Mike Teasdale warns network ad agencies that they should focus on how to use data to help their clients achieve a consistently connected brand experience or risk being run over by the management consultancy juggernaut.
Think back to when you were first learning to drive. Remember how you tended to look down at the pedals and gear stick and dashboard, rather than look up at the road ahead? Well, that's what network ad agencies are doing as they learn how to achieve the stable emulsion of data and creativity needed for the digital age. They're looking down as they try to fathom out how best to adapt to their disrupted world.
They're experimenting with organisational structures. They're integrating AI and machine learning into workplace cultures. And they're debating whether they should be focused on the creation of macro-impact branded ideas or micro-contact branded content. This is the so-called 'culture vs. collateral' debate. I find it an unhelpful descriptor since it's clearly pejorative (the phrase was coined by an exponent of macro-impact branded ideas). More importantly, it's a pointless debate because like most either/or debates, the answer is 'both'. Macro impact and micro contact are two sides of the same coin in today's digital world. Ad agencies have got to work out how to do both. They've got to get people talking about a client's brand and nudge people along the client's purchase funnel.
But even realising this is still missing the point. Macro-impact branded ideas and micro-contact branded content are both merely a means to an end, namely brand experience connectedness.
The thing network ad agencies should be focused on is how to use data to help their clients achieve a consistently connected brand experience. Consumers either want nothing to do with a brand or they want a seamless, friction-free, personalised interaction. And they want it now. That level of connectedness requires the sort of holistic thinking that engages all the senses and all the action touchpoints. This is a unified view of an experience-led world, and the prize is there for anyone who can construct the whole solution. And network ad agencies need to wake up to this fact.
The traditional management consultancies have been busy flexing their wallets to acquire the varied creative smarts that will enable them to promise clients the nirvana of a truly connected brand experience. To me, they look much nearer to achieving that unified goal than any network ad agency. They've got better digital marketing expertise, better e-commerce experience, and better IT skills. Combining these implementation advantages with their newly acquired ideation capabilities makes them a formidable threat.
Imagine you're a management consultancy busily acquiring a variety of creative businesses and stitching them together into a single P&L. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to work out what your pitch will soon be to major CMOs: 'We're the only creativity service provider who can help you deliver a fully joined-up brand experience for your customers. All that from the people who are already working closely with your CEO and CFO and CTO to improve the efficiency of your organisation in multiple areas.'
It's compelling, and it makes what network ad agencies offer look both naive and parochial in comparison: 'We can tell impactful stories in a few channels that will get people talking about your brand.'
The management consultancies buying up creative businesses across the marketing spectrum represent a juggernaut that is not just threatening to overtake network ad agencies but also suck them under its wheels as it thunders past. It will take time, but it's already happening. It currently happens most in CRM and digital, but who's to say the rate of change won't be accelerated dramatically by a management consultancy buying a network ad agency or even buying a whole marketing services holding company? Accenture Interactive will likely be bigger than Havas by the end of this year, and its Accenture parent is already more than twice as big as WPP. You do the maths.
No amount of wishful thinking by network ad agencies that creative businesses are fundamentally different in culture to management consultancies will save them. Culture may eat strategy for breakfast, but brand experience connectedness will eat culture for an on-the-go snack. Network ad agencies need to look up, not down. Fast. They need to grasp how the very nature of marketing creativity is changing forever. Crucially, they need to be able to manoeuvre away from dwindling broadcast revenues and the historic structures set up to service that world.
If they don't look up, or don't respond to the changing driving conditions, they risk becoming roadkill.