn those “experiences” into hard sales for clients, before controversially boosting his offering with a programmatic buying service.

“We not only create and build the best experiences on the planet for our clients—but we run them as well,” Whipple has told prospective clients.

This pitch landed Subway

Sales were in steady decline, but the sandwich maker noticed that while 63 percent of customers didn’t know what they were eating an hour before lunch, 44 percent used smartphones to make that decision, and then spent 30 percent more than other customers. It was crucial for Subway to get into that digital space and reenergize its sales by influencing those lunch picks.

In June 2016, needing quick results, Subway jump-started its corporate “imperative” by hiring Accenture Interactive to strategize, build and execute its digital ambitions.

“Subway’s core competence is making delicious food,” says Carissa Ganelli, Subway’s chief digital officer. “We are not mobile app developers. It makes a lot of sense for us to outsource that.”

Over the next two years, Accenture Interactive created a new tech platform, a digital loyalty program and a new app that playfully allows customers to build their own sandwiches by, say, doubling meat and cutting lettuce by swiping left or right.

“It was like building a Ferrari on an Oldsmobile chassis,” Ganelli recalls. “It was expensive. We could have gone with a lower-priced provider. But we would not have got the quality or breadth of service.”

All this service to experience is to help give CMOs their mojo back, and this is where Whipple believes Accenture Interactive can offer something an agency can’t.

“We’re more interested in reinventing the dining experience, where that would include programmatic, point of sale, the underpinning technology for a multiyear process,” he says. “What we’re providing to that client goes far beyond any budget an advertising holding company would have access to.”

There’s a new big fish in the pond.

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

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