Global Consultancies Are Buying Up Agencies and Reshaping the Brand Marketing World

Industry watchers predict the trend will only accelerate

Accenture, Deloitte, IBM, KPMG, McKinsey and PricewaterhouseCoopers are among the most aggressive players. Adweek

In the waning weeks of 2015, Mike Barrett, president of San Francisco agency Heat, and his partners, John Elder and Steve Stone, faced the biggest decision of their careers as they mulled acquisition options for the shop, which, true to its name, had grown to rank among the hottest independents in the business.

Should they join one of the global agency holding companies showing interest?

That seemed like a logical move for a group that had built a reputation for creative innovation with high-profile campaigns on behalf of EA Sports’ Madden NFL franchise and a Star Wars: Battlefront reboot en route to being named Adweek’s Breakthrough Agency of the Year.

Ultimately, however, Barrett’s team chose to go in a different direction.

Along with the usual holding-company suspects, a different breed of suitor was knocking on Heat’s door. The agency was generating interest from big professional services and IT consulting firms, which, in recent years, had begun buying shops to build out their marketing-focused operations and gain a larger slice of the client pie.

Accenture, Deloitte, IBM, KPMG, McKinsey and PricewaterhouseCoopers rank among the most aggressive players, and Heat believed that a union with such a firm offered clear advantages. “Our view was, four or five years from now, in terms of client technology strategy and advertising strategy—there’s not going to be any daylight between those two things,” says Barrett. “So, when they called, we knew who was calling, and why, so we were pretty excited.”

In February 2016, the 112-person agency joined Deloitte’s expanding digital operations that now employ 15,000 staffers worldwide. In addition to Heat, shops such as Polish agency Digital One, global consultancy Daemon Quest, innovation practice Doblin and user experience (UX) designer Flow have signed up, helping Deloitte Digital boost its global revenue 32 percent year over year to $3.1 billion.

For Deloitte, integrating branding and content expertise with core strategic offerings such as financial and technology services, data analytics and customer segmentation makes the company a more valuable partner to current and prospective clients. “Now, you basically have this little package under one roof to help deliver on clients’ ambition to ‘future-proof’ themselves” and take on all challenges in the marketplace, says Andy Main, head of Deloitte Digital.

For Heat, the union represented the chance to work at greater scale and address issues at the heart of global business. “Deloitte just engages across a broader set of client touch points” than agency firms like WPP, Omnicom, Publicis and IPG, Barrett says. “It’s bigger than any holding company by quite a bit. So, you wind up having these conversations with clients where the client is like, ‘Hey, what do you know about X industry in China?’ And it turns out you’ve got an entire practice in that industry, in that country, led by well-respected experts.”

As digital ad spending continues to grow—eMarketer projects a rise to nearly $305 billion in 2019 from $230 billion this year—industry watchers predict the trend of consultancies buying up agencies will only accelerate.

“As marketing becomes more front and center for C-suite executives, there is a move toward providing a more holistic approach that includes both marketing and consulting,” says Seth Alpert, managing partner of mergers and acquisitions firm AdMedia. “This leads to an opportunity for consulting companies to expand their purview.”


Digital transformation

Along with a desire by consultancies to tap into clients’ escalating digital marketing budgets, the acquisition trend reflects the ongoing transformation of the business landscape as a whole, and provides a blueprint for how consultancies and agencies will do business moving forward.

“The consultants’ bread and butter has traditionally been large IT and business-transformation projects,” says Julie Langley, a partner at Results International, an M&A and fundraising advisory firm. “But, increasingly, these types of projects have ‘customer experience’ at their center. In other words, ‘How do I improve the experience my customers get whenever and however they interact with my brand? How do I onboard new customers in a way that’s as easy as using Uber?’ This skill set has historically been owned by agencies offering disciplines such as UX, design, creativity, customer-centric data analytics and customer engagement.”

If Accenture, Deloitte, PwC and others don’t acquire these skills, “they will slowly see their core revenues eroded by others who do,” Langley says.

