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Consulting firm vs. Agency: Which one do I choose?

The concept of big firm consultancies and their foray into the marketing agency space is coming up more and more in my line of work. It has become an especially hot topic this month with Accenture Interactive’s announcement that they acquired ad agency Droga5.

Are management consulting firms the unicorn solution for brands who are currently dissatisfied with agency output,

compensation models, data insights, and data ownership (or lack there of)? The short answer is no. There is no perfect solution. However, the value that such firms can bring to the table is a very attractive solution that is lead by data, analytics and driving organizational efficiencies. The start of most discussions with the consulting firms have roots in organizational restructure projects or technical/data/system overhauls. Most if not all of these discussions are spearheaded by the C-suite rather then procurement. As a result, the validation of the firms’ competencies and the associated fees are put under less scrutiny than an agency who is brought in for consideration under a procurement guise such as a contract end date. In the latter situation, there is almost always an RFP process to bring on an agency or substantiate an existing partnership.

I don’t dispute the growing need for sophisticated technology solutions to help brands navigate consumer journeys and more effectively target communications. All agencies already have, are developing, or working to improve these capabilities. I would venture to say the large consultancies have a slight edge in this realm, which we’ll call the science. Not to be overlooked is the process of communicating, delivered through traditional advertising, branding, experiential, digital, PR or other. I believe that in this area, which we’ll call the art, the traditional communications agencies come out on top. Most of the consultancies are in the infancy stages of building out or acquiring (in the case of Accenture Interactive) these capabilities.

If you’re keeping score, it seems to be 1-1, and we know there is no tie when brands are looking for new strategic partners. More and more consumer behavior is taking place online; whether that’s product/brand research or purchase behavior. However, offline is still an influential player in consumer behavior and not be ignored. If we can agree that art + science = impact, I believe that it’s the consulting firms that have the longer road to travel to master the equation. There is much work to be done in developing the artistic, creative and messaging capabilities. Although their science tools and intellectual capital may be more seasoned and sophisticated, I need to be convinced that at this moment in time they can translate that into superior brand messaging strategies and tactics. Traditional agencies have deep seeded roots in the arts coupled with a focus on developing the science over the last number of years. As such, it is my opinion that they have a stronger foundation for delivering impact. I welcome the debate on this in the comments.

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