Accenture’s dad dancing has to stop

Michael Gray

“Brands aren’t built through advertising…’ says the Accenture Interactive website next to its press release lauding its recent designer purchase – renowned NYC creative advertising agency Droga5. Yet another contradiction in a long line from this consultancy firm that has spent millions chasing rainbows to fulfill its ambition to become the ‘chief marketing officer's (CMO) agency of choice.’

Having sat in the driving seat of a number of agencies (McCann Erickson, Collett Dickenson Pearce, Euro RSCG) and been at the helm of Seren throughout its acquisition by EY and the subsequent integration, I have had a ring-side seat to the changing merger and acquisition landscape in this market since the early 90s. This latest deal makes no sense to me. For anyone involved.

Accenture appears to have a schizophrenic approach to its market positioning. On the one hand it is trying to be a digital transformation business, with a mission to ‘make CMOs spend less on advertising’, and more on customer ‘experience’. But at the same time, it cannot help be wooed by the slinky, shiny branding and advertising agencies that cross its path as we have seen with the acquisition of both Karmarama and now Droga5.

Digital transformation businesses don’t sell to CMOs. CMOs don’t play in the transformation space – they have enough of a challenge to transform their own marketing skills without having to learn an entirely new set of skills associated with digital business transformation. If Accenture is a digital transformation business, it should leave creative agencies alone. Agencies and digital businesses are not even distant cousins – agencies think about ideas, campaigns and consumers. Digital businesses think about measurement, efficiency and customers. Customer-led thinking is fundamentally not the same as consumer-led thinking. The reality is that digital and the associated obsession with technology, measurement and social has been the death of agencies in a reductive, zero-sum, efficiency-focused battle with clients. Agencies followed tech fads, forgot how brands work, worse forgot how they are built, and in doing so destroyed their own values.

But say it is a strategic move (it’s not) and not an embarrassing dad dance to enter the sexy ad space - then why would you do it through a hugely expensive acquisition? The big Accenture cheque is buying credentials, clients and fake ‘IP’. The talent that made the creds will leave, the clients that hired them aren’t interested in buying another part of Accenture’s offer and the IP never existed in the first place. One of the most prevalent shifts in our industry is that most of the best talent is out in the market playing the field and not in a monogamous relationship with one agency. You can bring in the elite on a contingent basis.

It is a shame that Droga5 have been seduced by the Accenture cheque book. The worst thing you could do as a creative agency is to join a tech firm that will only lead you further away from your secret sauce. The irony is that Droga5 was one of the few who did great brand work the old-fashioned way – a skill I maintain is still as relevant today as it was in the Don Draper days. Beyond the handcuffs of the no doubt chunky earn-out challenge, the Droga5 team is going to face a cultural minefield. You only need to speak to any of the recently acquired agency folk at Accenture to hear how dysfunctional it all is. Once fulfilled practitioners are now rarely doing anything that has meaning or purpose. Accenture and its creative slaves have found no way of working together and they are losing talent at an alarming rate.

When pushed on the culture blend challenge, Glen Hartman, Accenture Interactive’s senior managing director for North America insisted that “the culture at Accenture Interactive is far, far away from what a traditional stereotypical consulting firm would look like. Our offices and studios look at lot like Droga5.” Aside from the fact that Accenture thinks culture and office design are one and the same, this statement should be a huge red flag for any independents deciding whether to get into bed with them. If you speak a different language with a different purpose in a different market selling to different people – you are different. And matchy-matchy bean bags will do nothing to solve that.

Ben Langdon is the chairman of Class35

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