What's a better hire, an ad agency or a consultancy?

There's a global turf war happening between advertising agencies and management consultants.

A few years ago I was doing a significant amount of work with one of South Africa's most beloved tech brands.

This is a brand that was built on the back of a strong, emotional story of entrepreneurial trial and tribulation. It's a brand that has differentiated itself over the years by genuinely caring for its customers and showing real creative vulnerability.

It's safe to say that its biggest asset is its brand and that this brand was built over a very long period of time through a lot of creative hard work.

Why this particular brand is so fascinating is because the brand was built on the back of intangible creative inspiration, but the business is constructed on technical analytics, the power of logic and empirical proof.  

These days if budget is to be spent on marketing it is far more likely that the money will be assigned to tools which can be measured and tracked and analysed accurately for ROI - than for it to go to the 'softer side' of creative thinking & execution that is impossible to measure.  

In so many ways this is a microcosm of what is happening in the industry.

Marketing and IT have fused, the lines are blurred, the budgets have merged and now companies must decide - should they hire an ad agency or a consultancy?

It's a war out there

A turf war has broken out between the two with many debating the merits of the choice.

' The contest has pitted tech consultants with growing creative aspirations such as Accenture against old advertising empires — often built out of the big-name creative-led agencies of New York’s Madison Avenue and London’s Soho — which in turn are intent on building their own consulting practices.'

“Creativity is what makes us different from Accenture,” said Mark Read, the WPP chief executive, at a recent event showcasing WPP’s tech capabilities. “It’s embedded inside the company. But technology is what will drive our growth and drive our revenues.” - via FT

'The complexity of today’s marketing and business landscape demands two kinds of partners.

The first is capable of understanding and enabling a business at a strategic level. They have to bring talent and capability in many disciplines simultaneously, with technology as a foundation for growth. Consultancies have an edge, but their advantage shrinks as technology gets continually cheaper and easier to implement.

The second is the specialist partner, good at a small set of complimentary disciplines, demanded by today’s marketing complexity. Agencies often have an angle here, but the challenge for the holding companies is to crack the code of integration without cannibalisation.' - via

My take on the debate

Knowing just how powerful great creative work is when building a brand, while at the same time recognising how effective modern data-driven marketing is, I can't see that it's possible to choose one kind of service provider in favour for the other.

The culture of an ad agency is vastly different from that of a management consultancy - they tend to attract wildly different people to their ranks.

I don't therefore think that any consultancy is going to be able to produce the kind of creative ideas that make global brands what they are.

If all of the MBAs at McKinsey sat in a room for a million years with spreadsheets and data, it's very unlikely that they'll be able to produce an award-winning Nike ad, or manage to write a decent script for Ryan Reynolds in the next Aviation gin ad; they're analysts not human beings.

Likewise, if you want people to analyse your data and make the best use of a tight marketing budget on a targeted PPC campaign - just hire the right maths geek to do it for you.

These companies produce different outcomes and they do that by having the right cultural conditions to cultivate those outcomes.

One doesn't replace the other. There shouldn't therefore be a turf war in the first place.

Those that are seeing the other as a threat are misguided and missing the entire point. The answer lies in collaboration and partnership rather then trying to pursue a zero-sum game which will just make the winner less effective in the long-term.

Hire one of each and help them work well with each other to produce the kind of impact you are looking for.


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