“Crowded Space for Strategic Thinkers” by Andrew McMains, Adweek

Published July 30, 2007

NEW YORK If it wasn’t already abundantly clear, ad agencies are being reminded of the steady encroachment of players offering clients brand strategies that the shops once almost exclusively delivered as a matter of course. That’s because the list of those angling for a leading role in developing these strategies continues to grow. A generation after the launch of brand consultancies such as Siegal + Gale and Wolff Olins, and more than a decade after the crossover of management consultancies like McKinsey into marketing, we now have Naked and Redscout, and just last week, a new company called CommonGround Partners joined the increasingly saturated space.

These specialists are muscling in on ground that historically had been the primary domain of ad agencies, which consequently have had to work harder to prove their strategic smarts to clients. And the new players are betting that clients are more willing than ever to listen.

That’s due to a variety of factors: the complexity of communicating in an era of proliferating media options; clients’ desire for “fresh” perspectives not influenced by an agency’s skill set (or interest in revenue); and the belief that a good idea can from anywhere, according to client consultants. And while 78 percent of marketers surveyed for a February Forrester Research report agreed with the statement, “My agency is a strategic partner,” the same report warned that shops must “push for accountability in existing relationships in addition to establishing ROI metrics. If not, agencies will lose their strategic-advisor position to firms hired by strategy or procurement. Without metrics and accountability, agencies cannot prove why a switch shouldn’t be made.”

The battle for strategic primacy keeps alive the question, “Who owns brand strategy?”

Ultimately, most agree, it’s the clients, from CMOs to CEOs.”The CEO is the ultimate brand owner and brand strategist,” said Arthur Anderson of Morgan Anderson Consulting in New York. But how companies develop their strategies varies greatly, and that’s where agencies and consultancies come in.

Some marketers are less inclined to rely on outside strategists or even their creative agencies, given their investments in research and strategic capabilities. Coca-Cola, for example, has its own strategic planning unit and a vp of global marketing strategy and creative communications: Jonathan Mildenhall. When Disney expanded its creative agency roster last year, global evp of marketing Mike Mildenhall said, “We are looking for the best creative against our strategic program.”

Other companies, such as Delta, Pepsi and Sony Ericsson, tap brand or management consultancies as needed, such as when relaunching a brand or bringing new products to market. (Redscout handles product innovation tasks for Pepsi.) Others, however, continue to use their lead agencies as the primary strategic resource outside of their companies.

“It’s kind of the Wild West,” said Source Martin’s Brian Martin of the panoply of options. “Where do you find smart minds to get the project done?”

For J&J, it was clear entering its $3 billion global media review that communications planning needed to play a more prominent role in forging brand strategies. As such, the corporate giant held a separate pitch for communications planning along side a traditional media planning and buying pitch. In the end, J&J divided its new front-end planning platform among Naked, JWT and Sandbox, a new unit of Universal McCann and R/GA planners that Interpublic Group set up for the task.

“There was a gap in strategic thinking as it related to media planning,” explained J&J global media chief Kim Kadlec. “With the way [that] consumers behave now with the new technology, this media-neutral insight-driven approach made sense.”

The strategic-thinking gap that Kadlec identified reinforces what agency leaders describe as a shortage of strategists. “There’s a lot of competition right now for strong strategic capabilities. I would say demand exceeds supply,” said Lori Senecal, GM of McCann Erickson’s New York office. “Certainly talent is the most important thing for building a strategic reputation.”

Despite growing competition, agencies maintain that they’re best positioned to bring continuity, adaptability and just plain common sense to the task because of their ongoing relationships with clients and grasp of consumer behavior. Consultants, in contrast, typically work on a project basis and don’t always see their strategies through to execution.

“It’s not a part-time job. It’s something that you have to be actively nurturing and growing on a day-to-day basis,” said Carisa Bianchi, president of Omnicom Group’s TBWA\Chiat\Day in Playa del Rey, Calif. Added Peter Stringham, CEO of WPP Group’s Young & Rubicam Brands and former global marketing chief at HSBC: “A brand is a living thing. So, a strategy is a living thing as well.”

That said, client consultants see no harm in clients looking beyond lead agencies to get strategies. But getting roster shops to embrace a consultant’s strategy can be difficult. “Whoever is executing did not gestate the baby,” said Peggy Mitchell-King of Aquent Consulting here. “You’re going to get the biggest balk known to man.”

—with Steve McClellan and Douglas Quenqua

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