An epic shift in design consulting?

The past few months have seen several buyouts in the design space, notably Accenture’s recent acquisition of Fjord. Moving Brands’ Mat Heinl predicts what it might mean for the design consultancy model.

The acquired: the rising stars
All of the agencies listed — big and small — have very focused (mostly digital) offerings. They generally cover a very important but narrow set of needs within a client organisation. They sell design, not necessarily creativity.

The acquirers: the new sugar daddies?
These companies are either service businesses (in the tech space) or product businesses in their own right (again in tech). Up until recently this type of trade sale has been the preserve of the large media groups like WPP, Omnicom and IPG. There’s no reason why a management consultancy couldn’t find a way to deliver design well, despite there being no compelling example of this. I believe they could do it at least as well as the media groups. It’s worth remembering that these businesses are already doing design — it’s just that it’s not visual. Business and organisational design require system thinking as well as many other skills that are not necessarily well established in the creative industry.

As I see it, the narrative for fit is covered by two scenarios; shared clients, in order to cross and up-sell (Accenture + Fjord and Ecover + Method) or an in-house talent or skills gap that needs to be plugged quickly and efficiently (such as the Facebook acqui-hire of Instagram and Yahoo’s purchase of Tumblr).

Consultancies vs Media groups: Turf wars
Perhaps this heralds an interesting jostle between the WPP’s and the Accenture’s of this world. On the one hand we have businesses that claim to be able to help their clients sell. On the other hand are businesses that claim to help clients deliver. These large corporations need growth, they have shareholders to please after all, and therefore we may increasingly see them encroach into each other’s traditional territories. The theatre for this might well be the digital / tech / data space. Hence the ‘advertising is dead, it’s all about big-data’ stories we’re bombarded with. So it seems there are both strategic and economic reasons at play — one would expect nothing less from good in-house corporate strategy and M&A teams.

However, you get what you measure. The question is what do these buyers measure? Can they create the right goals, culture, space, team, vision for great design? Are they even aiming for great design? Time will tell but I have a hunch…

The client: bit part player?
Often the client seems to be a bystander in these moves rather than being considered in how these new business models help them. Every client we meet wants to make their brand and products great.  My view is that clients need more help connecting up activities rather than replacing one with the other. Being good at product, service and tech doesn’t necessarily help you do great storytelling and certainly the reverse is true (as often evidenced by the nonsensical product and service ideas born out of agency brainstorms). That’s why we talk about connecting brands to people and people to brands. What clients really need is a partner that can come up with stories and execute them for people. Concepts need to be brilliant and focused on helping the business, but without equally brilliant execution, they’re meaningless.


  • Marko Orenius

    Good thinking on the topic. Chances are we’ll see new services in the digital space being developed by the Accentures as they simply look for new business. With their clients’ investments moving increasingly towards digitalization in its many forms, the “front end” design area has to be covered. That’s where so much value resides in the end.