Fjord’s Accenture-powered evolution and what it reveals about Karmarama’s future and the consultancy’s ambitions
The Drum recently revealed that Accenture Interactive would soon move Fjord – the design agency it acquired – into Karmarama’s Farringdon offices, shedding more light on the kind of advertising group the management consultancy is trying to build.
Despite being under a spotlight, the ambition of Accenture Interactive’s grand plan has never really been ‘revealed’. It says it wants to help businesses create ‘brand experiences’, but won’t be drawn on expanding its media capabilities and continues to dance around questions on the threat it really poses to traditional agency groups. Instead, the industry watches closely as telling hires – such as that of Trinity Mirror’s Amir Malik to lead a new programmatic division – or acquisitions are made.
“We have a clear-cut strategy and it’s starting to show results,” Joydeep Bhattacharya, managing director of Accenture Interactive told The Drum in a recent interview, hinting that Karmarama will not be the last agency it brings into the fold. “I would just leave it to let the results show.”
Looking at the evolution of Accenture’s first purchase - Fjord - helps to understand where the consultancy and its agency collective are heading. It’s now been four years since Fjord was thrust into the consciousness of the industry when it was snapped up: “Looking back now it’s hard to remember quite how scary it was,” recalls Abbie Walsh, who has worked at the design agency for eight years, rising from service design lead to her current role as managing director.
“We were quite small at the time, 250 people, and Accenture was 260,000 so we did think ‘how is this ever going to work?’ It took not only the clever and warm guidance of our own leadership but also the guys at Accenture and the blind faith of people at my level to just really dig into it.”
That guidance came in the guise of what Accenture dubs a ‘shepherd’; someone who will manage the agency through the transition into the parent company and oversee its integration with the other agencies. Currently, Bhattacharya is that shepherd, helping Karmama to navigate the change.
Walsh said one of the key things Accenture did for Fjord was to leave the culture it had nurtured for the 12 years previously alone, including things like its annual gathering of its global design studios or trips tovisit fjords - of the geological nature - in Norway to celebrate key milestones in an employee’s career.
“And they injected things like an innovation fund which would underpin things that didn’t need to be paid for by clients,” Walsh continues.
“They never forced integration, even to this day. We’ve not been swallowed up, we still have our own brand, rituals, career track and opportunities; we still hire in under the Fjord brand and have our own internship programme. It’s been on our terms.”
But it hasn’t all been an easy ride. Walsh admits that in the beginning there were “hairy times” and a sense that Fjord was the “shiny toy” whose services could be tacked on to another client project, something Karmarama will also have to negotiate.
“But we know what to look out for, who to work with, and to be able to say no to the stuff that’s not right for our culture” she adds.
This process has allowed the once boutique design agency to grow "phenomenally". It has gone from nine studios pre-acquisition to 24 today, and ballooned the team from 250 to over 900. But more telling of where Fjord’s future lies – and that of Karmarama – is in the kind of work is has since been exposed to and the new services it's offering to clients as a result.
“Where before it might have been head of design [we were talking to], it’s now the CEO,” she explains. And while Fjord can decline work brought in by Accenture, today its billings are made up by some 90% of the management consultancy's clients.
“We tend to not get a brief now; we write it. As opposed to [a client saying] ‘go do this design,’ we actually get a lot of projects around transformation,” Walsh says of the shift.
“A business might want to transform what it does or think about what to do in the world of digital. And quite often they will say they need to do that in a customer centric way, and we will advise them on what that will look like in terms of the vision and strategy and then we’ll help them bring that to life through apps, website or a store. And it’s a long-term engagement. Accenture has all of the credibility in delivering that.”
The second arm of the Fjord’s agency offering lies in what it describes as ‘Living Business,’ which sees Walsh and her team advise companies on how to take employees with them on any transformation project.
