Creative B2B agencies and consultants have always been two sides of the same coin. While the agency delivered the services, the consultant was there leading the strategic development (which often looked like doing the same darn job, just from a different perspective).

But doesn’t that sound like a lot of wasted effort to you? Don’t consultants and agencies have the same goal in mind? And, as such, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to work in harmony, rather than in opposition?

This is precisely what the big wide world of advertising is thinking right now. Left and right, we’re seeing the line between consultants and agencies getting fuzzier than a puppy’s butt. A prime example of this was when heavyweight consultants Deloitte announced they were buying out Heat, a multi-award winning creative agency dubbed as the ‘breakthrough agency of the year’.  This diversifying of traditional consulting firm’s scope is becoming quite the trend this year.

And if we’re heading towards and age of consultant agencies (Con-gencies? Agen-sultancies?), what can creative businesses do to avoid being simply mopped up by the corporate giants?

Thinking like a consultancy

We fully believe that this is the answer. If agencies are really serious about survival into 2018 and beyond, they need to start thinking like a consultancy. There are a few simple reasons for this:

  • Marketing is driven by data: Old school marketing, of the ‘one size fits all’ variety, made everything about raising product awareness. Get more people to see your product, sell more product… simple. But today’s consumers want much more, and only by adopting a data driven approach can companies realty build on insight.
  • Consultants eat data: For breakfast, lunch and dinner, consultants are all about cold, hard facts. They know the numbers, they crunch the numbers, and they use the latest technology to capitalise on those findings. All too many agencies are still fumbling in the dark when it comes to martech, and are being left for dust as consultants zoom off into digital brilliance.
  • Customer experience wins: Defining, deliberating, dissecting and discerning the oodles of data available to us is the key to an amazing customer experience. And, I’m sure we don’t need to tell you, amazing customer experiences win. With insightful analytics, companies can create new products that their customers were crying out for, but a working knowledge and respect for the validity of data is essential.
  • Creativity is just a part of the solution: The place where agencies always trump consultants is in the creative disciplines. Creative agencies are powerful little ideas factories, always just a latte away from the next viral sensation. Consultants, on the other hand, look to spreadsheets for their answers; not a very creative proposal. Creativity is not the be-all and end-all, but it is a very relevant and important facet of the elegant solution.

The two distinct business models of consulting and agency collide in many places. If agencies don’t offer in house consulting, they are going to need to start being more consultancy-like if they are going to survive this shift in power. They need to work on understanding business strategy, as well as becoming experts in enterprise technology, if they stand a chance of keeping up with their consulting peers.

Why are consultancies winning?

A coming together of agencies and consultants was almost inevitable. With so many shared interests and talents, it makes sense to do more under one brand. But, in the ideal world, there would be as many agencies taking over consultancies as vice versa; in reality, this doesn’t happen very often.

Big name brands like Accenture Interactive, IBM’s iX and PwC are not only eating data; they’re eating small agencies by the bucket load. The agencies are in a hampered position, with many still soldiering on with huge resources tied up old fashioned infrastructure. Outdated systems, low value personnel and a lack of understanding of martech has put the agency very much on the back foot.

If they are to compete effectively with high powered, tech savvy consultants, creative agencies need to implement a step change, and fast. They need to stop thinking like airy-fairy, service selling creatives and start sharpening their skills in nitty gritty, data driven, solid business knowledge.

How should agencies be changing?

The modern creative agency has some work to do if they’re keen to maintain their success in the future. Some will be easier than others, but all will give them the leg up they need to stay competitive in a changing world:

Become technology savvy

Become technology savvy

How many agencies do you think have all too much money tied up in their TV advertising infrastructure? Almost certainly more than you think. Although the spend is certainly shifting from TV to digital, many agencies still have around 40 per cent of their budget set aside for television work. Along with this comes a burden of outdated business units, people and resources, limiting the agency’s ability to move with the times. To think more like consultants, agencies need to offer a wider range of technology focused solutions and use the power of machines to step their game up a notch.

Sell people, not projects

In the world of consulting, people invest in people. Clients come back time and again because they believe in the specialist expertise of the consultants they work with. ‘Who’ becomes more than ‘what’, and as a business model, it’s a much more sustainable approach. Conversely, agencies tend to sell services, using flashy websites and glamorous statistics to win over their customers. Once they’re signed up, the actual graft often falls to the lowest paid people on the team. To compete with consultancies, agencies need to start playing to their strengths, and selling the expertise they have on the team instead of the pretty campaigns they are able to produce.

Invest in people

Consultancies tend to be great investors in people. Their strategy is to find talent, to polish it until it gleams, and then to make their company so amazing to work for their people never want to leave. Agencies won’t be able to sell their people if they are ever changing. Instead, they should give them incentive, give them treats, make the job role all about them… and then the clients will be able to see the added value they can bring to the table.

Work on being a business partner

Typically, agencies are a transactional entity; they get paid, they deliver, end of transaction. But in order to keep up with the data munching consultants who are nipping at their heels, these agencies need to think more like a consultancy, going deeper into the strategic side of their clients’ businesses to uncover new opportunities. Consultants are typically more strategic partners, focused on solving high level business problems, rather than just selling a single solution. Employing a more holistic view of the client and their needs, and then using available technology to come up with more inventive solutions, is a must for any agency.

Build scope of work

Because most consultancies started out small, they tend to be very good at generating work for themselves. They may get a foot in the door for a one-off PPC campaign, but by the end of the project, they’ll have got so into bed with the functioning of that client, they’ll already have identified and signed them up for numerous other projects of business benefit. Agencies more often deliver what’s been paid for them passively hopes to see that client again; a more go-getting attitude is needed if they want to stay competitive.

From the outside, the future for creative agencies looks bleak. Big consultancies swallowing up their peers, legacy systems slowing down development and a lack of martech knowledge constantly putting them on the back foot.

But, to take a glass half full attitude, this is actually a really exciting time for creative agencies everywhere. They have a gold-plated opportunity here to reinvent themselves; to take everything they know about the here and now, and create an agen-sultancy that ticks all the contemporary boxes. It’s time to break the mould and start again, and we, for one, can’t wait to see what comes out of the other side!