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Why 2018 will be the year consultancies poach high-value marketing strategy budgets from agencies

This article was originally published at The Drum on December 12, 2017.

Consultancies aren’t just parking their yachts off the French Riviera at Cannes. They’re setting their sights on major marketing budgets, and 2018 will be the year they start their conquest to remake the industry.

The CMO budget is the last line item on the balance sheet that companies like Accenture, IBM, and Deloitte haven’t touched. In the agency world, many are shrugging off consultancies’ maneuvering as irrelevant to their business and clients. While market inertia may slow down consultancies in the near term, they are playing a much different game than agencies — and the largest agencies should be particularly worried. Consultancies are integrating the entire digital marketing environment, of which paid media is just one facet, to tell a broader story about ROI — and they have the data to prove it. They aren’t simply selling ads, they’re helping the brand sell products and services with holistic solutions that cover the entire value chain.

Traditionally, Accenture, IBM and other consultancies have been system integrators and technical infrastructure companies. They implement large scale IT solutions and operate data centers for corporations — about as far from advertising creativity as a company can get. But as their core services expanded — and there was a clear need from the market — they bridged into marketing-related activities, such as building interactive and e-commerce websites. Now, they’re consolidating their role in marketing and design, with the CMO budget being the last untapped pot of money. This shift is predominantly driven at the CEO or CFO level, while ad agencies typically connect with CMOs at brands.

These companies have adopted a standard playbook as they remake advertising in their own image: acquire new capabilities, or enter client accounts through audits. Accenture recently purchased the French digital commerce agency Altima, the company’s 17th acquisition since 2013 as it expands its move into marketing and advertising. Altima joined Accenture’s roster of previous acquisitions, including US-based marketing and design agencies Wire Stone and Matter. They’re also acquiring people: Accenture recently hired OMD’s EMEA president Nikki Mendonça to be the global president of intelligent marketing operations. Rigorous audits will also win consultancies the CMO budget: they’ll look for a pain point within a brand’s marketing strategy, provide a deep analysis of why that’s a problem, and offer a technical solution that integrates a number of third party solutions. The consultancies’ deep experience in building complex solutions out of many building blocks provided by independent vendors is the key enabler for these complex, transformational projects.

Market forces are pushing businesses to become more digitally-integrated. Brands must go all in to digitize themselves if they want to survive this tidal shift — they’ll be called on to better connect with consumers online, tell a broader story about the digital buying journey, and measure the impact of their marketing efforts. For example, lightweight direct-to-consumer CPG brands are upending the beauty industry with influencer-led marketing and slashed prices due to a lack of overhead. As major advertisers go digital, they’ll also face significant challenges in bringing all facets of their business into compliance with data privacy regulations around the globe. Consultancies are demonstrably better positioned here — for example, IBM recently showcased its capabilities to help brands weather the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU.

Traditional ad agencies don’t currently have the staff, expertise, or infrastructure to build out and support this deep digital integration — and they face a considerable amount of resistance from their brand clients as they wage a cold war over marketing data. As a result, they’ll continue to lose market share to consultancies that can build systems and integrations for advertisers, and offer both efficiency and tighter control over their data.

In 2018, consultancies will test the waters in the advertising space by auditing major brand marketing budgets — and it will likely be a bloodbath. Consultancies will come for high-value targets like brand and creative strategy first, and if agencies can’t prove their value, they’ll be left out in the cold. Major agencies are right to be worried — consultancies will likely move fully into the space in 2019 and 2020, once they’ve hammered out the details of adapting their business model to the marketing industry.

There is a silver lining for agencies, though — for the moment, these consultancies will likely steer clear of the execution layer, and leave media buying to agencies. Instead, they’ll continue to expand their creative efforts: building interactive experiences, setting up e-commerce sites, and optimizing and integrating technical solutions. Media buying requires a heavy investment in working capital with a comparably low rate of return to what consultancies are used to. In fact, this will likely prove to be a major boon to small shops and medium-sized agencies — following an audit of a major brand’s marketing budget, independent agencies will be on an even playing field with major agencies. If they can integrate with the consultancies’ technical solutions, and make the right pitch, they could win unprecedented budgets. But is there a motivation for consultancies to move into media buying? Yes — and they will move into media buying aggressively once they’ve isolated a vastly different media buying model than the traditional paradigm.

For the CMOs of major brands, the future of their marketing spend will depend on the outcome of a mandated consultancy audit. Long-time agencies of record could fall by the wayside — unless agencies and brands agree to a mutually beneficial, more transparent deal. Barring this, consultancies will help CMOs manage their budgets, soliciting bids from creative shops, media agencies, tech vendors, and platforms on the CMO’s behalf — and building the technical solution that integrates all the pieces.

To defend against consultancies, agencies must provide greater value, get leaner, and become more transparent. Smarter agencies — such as WPP — are already building out or buying IT infrastructure to integrate their digital marketing capabilities. But as these holding companies move from a verticalized to a horizontal approach, there’s still a challenge in connecting the disparate pieces for clients at scale — when each client wants a bespoke solution — while receiving fair compensation for their work.

Moving into 2018, agencies should lean on their bona fides: relationships, creative expertise, and organizational DNA that consultancies can’t easily access. The competition from consultancies should also be seen as an opportunity for agencies: to tell a holistic marketing story, built on deep ROI, across the nonlinear consumer journey.

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Andreas Goeldi is Pixability's Strategic Adviser. An experienced Internet technologist and online marketing expert with a passion for film and video, Andreas has worked in online marketing since the early days of the Internet.