Buyer Experience Design

The Quiet Coup: How Consultants Quietly Overtook Agencies

In the bustling corridors of a Fortune 500 company, a CEO once remarked after a failed advertising campaign, “The creatives looked good, but it didn’t feel right strategically.” This sentiment encapsulates the tension between the worlds of consulting and agency. But what drives this tension?

The answer lies in two foundational documents: the business case and the business brief.

I penned this article in response to an increasingly evident trend in the business landscape: the divergent approaches of consulting firms and agencies, a topic Yousuf and I delved into on the Dots podcast. Drawing from my observations and insights from industry stalwarts, I aimed to shed light on the inherent differences using their foundational documents and methodologies.

Disclaimer: This is not an attempt to champion one over the other; I only seek to illuminate a potential gap. By understanding these nuances, businesses can make more informed decisions, ensuring their strategies are deeply rooted and creatively resonant. The ultimate goal is to foster a dialogue that might lead to relevant outcomes for the client.

Yousuf and I cover this topic in detail in this episode.

The Business Case: Curiosity Before Conclusion
Consultants train to stay curious longer. They delve deep, ask probing questions, and resist the urge to jump to conclusions. This approach ensures that they fully understand the intricacies of a business problem before suggesting solutions.

Alan Weiss, a consulting luminary, once aptly said, “Real consulting is diagnosing before prescribing.” This philosophy is evident in the modus operandi of consulting firms. They prioritize understanding over immediate action, ensuring their recommendations are insightful and actionable.

The Business Brief: Quick Solutions, Immediate Impact
On the other hand, agencies, driven by the fast-paced nature of the marketing world, often prioritize speed. They’re adept at quickly crafting solutions, producing campaigns that resonate emotionally and visually in record time.

While this agility is commendable, they sometimes jump to solutions without fully exploring the underlying business challenges. Rory Sutherland emphasizes the emotional drivers of human behaviour, suggesting that agencies often tap into these drivers to create an immediate impact.

However, this rapid response can sometimes be a double-edged sword. The business brief, emphasizing immediacy, can inadvertently position agencies as order-takers rather than strategic partners.

The Psychology of “Funding” vs. “Pricing”

When clients hear “cost” or “fees,” it often evokes a sense of expenditure, an outflow of resources, or a financial burden. It’s a term that, in its essence, signifies a subtraction from one’s assets. In the world of agencies, discussions often revolve around these terms. How much will this campaign cost? What are the fees involved in this project? These questions, while essential, can sometimes create a transactional tone to the conversation. The focus becomes the immediate financial implications rather than the potential value or return on investment.

On the other hand, the term “funding” carries a different connotation. It suggests investment, growth, and future potential. When consultants talk about “funding projects,” they’re framing the conversation in terms of opportunities and future gains. It’s not just about the money being spent, but where that money is going and what it will achieve. This perspective aligns more with long-term strategic planning and the potential for sustainable growth.

Moreover, the term “outcomes” further reinforces this forward-looking perspective. It shifts the focus from the immediate transaction to the results that the investment will yield. It’s a promise of value, of tangible benefits that the client can expect from their investment.

The emphasis on “long-term strategic worth” by consultants further cements this perspective. It’s not just about the here and now, but about the future. It’s about building something lasting that will continue to provide value long after the initial investment has been made.

The Client’s Perception

From a client’s perspective, these distinctions in language and focus can significantly influence their perception of value and willingness to invest.

When faced with discussions centred on “costs” and “fees,” clients might become more cost-conscious, seeking ways to minimize expenditure and maximize every dollar spent. They might prioritize short-term gains over long-term benefits, seeking immediate returns on their investment.

Conversely, when the conversation revolves around “funding,” “outcomes,” and “long-term strategic worth,” clients are more likely to adopt a growth mindset. They’ll be more open to making significant investments if they can see the potential for long-term benefits and sustainable growth. They’ll think in terms of opportunities rather than expenditures.

The language we use in business discussions isn’t just semantics. It carries weight, influencing perceptions, mindsets, and, ultimately, decisions. While agencies and consulting firms offer immense value, how they frame their services can significantly impact how clients perceive that value.