In a sense, experts say, data is in the driver’s seat. Agencies lust after the deep, actionable consumer information collected through decades by the big consultancies. Meanwhile, the Accentures and Deloittes of the world want their data to work harder and generate new revenue streams. These goals intersect for brands seeking to produce campaigns, events and points of contact (digital, in-store and otherwise) that foster one-to-one relationships with customers, sell products quickly and efficiently, and keep buyers coming back for more.

“Brands are now created by a series of connected—or often disconnected—experiences [consumers have] with a company across multiple channels,” says Brian Whipple, head of Accenture Interactive. “This requires a new level of connectivity between marketing/creative, business and digital/technology. So, clients are coming to us looking for the merger of these three worlds.”

Toward that end, Accenture in the past few years has grown its operations to include 18,000 digital and creative professionals worldwide. Notably, last November, Accenture acquired 250-person London creative shop Karmarama in a deal some media outlets estimated north of $60 million. And just last month, the firm made one of its biggest buys yet, adding 500-person German digital shop SinnerSchrader to bolster its capabilities in customer experience design, ecommerce and mobile marketing.

So, it’s not just about advertising anymore—although media-driven outreach remains a key component. Other items of interest include the ability to design customer transaction platforms (think: ordering from a client website), coding chops to make the technology involved in such endeavors efficient and reliable, and data mining to generate leads, find prospects and hyper-target or fine-tune campaigns.

Though creativity comes into play across the board, “we are really not talking about creative in the traditional campaign sense,” says Whipple. “We’re not aiming to be the agency you’d hire to do your Super Bowl ad. Instead, we want to infuse creativity into everything we do.”

Experts say old-school ad players should be worried—very worried—because consultancies’ digital marketing units are beginning to win business and produce notable work that clients would previously have assigned to agencies belonging to holding companies.

For example, Barrett credits Deloitte’s acquisition of Heat for generating a major project from one of the world’s leading consumer electronics firms. “We’re in the middle of shooting a global handset launch for LG for their new smartphone that’s going to take on the iPhone 7 and Samsung,” he says of LG’s flagship G6 phone. “It’s going to run in a number of different countries, and that came to us through Deloitte. That wasn’t one where LG picked up the phone in Seoul and called an agency in San Francisco.”

Deloitte agency Heat is in the midst of shooting a global handset launch of the LG G6, which is expected to take on Samsung and iPhone 7. The marketer’s long-standing ties with Deloitte allowed the Heat team to leverage sales data, customer-preference information and competitive assessments to fashion a winning pitch.

Heat had no previous relationship with LG, but the marketer’s long-standing ties with Deloitte allowed Barrett’s team to leverage sales data, customer-preference information and competitive assessments to fashion a winning pitch. His team wouldn’t even have been considered without that advantage, he says. Conversely, Deloitte might not have added the work from LG, despite its status as a key client vendor, without bringing the creative energy of Heat to bear.

“When we first met Heat during the pitch process, we knew they were a great fit based on their work,” says Suyoung Kim, LG’s global marketing vp. “With the added insight from Deloitte about our business, and what we were already doing in the marketplace,” tapping Heat for the launch was a no-brainer, he says. “The workflow is seamless. The connection between our business strategy and marketing strategy is extremely helpful. We are able to save time and resources by working with one business instead of several to get what we need.”

Branding baked right in

Elsewhere, the recipe for Papa Murphy’s Pizza, which specializes in preparing pies at its shops for customers to bake at home, “shows the microcosm of what’s possible,” says Deloitte’s Main. “It’s a very good example of the branding, marketing communications and advertising capabilities of Heat joining up with the experience and digital capabilities of Deloitte Digital.”

