by Ben Wagner (@BenWagner) While most digital and traditional agencies have been occupied with what now seems like a side skirmish, the real war has been brewing in the customer experience and business transformation environment, where the big-name consultancies have been rapidly gearing up to make a significant entrance into the marketing and communications cluster.

Initial battle-line formation

Several years back, it seemed as if the major digital agencies of the time were mutually obsessed with competing for through-the-line assignments in an active quest to demonstrate their capabilities in creating TTL work with digital at its centre. In stark contrast, traditional agencies were desperately trying to show their clients that they could create and manage digitally-orientated work, either by attempting to start their own “digital divisions” or simply opting for the quicker, but more expensive, route of acquiring specialist digital agencies.

The impact of this frenetic race to the top has resulted in many traditional agencies enduring false and failed starts, with plenty of casualties now littering the agency-acquisition landscape. Fortunately, a handful have endured and grown into formidable full-service agencies actively competing against their traditional counterparts.

Sadly, beyond the obvious mayhem a merger causes (culture, operationalising, cannibalising of existing client-revenue streams etc), the biggest stumbling block has been the persistence of silos, where traditional agencies persist with following a production-based mindset with their newly acquired digital capabilities. The absence of a “whole idea” or digitally-led idea has been a frustrating impediment to creating truly integrated agency models. Countless industry colleagues have bemoaned their fate of being acquired by a big-name traditional agency, only to have the lack of integration as pronounced as the day they moved into their new overlord’s building. Some well-respected digital agencies have long since disappeared or have morphed into the realm of production shops, fading into irrelevance.

The current battle line

Through the benefit of a historically trusted presence in the C-suite and through the legacy of consulting and auditing services, these providers are rapidly building up a strong customer experience consulting competency, together with enterprise level development and rollout capabilities. This, combined with an ability to build remote teams on-site at clients, has given consultancies a strong case for winning a lead position at the client table.

But will they win the war?

I say NO, for a bunch of reasons.

  • The first is I believe that management consultants have a DNA crisis that is diametrically opposed to creative talent. Many a story has been told of creatives being headhunted into consultancies, only to flee due to the constrictive culture and lack of conceptual creativity. Management consultants also typically seek out large, complex and long-term (read expensive) business-architecture assignments, predicated around a specific enterprise technology framework.
  • Secondly, brands need stories, ideally the perfect alchemy of science and magic. Unfortunately, the consultancies are all science, which is borne out with their blinkered view on systems. However, in today’s crowded, disintermediated and ever-changing marketing landscape, systems take time and, most importantly, you need magic in telling your brand experience story.
  • Thirdly, they have the wrong fire power. Consulting companies typically talk systems and platforms, which is why many of them are now driving acquisitions of digitally led creative shops in an attempt at right-sizing the weighting of creative vs technical talent. This isn’t enough. The reason being, is that many full-service agencies are starting to integrate TTL media strategy, including buying and planning, with a deeply digital and performance-based mindset which, as obvious as it sounds, is driving an even sharper focus on ROI but equally opening up the customer-experience conversation on the basis of optimising the conversion funnel that media performance has led to. This is allowing extended value being brought to marketers, who are now seeing that customer experience is not just limited to digital interfaces but includes the entire spectrum of customer touchpoints and their respective impact on ROI.

The wrong weapon

On the subject of fire power, the recent announcement that Publicis Groupe is pulling back from all awards shows for a period of 12 months is to me building the wrong weapon entirely. Using AI, in the form of Marcel, to form collaborative cross-functional teams is potentially going to be hugely challenging. The best AI in the world could recommend you a blend of the best rockstars in advertising but, if they don’t have the chemistry and will to work together, your potential silver bullet could just turn into a toy gun. Annoying at best, disasterous at worst, and damn expensive.

This arms race is going to develop at breakneck speed, fueled by marketers, agencies and consulting companies doing their utmost to outwit, outmanoevre and outlast each other in a fight to the death. Exciting times ahead!

See also


Ben WagnerBen Wagner (@BenWagner) is co-founder of NATIVE VML and head of NATIVE VML Cape Town. He has been an active member of the digital industry for more than a decade and has served on multiple industry bodies during this period, including the IAB SA exco (formerly DMMA and OPA). His involvement has included contributing to the growth of the Bookmark Awards, creating and integrating a digital category into Creative Circle Ad of the Month, as well as broadening the relationship between the then-DMMA and the ACA to ensure that digital marketing and media are strongly represented at a wider South African advertising and communications level.

“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.

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