Brands & Branding: Music to a brand manager’s ear?
by Andy Rice (@ricecommaandy) In whose hands are brands best off? Where should a CMO look for the best counsel? These are questions that heads of marketing have been grappling with for decades, ever since the value offered by full-service agencies came into question in the 1980s. The launch of discipline-specific specialists in the fields of media, creative and strategy triggered a widespread reassessment of the business partner model, and the à la carte menu became the flavour of the times, even if it put more onus on the marketing director to control and coordinate a team of independent advisors.
Up for debate again
Now the whole issue is up for debate once more, partly because the inevitable silos that the specialist approach creates are increasingly seen to be, at best, inefficient and, at worst, downright obstructive. But also contributing to the reopening of the discussion has been the arrival on the brand communications scene of a new option, one that offers a broader suite of services while avoiding the ‘jack of all trades’ mediocrity trap that the traditional full service agency all too often falls into.
The new kid on the block is the professional services company, otherwise better known as the management consultancy. Commentators have long argued that it was only a matter of time before the likes of Deloitte, Accenture and co started looking around for new revenue streams and that, when their eyes fell upon the brand space, they would rub their hands with glee. And now that the mainstream opportunities for business reengineering (aka. cost cutting) have largely been exhausted, the professional service companies have got their clients’ brand marketing budgets firmly in their sights.
But is their role in the marketing world likely to be as cynically shortsighted as many of the doomsayers would contend? Will they simply slash and burn for as long as the fees are rolling in, only to move on again to greener pastures in due course? The early signs are that this dystopian view is unlikely to come to pass, the evidence being found in the manner in which the management consultancies have entered the brand space — by acquisition of new skills, rather than by bluntly barging in, all guns blazing.
Take a look at some of the more high-profile acquisitions. Last year, Accenture Interactive acquired London-based Karmarama, a successful independent communications agency with a strong creative pedigree. To old-school market watchers, this must have looked like an accident waiting to happen, so culturally distant were the two bedfellows from each other. But Accenture didn’t stop there, having racked up a total of 15 acquisitions recently, including design shops (Wire Stone), sales consultancies (Brand Learning) and advertising agencies (The Monkeys). Meanwhile, Accenture’s fiercest foe, Deloitte, has been on a spending spree of its own, bringing fresh creative resources into its squad, the latest of which has been the acquisition of Sweden’s curiously named but highly respected agency, Acne. And, as an aside, is it perhaps just a matter of time before their acquisitions strategy moves on from cherry-picking individual agencies, to grabbing control of a whole network? Watch your back, Martin Sorrell!
The question that all this activity raises is whether one plus one will equal more than two — will the agencies’ creativity be blunted by the supposed linear rationality of their new owners, or will this injection of new thinking allow the likes of Deloitte and Accenture to progress from the pre-boxed solutions of old to something rather more unexpected and daring? Can each party retain its unique competence in a new environment, or will lowest common denominator compromises be the order of the day?
It could be said that the answer to that question is already there for all to see, given that Accenture Interactive claims to be the world’s largest digital agency by revenue, and you don’t achieve that by offering predictable strategy and half-hearted creativity. Closer to home, its South African office has been celebrating an acquisition of another kind — a Gold statue in the 2017 Loeries Creativity Awards.
This is an encouraging development for those of us who argue that an undermining of creativity is the biggest threat that brand managers face in today’s world. There is no need to rehash the argument that high levels of creativity foster higher levels of effectiveness because that debate is now effectively over. The spotlight thus moves on to the nurturing of creativity in an environment where data analysis seems to offer ‘proof’ in place of intuition and rationality trumps imagination. We need saviours to navigate us away from this obsession with information-based solutions that substitute logic for creativity. We suffer from a newly diagnosed disease, infobesity, and the cure can only come from a new profession altogether — mathemagicians.
Are these new hybrid agencies, combining data analysis and creativity, the best home for a brand’s future growth? Will their management understand the responsibility that they have to tackle infobesity and to grow more mathemagicians, all the while protecting the creativity that they have so expensively acquired? Have they finally squared the circle that was so elegantly defined when one advertising agency head bemoaned the fact that “we are structured like an orchestra, but are being asked to play jazz”? The early indicators are promising and, if I were a CMO with an appetite for responsible risk, I would certainly be tempted to explore further what might well be one of the most-interesting new brand partnership models for years.
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Johannesburg-based Andy Rice (@ricecommaandy) is probably South Africa’s best-known brand strategist, public speaker, and advertising commentator. He is regularly asked to comment on marketing issues of the day and recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from his peers in the brand communications industry.
The article first appeared in the 2017 edition of Brands & Branding in South Africa, an annual review from Affinity Publishing of all aspects of brand marketing — consisting of case-studies, profiles, articles and research — which may also be accessed at the brand-new Brands.MarkLives.com. Order your copy of the 2017 edition now!