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Rise of the consultants

by Louise Kiel on May 21, 2015
Campaign Asia-Pacific

Intermediaries have proliferated to become a regional fixture in recent years. But what do they really bring to the table?

Over the last few years the consultancy landscape has blossomed in Asia-Pacific. From what are essentially one-man shows to large-scale operations, the landscape is peppered with a diverse range of players who do everything from cost-benchmarking to relationship-counselling between agency and client. While R3 continues to be the biggest in terms of staff, services and market penetration, other players have put down roots too. We’re increasingly hearing names like Oystercatchers, Navigare, The Observatory International, Accenture Media Management and TrinityP3. The latter has more than doubled in size in terms of revenue and consultants in the last three years, which is an indication of the growth of the sector.

“I think marketers are now seeing the value of consulting more and more and I think the diversification of agency services has also had a big impact,” says Greg Paull, principal of R3. A dozen years ago, the concept was unheard of in Asia, but “now we are running social media pitches, CRM pitches, event marketing pitches — it’s very niche”.

As the industry matures, skillsets are evolving beyond pitch mediation. “I think we do ourselves a disservice by calling ourselves ‘pitch consultants’,” Paull says. “At least in our case, that is 20 per cent of what we do and the other 80 per cent is ‘marriage-guidance’ counselling, research into the industry, media analysis or marketing analysis. These days, marketers need a lot more than help finding their next agency … so we have tried to move upstream.”

In a recent global pitch for Four Seasons Hotels, R3 sourced and presented unfamiliar agencies to the client and demonstrated they were the right fit. “It was a lot of hard work and research,” Paull says.

Some remain sceptical. Brian Fisher, Caltex brand manager at Chevron, says he has never used a pitch consultant and never will. Other marketers are somewhat confused. The global category director for advertising at Diageo, Simon Tilden, believes the current landscape is hard to navigate, with consultants failing to differentiate themselves and prove their worth.

“I don’t really see any of these consultants stand out. It appears very personality-led and some consultants have established a persona that perhaps puts them at the top of the selection list.”

Tilden is also concerned that some of these operators act with bias. “We worry that some consultants’ business models mean they don’t operate impartially, such as those that derive revenue from agencies for either listing them on their books or running agency credentials libraries.”

That’s the reason one consultant, Navigare, refuses to manage the agency search and selection process for clients. “How can you collect money from agencies for their share of engagement programmes, and assure the market that you have no bias to these agencies when it is time to put together a roster for a pitch?” asks Jeff Estok, managing partner.

The Observatory International says it accepts no money from agencies either. “Therefore our marketer clients can be assured we are truly impartial in the advice that we give them,” says regional managing partner Richard Bleasdale.

Why hire a consultant?

Jean-Paul Burge, the recently appointed chairman and CEO of BBDO Asia, has dealt with the full spectrum of consultancies in his time. “There are good and not-so-good ones,” he says. “The not-so-good ones are just bad for everyone. With ambiguity, moving goalposts and no grip on the process, agencies feel used and clients don’t get the best partner.”

But good ones can create massive efficiencies for both agencies and clients. Alex Meaden, regional marketing director at MEC, believes good consultants bring rigour to the process, and ensure clarity and understanding of the client’s business, objectives and judgement criteria, so that all parties are clear on expectations and deliverables.

“They can provide a level playing field so that all information requests are clear and upfront and ensure that the client is comparing like for like between agencies.”

With regard to cost management, Meaden says MEC fully supports the client’s need to have an unbiased third party benchmark deliveries. “We embrace it, as it can independently show how well we deliver value for our clients,” she says.

The best pitch consultants, says Keith Smith, TBWA Worldwide’s president international for global markets, help a client refine a brief so that it is not a scattergun but a clearly defined objective for an agency to answer. “Overall, I would rather work through a pitch consultant than be subject to a whimsical client response,” he says.

Clients also increasingly employ consultants, particularly when it comes to developing markets, to ensure transparency in the pitch process. “We are being retained by large global brands in challenging markets to ensure absolute transparency within the process and to ensure that all parties have an equal opportunity and all decision-making is completely above board,” says Bleasdale.

Paull says R3 counts Chinese companies among its clients that “five years ago would have never considered having a third-party consultant”.

The good from the bad

Agencies still complain of consultants being so focused on the process that the pitch becomes an exercise in driving costs down. Quality operators, agencies are unanimous in saying, are those that take the time to understand the characters and needs of both sides, and set out to build long-term relationships between client and agency, rather than facilitating short-term wins.

“We focus a lot of time and energy on people and chemistry,” says Oystercatchers’ managing partner Gillian Harrison. The Observatory International has the same outlook. “Our primary focus is on the quality of the chemistry and culture that exists between a marketer and their agency. Better relationships drive better ideas which, in turn, deliver better results,” says Bleasdale. This was one of the primary reasons that the consultancy worked with Campaign to launch the annual Agency/Marketer Partnership Award in 2014, shining a light on productive agency/marketer relationships.