By understanding these psychological nuances, agencies and consultants can better align their discussions with client needs and expectations, fostering more productive and mutually beneficial relationships.

The Implications: Depth vs. Dazzle
This dichotomy has profound business implications. With their in-depth analysis and prolonged curiosity, consulting firms position themselves as strategic partners. They’re the architects meticulously designing a skyscraper, ensuring structural integrity and longevity.

On the other hand, advertising agencies, with their rapid creative responses, risk being seen as mere decorators. While they add aesthetic value, the foundational strength — the strategy — might sometimes be missing.

How you show up determines where you show up in the conversation. Ask questions, stay curious longer and be invited early. Jump to solutions and ideas and be the last to enter the party.

The Path Forward: A Blended Reality
In recent years, consulting giants like Accenture and Deloitte made significant acquisitions in the design and advertising space, with purchases of agencies like Droga5, Heat and TWG, respectively. These acquisitions signify a shift towards a blended reality where consulting firms aim to offer end-to-end solutions, from strategic inception to creative execution.

  1. Accenture Interactive: A prime example of the convergence between consulting and marketing, Accenture Interactive positions itself as an “experience agency.” It combines Accenture’s deep business and technological expertise with creative prowess. Their acquisition of Droga5, a renowned creative agency, further solidified their commitment to offering end-to-end solutions, from business strategy to creative execution.
  2. Deloitte Digital: Another testament to this trend. A part of the Deloitte Consulting group, it offers a mix of consulting and creative services. They’ve made several acquisitions in the digital and creative space, such as purchasing the agency Heat. This allows them to provide comprehensive solutions encompassing strategy, user experience, and creative design.
  3. PwC Digital Services: PwC, traditionally known for its consulting and audit services, has expanded into the digital and creative realm with PwC Digital Services. They offer a blend of business consulting and technology with creative and digital design services. They integrate strategy, experience, and tech to solve complex business challenges.

This integrated approach is already reshaping the business landscape, allowing companies to benefit from both depth and dazzle. They achieve long-term strategic alignment while simultaneously resonating in the market. In today’s dynamic environment, consulting firms are both advisors and implementers, bridging the gap between strategy and execution seamlessly.

Challenges on the Horizon
However, this convergence has its challenges. Integrating distinct corporate cultures, methodologies, and client expectations can be daunting. There’s also the risk of diluting specialized expertise in pursuing end-to-end solutions. Moreover, while consulting firms excel in strategic depth, they might need help replicating the agility and creative spontaneity agencies are renowned for.

Change Management: The Key to Integration
The success of this blended reality hinges on effective change management. Both consulting firms and agencies need to be agile, adapting to new roles and expectations. Training programs, workshops, and collaborative projects can help merge the best of both worlds. It’s about fostering an environment where consultants think creatively, and marketers strategize deeply.

Transforming Ways of Working and Skillsets
The fusion of consulting and marketing will inevitably change the ways of working. Traditional hierarchies might give way to more collaborative and cross-functional teams. The rules of engagement will evolve, emphasizing continuous learning, adaptability, and interdisciplinary knowledge.

Employees will need to be more versatile. A consultant might need to understand creative processes, while a marketer might need to delve deeper into business strategy. This demands a workforce that’s not only skilled in their core competencies but also has a broader understanding of the entire business landscape.

Finally, understanding the nuances between these approaches becomes imperative as businesses navigate the complexities of today’s landscape and anticipate tomorrow’s challenges. The choice isn’t merely between depth and dazzle, long-term strategic alignment, and immediate market resonance.

As the business world evolves, one thing remains clear: the need for robust strategy and impactful creativity has never been more pronounced, and the lines between consulting and marketing have never been more blurred. The future beckons a new breed of professionals, adept at strategy and creativity, ready to navigate the challenges of a rapidly changing business environment.

Title credits: Yousuf Afridi 🏆

By Paul Syng

Paul Syng is a multi-disciplinary designer based in Toronto. He focuses on a problem-seeking, systems thinking approach that can take any form or function.