Thanks to audit firms, Math Men are taking over Madison Avenue

The accountants are coming.
The accountants are coming.
Image: AP Photo/Jaimie Trueblood
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Deloitte has purchased Seattle digital ad agency, Banyan Branch. Price Waterhouse Coopers has picked up New York digital creative shop, BGT. And so it continues: business consultancies are aggressively moving into what has traditionally been the marketing/advertising space serviced by agencies and their holding companies. It’s a sign that clients have finally woken up. For years, there was little accountability by agencies for the vast amounts of money they persuade clients to spend on “branding” exercises. Those Super Bowl TV spots make a client CEO feel good on the golf course—but are virtually impossible to relate to an effect on sales.

Now, access to copious amounts of data (big data) make it easier to quantify just what those marketing dollars are doing for you. The jury is still out on some of the social efforts, but it isn’t so much the snake oil and smoke and mirrors of the Mad Men days: three martinis and a chart sketched on a Four Seasons tablecloth—a million-dollar campaign is born. Even Sir Martin Sorrel, CEO of the world’s largest advertising holding company, WPP, recently proclaimed: “We are no longer Mad Men, we are Math Men.”

The writing has been on the wall for a while. Accenture got into the game early with its formation of Accenture Interactive in 2009 to handle digital marketing assignments for major client, Proctor & Gamble. Since then, it has been acquiring digital creative and production assets at a rapid rate while being tasked with major programs for BMW, Target and others. Of even more concern for traditional ad agencies playing catch-up in this ruthlessly competitive environment: Accenture is now beginning to act as an agency search consultant for client companies reviewing who should be selected to handle their advertising and marketing.

Even though Accenture’s objectivity will be stressed to both the client and the agencies lusting to handle their business, the competing agencies must realize that Deloitte not only offers the same services—probably at a better price—but already enjoys a close relationship with the prospective client. It will be interesting to monitor how many of these “searches” fail to end up as a win for Deloitte.

As the ad agency business moves further away from the advice the legendary David Ogilvy once gave it (“Stick to your knitting”), we should remember that Sorrell recently disclosed that about three-quarters of WPP’s revenues now come from non-advertising activities. Perhaps this might lead him to concentrate more time on the origins of WPP: “Wire & Plastic Products.” It’s unlikely the consultant community would want to get into the supermarket trolley business. But you never know.