Clients have never had more choice when it comes to who is going to help them build their brands. That is good and bad. For many, the vast array of services on offer is downright confusing, and the idea of a one-stop shop that can handle everything has become very desirable again.
In Japan of course, the ‘big three’ have long fulfilled that role for brands. But as demands change, even companies like Dentsu are scrambling to build consultancy-like services into their offering. As they do, the consultancies they are trying to emulate are quietly but quickly becoming more creative.
Just this week, Accenture continued its acquisition spree by adding The Monkeys, a creatively acclaimed Australian advertising agency, to its Accenture Interactive subsidiary. But globally, the company underscored its creative ambitions in November with the purchase of Karmarama, one of the UK’s most respected independent agencies. At the time, Brian Whipple, head of Accenture Interactive, said the move would “help us reshape how brands imagine, create and deliver customer experiences”. That followed the acquisition of Fjord, a global service design consultancy, in 2013, and Chaotic Moon, a digital studio that also does product design, in 2015.
The company is forging a similar path in Japan. Last year it acquired IMJ, a leading digital agency. Junichiro Kurokawa, who leads Accenture Interactive in Japan and initiated the acquisition, calls it an effort to buy culture. He said the decision came after a number of unsuccessful pitches and a potential client saying: “Your vision is beautiful, but I don’t think Accenture Interactive can deliver it.” This brought home the importance of being able to offer an “end-to-end solution”.
Kurokawa, a systems engineer who joined Accenture 14 years ago as a CRM consultant, says Accenture Interactive has no plans to change IMJ or absorb its talent. He also hopes to help Fjord expand to Japan, although there are no official plans in place yet. But he also intends to hire more creative talent directly into Accenture Interactive. That is the last gap that needs to be filled in order to take advertising agencies on head-to-head.
Accenture Interactive’s focus is customer experience and service design, areas where ad agencies still struggle. “That is one kind of creativity,” Kurokawa says. “If you think in terms of advertising creativity, that is not our strength at the moment. But clients are asking us to do it.”
He admits that attracting top creative talent, which has typically gravitated towards the likes of Dentsu, may not be easy. But with the marketing landscape changing, he is optimistic. Those agencies “have shaped Japanese culture for a long time”, he says. “Meanwhile, it is also true that there is increasing demand for capabilities like we have.”
The head of one international advertising agency in Tokyo is sceptical about the role consultancies will be able to play in more advertising-like creativity—developing communications that demand consumers’ time. He questions whether customer experience and advertising should in fact be seamless, suggesting they require very distinct skillsets and serve different purposes.
That is a debate that is likely to continue for some time. But either way, creative directors are increasingly looking outside the agency world for professional fulfillment. One, who transitioned to a global tech company in Tokyo, is frustrated that even in 2017, agencies still don’t seem to know how to “do” digital. If the likes of Accenture become “capable of producing branding, [agencies] are dead”, he says, “because who really wants to use their budgets for TVCs?”
Agencies are only Accenture Interactive’s newest competitors. That they compete at all helps Kurokawa make people understand that Accenture Interactive is distinct from the buttoned-up Accenture, which is definitely not seen as ‘creative’. Where Accenture focuses on helping clients reduce costs, Accenture Interactive’s goal is to increase their revenue.
Globally, Kurokawa says Deloitte and IBM are its main rivals, but less so in Japan. Others include design consultancies, systems integration specialists (SI accounts for the bulk of business for Accenture Interactive) and outsourcing companies.
Kurokawa doesn’t often deal with marketers. Like other consulting firms, more often, his points of contact are the CEO, or CIO, who is increasingly incentivized to boost revenue rather than just “keep things stable”. It’s partly because CMOs are rare in Japan, but when they do enter the picture, it can be frustrating. In general, he thinks marketing is seen too narrowly as simply “activating something”, and that marketers have been slow to grasp concepts like service design, which is Accenture Interactive’s fastest growing area. “They naturally tend to do what they did in the past,” he says. “They have a relationship with vendors and tend just to do [communications]. But now they’re changing because it doesn’t make sense and they’re starting to feel that.”
With marketers under more pressure to show the impact of their actions on revenue, some enlist Accenture Interactive to manage their relationships with agencies and other suppliers. Internationally, driven by concerns about transparency, others have asked for help setting up in-house media trading desks.
Media transparency is just one thing that keeps clients awake at night. Bigger concerns are whether their business models are sustainable, even for the next five years, when people have come to expect every experience with a brand to be as easy as with ‘disruptive’ tech companies like Amazon, Apple, Airbnb and Facebook. “Those companies are really focused on how to provide good customer experience, so the rest of the world’s companies need to do something to adjust to that trend,” Kurokawa says.
“Service is a mess at this moment. Customers will ask banking companies to provide the very same top-level service or user experience as companies in other industries. Companies are not competing just inside their industries. They are starting to realize that and are struggling to create those new capabilities which they have never had inside their companies. The gap is very big, and now they’re trying to fill it.”