“What [a business does] will change, which means the people might see a big cultural change. So, we help with that. We’ve been through it, we know what it’s like, and we’ve seen a lot of clients fail by doing stuff on top but not helping their employees to change,” she says.
“Living Business is about helping businesses understand their purpose and employees be a part of it and then empowering them with the right tools. It’s the next frontier.”
So, what’s the next frontier for Karmarama? While Walsh admits that Fjord was given the relative peace and quiet to get attuned to its new owners, the newest acquisition has not been given the same luxury. It’s been four months since it became part of Accenture and despite all eyes being on what it does next, the strategy - much like it was with the embedding of Fjord - has been to get on with business as usual.
However, it is not "business as usual." Karmarama founder and chief executive Ben Bilboul says that it’s been impressed with the “genuinely upstream conversations” with the client chief executives and the marketers sitting on management boards that it previously hasn't had. And, so far, integrating into the Accenture-way has not been as much of a culture shock as he expected.
“People typecast Accenture in the wrong way,.After the deal my mum called me and said 'finally, you’ve become an accountant,’” he recently joked at The Drum’s Agency Acceleration Day.
“But Accenture put accountancy behind them a long time ago; they’ve got engineers, analysts, creatives, technologist. It’s not as different from a modern agency as you’d imagine. Fjord was a big part of our thinking. We went to see them and they still exist as a brand and the business has been incredibly successful.”
Bilboul adds that it’s also confident of the impact it will have on retaining and attracting talent, saying a crucial part of the decision to sell to a consultancy, rather than a traditional marcomms agency, was getting off the “hamster wheel” of new business pitching. “The average age of Karmarama employees is 27 and keeping talent is increasingly the job. And being able to offer them more interesting jobs in different markets ticks the box, really,” he says.
The extent to which the agency will change and introduce new service areas as it evolves remains to be seen. But already it is working with half a dozen clients in tandem with Accenture and Fjord on what Bhattacharya describes as ‘Experience Agency of Record’ briefs, a long way from the brand marketing projects the shop was previously going after.
“Clients want to be the next Airbnb or Uber and are looking for a partner that will stitch together the different silos in a business and advise on a strategy that is experience led,” he says, although he was coy on revealing those clients and the pace at which their briefs land at its door.
A threat to the holding companies?
Yet for all the talk of Accenture’s influence over the C-suite, the projects it’s working on, and the draw that a ‘culture-of-cultures’ has on talent, the traditional holding companies are – on the surface – unphased by this new breed of agency.
Havas chief Yannick Bolore recently discounted Accenture, saying it rarely comes up against it in pitching for new client work, while WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell branded the threat of management consultancies “insignificant”.
More recently, Interpublic Group chief executive Michael Roth told attendees at the 4As conference in LA that the likes of Accenture are simply trying to get into advertising "because their own business isn't doing particularly well" and opined that the creative offering will never match that of the more established ad groups.
"You need special individuals on the creative side, and frankly, I don't see those individuals working at an Accenture," he said.
Bhattacharya is unconcerned by their lack of concern and responds diplomatically when asked why the WPPs of the world should be worried. “I respect all of those individuals and they have their perspective,” he says.
He refuses to be drawn deeper: “We are one company and that’s how we go to market. We have an integration of capabilities and that’s how we got [Karmarama]. That’s different to the holding companies and we’re getting more mindshare and presence in the market. We’ll leave it to the results.”
But as digital ad spend continues to rise - eMarketer projects a rise to nearly $305bn in 2019 from $230bn this year - advertisers are undeniably demanding more from any brand investment. It's for this reason thatproviding tangible business results seems to be a cornerstone of Accenture's offering moving forward.
Amid the increasing talk of transparency and distrust between clients and their media agencies, what Accenture Interactive is promising is that it will be held accountable for the bottom-line.
“Let’s get into more stringent, performance based outcomes where we not only think about what the product is, how to market it and drive acquisition, but also ties to the money needed to make it happen,” he says.