After sifting through data, Deloitte “figured out that the millennial mom was the key buyer because, in this case, she likes the benefit of having the lovely smell in the kitchen [of oven-baked pizza] without the hassle of having to make the product herself,” says Main. Working off that insight, Heat helped fashion the creative component, while others at Deloitte handled the strategy, technology and back-end development of an initiative centered on the reboot of “We actually run that platform for them,” says Main, “and we’re helping them improve it for things like home delivery.”

As a point of contrast, work performed by PwC’s digital services arm for European Wax Center digs even deeper beneath the brand’s skin. Though highly creative on several fronts, it doesn’t consist of any advertising in the traditional sense.

PwC digital client European Wax Center tapped PwC to implement the company’s OneStrut customer relationship platform, which lives on the Salesforce Cloud.

“PwC comes in for us to make the brand behind the brand,” says Bart Butler, the client’s chief innovation and technology officer. “They help us ideate, design, architect and create the tools that will change the brand experience for our guests and associates alike.” In fact, PwC has played a role in the implementation of all components for European Wax’s OneStrut platform. OneStrut, which lives on the Salesforce Cloud, encompasses CRM, POS, an interface for direct communications with customers and enterprise resource planning (ERP), for planning and budgeting projects in sales, marketing and human resources.

“Instead of the associate looking at a computer and wondering what button to click next, they’re able to walk around with a tablet and have real conversations, engage eye to eye and build a relationship” with customers in the shop, says David Clarke, global CxO and experience consulting leader at PwC. “That becomes marketing and sales—that is marketing and sales.”

What’s more, this implementation saves the client money. “It’s so easy and so intuitive and so smart, there is no need for lengthy training,” Clarke says. “It’s a reduction in the stakes, a reduction in the cost. And from the customer side, they feel like they’re being provided with an asset that nobody else is giving them.”

Wow factors

Using technology to make customers feel special and build brand loyalty is at the heart of IBM’s push into the ad-tech space. Along with its IT peers such as Adobe and Oracle, IBM has stepped into the marketing arena in a major way. Last year, Big Blue absorbed interactive shops Aperto, Bluewolf and, along with branding firm Resource/Ammirati, and The Weather Company’s digital properties, adding an impressive design-focused dimension to its offering.

“We recognize this space as an opportunity for applied creative thinking and design thinking to solve business problems,” says Matt Candy, vp and European leader of IBM iX.

Notably, Candy’s division teamed up with Unilever’s Knorr foods and beverages division on a project that “adopts cognitive technology for use in everyday cooking, with online insight tools that help consumers understand more about their personal flavor profile and provide them with tailored recipe recommendations,” he says.

IBM whipped up an online “Flavor Profiler” to quiz  users about their likes and dislikes and generate Knorr recipe recommendations accordingly. And, ultimately, the brand attempted to match up people based on their fondness for similar flavors. Approaching 110 million views to date, the resulting #LoveAtFirstTaste video—crafted by IPG shop MullenLowe—helped generate 1.2 million clicks from viewers who wanted to sample the Profiler for themselves.

“When you start to think about marketing holistically with a dialogue across touch points, human-centered design comes to the forefront,” says Candy. “We believe in creating beautiful outcomes which serve a purpose: the engagement needs a wow factor while solving customers’ problems in a seamless experience.”

According to experts, as established marketers face increasing pressure from nimble newcomers such as Airbnb, and Uber, they’ll continue to seek out that “wow factor” by leveraging consulting, technology and creative. “This is where the big-money projects are going to be over the next few years,” says industry adviser Langley, who believes that further disruption will surely follow.

“The acquisitions of Karmarama by Accenture and Heat by Deloitte show they are serious about going after creative,” she says. “Then, quite logically, we should ask ourselves whether they would make the move into media buying.” She adds, “Advertising spend represents a $500 billion market annually, and that’s a big pie to go after. I’d be surprised if consultancies don’t have it in their sights in some shape or form.”

With mega bucks at stake, look for the global consulting and IT giants to accelerate their own transformations by making even deeper incursions into territory traditionally held by agencies and holding companies.

This story first appeared in the March 13, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@DaveGian David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.