Consulting businesses are popping from the foliage like so many munchkins in Oz, eager to guide bewildered marketers – lost, perhaps dealing with head trauma – through a fragmented and hallucinatory media landscape to the yellow-brick…well, you get it.
Last month, Starcom MediaVest Group took the wraps off a new advisory business called Zero Dot. The unit consists of six consultants who serve up consumer-driven insights for SMG clients like Kraft Foods and Beam Inc. The move echoed the March launch of GroupM Consulting Services, another practice incubated within a holding company's media agency arm.
The idea in both cases: Leverage the media agency's close familiarity with publishers and device types to drive consumer insights and campaign concepts for the available ad formats. That's something creative agencies have struggled to do as digital media has splintered.
"The definition of 'big-c' creativity is in need of renovation back down to 'little-c' creativity," said Jonathan Hoffman, who helms Zero Dot while retaining his regular duties as president for experience design at SMG. "What comes to us from SMG is native objectivity and a horizontal bandwidth in terms of where people are, how they're behaving and how most gracefully to coincide with their experience."
Sundar Raman, Procter & Gamble's marketing director for North American fabric care division, turned to Zero Dot for help with a Hispanic-focused campaign idea that integrated mobile phones with television ads.
"In my mind context will be king, along with content, in the future. Context is determined by media agencies today and content is in creative agencies today," he said.
Raman sees a day fast approaching when agencies will differentiate and consolidate, and he sees the consulting trend at media agencies as being part of that. "The agencies that are currently serving brands in marketing management have to find a way to consolidate or the marketers will do it for them," Raman said. "It is kind of embarrassing the amount of overlap there is between agencies with one kind of expertise."
As agencies increasingly play their game, some established consulting giants have made incursions on agency turf. The two most notable examples are Deloitte Digital's October acquisition of Seattle-based Banyan Branch and Accenture's purchase of London design firm Fjord in May.
But acquisitions aren't enough. On Tuesday morning, Accenture announced a consolidation of its marketing-focused services under the new moniker Accenture Digital. The streamlined unit now advises on analytics, mobility and other digital marketing capabilities – and includes Accenture Interactive, the company's advisory business focused on chief marketing officers.
An obvious factor motivating these moves is growing budgets in digital marketing. The higher stakes justify investment. But there are also some macro-changes in play that have disrupted the management consulting sector as a whole.
McKinsey's launch of a software and analytics solution set in 2007 was a significant milestone in the consulting industry's transition to more modular (less customized) client solutions. The new practice, called McKinsey Solutions, was designed to be embedded within client companies. As Harvard Business Review noted in its October issue, "Embedding proprietary analytics at a client can help the firm stay 'top of mind' between projects and generate leads for future engagements."
Hagen Wenzek, founder of Freestyle Consulting, said this trend will eventually change how consulting is done in the digital marketing arena. "Everything is becoming a service, therefore delivering IT solutions that would normally include a lot of hardware and software competence are now available from the cloud -- much closer to the core competency of any consultant in general," he said.
Wenzek launched Freestyle earlier this year, after a stint as chief technology officer for Interpublic Group's Mediabrands. Earlier he was a strategist within IBM's consulting arm. While at Mediabrands, he worked closely with two other notable characters who would soon make their own leap to consulting.
Brendan Moorcroft and Quentin George, the architects of IPG's Cadreon trading desk, left IPG last summer to launch their own consultancy, Unbound Company. Unbound serves brands and publishers in need of help with programmatic advertising. It started with four clients and recently added five more.
"Most participants are not providing either brand marketers or publishers unbiased advice since they are typically trying to sell a very specific solution," Moorcroft said. "Our clients come to ask us for independent advice, then to help create and execute on their ad-technology strategy."
Another smaller consulting player, Empirical Media, launched in 2011 to help media companies navigate media fragmentation. Lately it has ramped up a digital and revenue practice, which promises to boost yield and lower costs for media clients through improvements in sales and ad operations – and without necessarily adding sales reps.
"Obviously, a lot of CROs say they have this 'managed' but when you take them through the tools they generally see that there is an enormous opportunity," said Empirical Media senior advisor Steve Goldberg.
How can these little guys – and the advisory units incubating at media agencies – hope to compete with the big consultants? Agility, category expertise and creativity.
"There is a side to our business which is about connections and telling stories," Zero Dot's Hoffman said. "That's a piece that you can't invent out of whole cloth."