“We will always try and fix an existing marketer-agency relationship before recommending a pitch,” Bleasdale continues. “We find that many underlying issues are not fixed by switching agencies, and the significant costs — in time, resources and lost momentum — are often not understood or factored into the decision to go to pitch.” The Observatory International is seeing substantial growth within what Bleasdale describes as “marketing resource optimisation, and improvements in marketing TOI as a result.

Of course, the performance of a pitch consultant is very closely linked to the attitude of the client. “Regardless of how good a pitch consultant is, if a client has a real ‘vendor mindset’ — a commoditised view of their partners — then they will not use them to their best advantage and the consultant won’t be able to do their best work,” says Meaden.

Why the growth?

The number of consultants has grown in what seems a relatively subdued market. “Local pitches are rarer than they used to be due to globalisation,” says George Patten, global lead for media management at Accenture Operations. But that doesn’t mean there is less of a requirement for consultants. “The global pitch management work we do includes APAC and the notion of an APAC-wide pitch process is prevalent. So you may think there are less pitches but this is not the case. They are simply bigger, and more centralised.”

The landscape is also growing because the nature of marketing — and how clients use agencies — is becoming far more complex. Clients and agencies are trading in the full-service model of the past in favour of collaboration with a range of different partners. It’s now about selecting a team of agencies that can provide specialist knowledge to the client.

“What used to be a simple relationship [between] marketer and agency has morphed into multi-party relationships, with the regular involvement of procurement and legal on the side of the brand, and the increasing involvement of multiple specialist agencies on the other side,” says Bleasdale. “This increased complexity tends to put pressure on timeframes, reporting, ways of working and budgets to name a few areas, and requires deep experience and strong consultancy capability to make sure the sum of the parts adds up to more, for all parties involved.”

Meaden believes it’s a simple case of supply and demand: “Our business has become more complex. At the same time, marketers have less and less time and resources dedicated to any one aspect of managing their external marketing partners, so their need for support has increased.”

Then there is a more rudimentary reality behind the proliferation of consultants. As Estok notes, there is a low cost-of-entry, and cost-of-exit, associated with setting up a basic pitch consultancy. And with industry numbers shrinking, on both the client and the agency fronts, it looks like an attractive opportunity for former agency top-brass to “parlay their experience into cash”.

Looking ahead

The biggest challenge consultants face in the coming years is undoubtedly the rapidly changing media market. “Digital has changed everything and now social is changing digital,” says Oystercatchers’ Harrison. “Too often, points of disconnect still exist where client-agency proposals and models are predicted on a pre-digital view of customer need and an ongoing belief in push communication.”

Furthermore, comparing like-for-like when it comes to complex digital strategy is very difficult. “With the speed of development in digital, consultants are faced with a much more complex media landscape with increasingly complex pricing levels and strategies, which are very difficult to normalise,” says Meaden, who points to the difficulties involved in evaluating programmatic buying as an example. “In programmatic, you are buying a hyper-targeted audience, one that is only relevant to the particular objectives of that media strategy, so to try and compare that to an industry norm arguably makes little sense. We are happy to work with [pitch consultants], however, to help them develop their knowledge and tools in this area.”

Burge thinks pitch consultancies have a bright future. “Clients have become busier, our business has become more complex, and I believe what we do has become more important to our clients’ success than ever before. The agency a client works with is a critical decision and I see more opportunity for third parties to improve the management of pitches, and expect there are plenty of people out there thinking about how they can do just this.”

But things are reaching saturation point. “We are already seeing a reality where there are so many consultancies selling their wares that clients now hold a pitch among them before allowing one of them to manage the agency pitch,” Meaden says. “So when does the landscape actually begin to add unnecessary complexity to valuable independent skills and insight? Quite soon I would say.”

CONSULTANT DOSSIERS

R3 Worldwide

Perhaps the most active and comprehensive operator in the region, R3 has 80 full-time staff across 11 offices in Asia-Pacific, North America, Latin America and Europe. Founded by Greg Paull and ShuFen Goh in 2002 as a new type of consultancy focused on marketers and their agency reviews, relationships and remuneration, the company has since expanded its service offering to help with return on media, return on investment and return on assets. Its focus is now helping global marketers in the high growth markets of Brazil, Russia, China and India, from the most complex audit of billions of dollars of agency media purchases to the intricate details of effectively working with agency creative teams. Services include assessment, consolidation and alignment of agency resources, organisation of client and agency task management for optimal efficiency, evaluation and organisation of in-house communications resources and systems, and audits of best practices, including media and production services. Clients include Visa, Samsung, Coca-Cola, Singtel, McDonald’s, Telkomsel, Microsoft, BMW, J&J and Fonterra.

