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."