Agency brands take another hit as ICF consolidates global business under ICF Next banner

John Armstrong will head up ICF Next

ICF is the latest network to dismantle its international agency brands with the formation of ICF Next, a “convergence” of its businesses that will see its shops report into one international P&L.

The newly-formed ICF Next will comprise more than 1,700 staff from its marketing, digital, PR and CRM agency brands. These include Olson Engage, Olson Digital and Pulse Point in North America; The Future Customer and We Are Vista in the UK and ICF Mostra in Belgium.

The recalibrated super agency will be led by John Armstrong, the former North American head of IBM’s creative design agency iX.

ICF’s strategy follows in the footsteps of networks such as Ogilvy, which recently obliterated the likes of Ogilvy One, Ogilvy PR and Ogilvy & Mather in favor of the one eponymous brand, and Havas, which pulled its marketing and media businesses into one P&L back in 2017.

It also comes as Mark Read’s WPP begins to consolidate its digital and creative businesses, which has led to the creation of VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson. Much like these rival networks and holding companies, ICF has consolidated in response to the demands of its clients.

“We really began some ... months ago seeing an increase in the number of what we call integrated opportunities – working with the client who was spanning two or more of our groups in terms of their capabilities,” Armstrong told The Drum. “We began intentionally reshaping the organization to become more seamless, to remove the barriers of collaboration and begin engaging clients in a more holistic way.

“We have seen an uptake in clients who are looking for a simpler way of working with more than one of our partners ... and this [reorganization] is really in response to that; it’s saying, ‘we're here for you in that regard. We have built the organization to be able to work with you in that way, in a way that isn't complex for you’.”

A new identity

ICF has begun shaping this more collaborative structure between its groups for some time through new processes, according to Armstrong. The rebrand is therefore “the crowning effect”.

That’s not to say the one-brand strategy hasn’t been thought through; as a smaller network in the market, Armstrong said the company has put a lot of thought into putting all its eggs in the basket of ICF Next – an identity that will need to be honed and marketed in itself – and earmarked a portion of cash to build the new brand in 2019.

But he contends that “maintaining a collection of smaller brands presents a challenge”, stating: “What doesn't come through is the commonality that exists across the disciplines that are quite adjacent to each other.”

Armstrong believes ICF is currently caught in a sweet spot between the growing pains of consultancies in the marketing sector and the legacy problems faced by traditional agency groups. The former, he explains, are still attempting to “credentialize themselves in the space of creativity and design”, while the latter are still struggling to keep pace with the digital landscape.

“We’ve been busy building out that technology team and building out partnerships and relationships with companies like Adobe, but also building out emerging tech and creative tech: the likes of AI, AR and voice,” he said.

Armstrong, who departed IBM a year ago, said he believes ICF’s point of difference also lies in the way it works with its clients with “nimbleness, agility” and “truth telling in the most earnest and sincere way”.

“That means a willingness to professionally provoke our clients ... the courage to create constructive conflict with our clients. I think it's a missing ingredient for a lot of the holding companies, and it's a missing ingredient for a lot of the consultancies who are all too happy, quite frankly, to try and protect and defend the status quo. It is our reputation today and it's a reputation we intend to maintain.”

Streamlining trends

Barry Dudley, partner at Green Square Associates, said ICF has been planning the move for a while. The advisor, who previously led the company's acquisition of We Are Vista, noted: "It’s certainly not a reaction to the consolidation and name changes going on elsewhere in the network groups. Indeed it was a key item on the integration planning agenda when Green Square led the We Are Vista sale into ICF a few months ago.

"ICF were clear from the outset in those talks that this was their strategy and benefits from fleet of foot; while ICF has been in marketing services for quite a while through Olson and other brands, its offering is young enough not to suffer from ingrained legacy names, silo structures and methodologies.

"Furthermore its teams are nimble and flexible enough to embrace the change and ensure ICF’s offering faces its clients in the way that suits them best. Looks to us to be perfect timing.”

Jay Pattisall, principal analyst at Forrester, also believes ICF’s strategy is a logical one for the company to take.

“It is a reflection of how clients are buying services and how agencies become stronger competitors through integrated capabilities,” he said. “Multiple agency brands and P&Ls with overlapping capabilities are sources of confusion and complexity for marketers. Chief marketing officers are looking for more streamlined solutions that provide both creative and executional prowess.

“To the extent that rolling up agencies creative a more capable, streamlined and easy to engage with entity is need. There are examples of this type of structural consolidation and we should anticipate more in 2019.”

However, he added that killing off a brand such as Olson, which has been in use since 1992, may be a misstep.

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