Navigare

Sydney-based Navigare provides relationship management advice to CEOs, senior marketers and their agency partners across Asia-Pacific. Founded in 1996 by Cam Carter, former MD of Grey Advertising, the consultancy welcomed Jeff Estok, former MD of Clemenger BBDO, on board in 2009 as managing partner. Navigare does not manage agency pitches, doesn’t recommend agencies for shortlisting and does not attend meetings between clients and agencies at any stage. Instead, it provides governance and oversight protocols for clients undertaking self-managed agency search assignments.
Its primary focus is building stronger relationships between marketers and agencies. Navigare helps clients come up with what it terms an “ideal agency profile”. It provides input on the assessment criteria for each step of the process, as well as market research on client-nominated prospective agencies. Beyond client-agency engagement management and pitch guidance, it uses its own trademarked products and tools to help clients develop and agree on the scope of work required by agencies, as well as eliminate barriers to excellence between clients and agencies, and agencies and agencies.

Oystercatchers

New to the regional scene, Oystercatchers launched in Hong Kong in May 2014. Managing partner Gillian Harrison runs pitches solo, but has worked with 12 local and international partners to create and deliver marketing and agency training courses. She is supported daily by her team in London. Oystercatchers aims to help clients and agencies to build long-lasting and effective relationships between agency and client through the implementation of trademarked marketing acceleration programmes and proprietary agency evaluation tools. With a team of more than 20 people worldwide, Oystercatchers was voted the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising’s (IPA) top intermediary. The consultancy focuses on people and chemistry — selecting the right agencies and, importantly, the right team, which it believes have the power to be transformational for business and brands. It also provides contract negotiation and fee-benchmarking for clients. Outside the management of pitches and roster reorganisation, it specialises in accelerating marketing performance, business unit collaboration, marketing department structure, and development of the tools, skills, and capabilities required to deliver against strategic marketing objectives. Clients include UBS, Bupa, Honda, Amazon and Land Rover.

The Observatory International

The Observatory International is the result of a merger between Roth Associates and The Observatory International. The company works solely for marketers and offers them four types of consultancy and advisory services. These include: marketing resource optimisation, which focuses on improving marketing processes and practices audits, agency rosters and models and the skills of teams through training and coaching; agency performance improvement, which focuses on realistic and motivating KPI setting, performance-measurement programmes and tools, and benchmarking against best-in-class case studies; agency compensation and incentives, which looks at fair and reasonable agency fees/rates-benchmarking and negotiation, agency scope and fee reconciliation and various performance-based agency remuneration models; and finally, agency search and selection, which covers pitch management, RFI/RFP and SOW development, agency contracts and SLAs and agency transitioning and onboarding. The consultancy claims that in 75 per cent of the pitches it has managed, the winning work ended up running; and that the marketer-agency relationships borne from its pitches last on average three times longer than the industry norms.

TrinityP3

Founded by Darren Woolley in 2000, Trinity P3 is a collection of marketing management consultants and operates across the entire Asia-Pacific region. It is also part of a global network, Marketing First Forum, which allows it to manage global projects. More than half of TrinityP3’s revenue over the past few years has been derived from developing, refining and managing the transformation of marketing departments. Within this sort of marketing management consulting, it often also helps to manage the agency selection and pitch process. The latter sees it help clients with agency selection and agency monitoring to enhance the overall marketing function. Agency selection services include: business and marketing assessment; budget setting and benchmarking; internal structure and process review; strategic supplier alignment; supplier search and selection; remuneration and compensation modelling and contract negotiations. Agency engagement services include: remuneration and compensation assessment; contract review; process optimisation; scope of work management; dispute resolutions; rate card and reporting and training workshops. Agency monitoring services include: relationship alignment and performance improvement; performance scorecards; rate card assessments; media strategy and planning assessment; media buying benchmarking; production assessments across digital and print, and production management.

Accenture Media Management

Accenture Media Management operates in over 70 markets around the world. Services consist of: media benchmarking; agency contract management — working with clients to ensure the final agency contract is robust and that targets and performance-related fees are contractually fair and relevant to the individual client and agency; agency sourcing and selection where Accenture helps clients understand the difference between each media agency they may consider working with and facilitates meetings to ensure like-for-like comparisons when managing the media agency pitch process; financial compliance helps clients understand the flow of their budgets between themselves, their media agency and the media owner; agency process management allows clients to work optimally with their media agency across all areas of their business from finance, marketing, and procurement. Areas of investigation could include the briefing process, staffing, booking deadlines and response management; marketing procurement services see Accenture work with clients to optimise value across the entire marketing suite of products. This could include areas such as creative production costs, fee- based analysis and staffing pyramids and digital expertise — analysis of how digital is planned, bought and priced — while maintaining relevance to the analysis of other media.

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