Bring in the cavalry

Marketing consultants – despised by some, revered by others. But when time and resources are short, they can bring on board a wide portfolio of brand-development skills, advanced research techniques and valuable expertise. Can you afford to be

They earn up to &£1,200 a day, and claim to be the indispensable foot soldiers of marketing. Their influence is burgeoning, and they estimate the turnover of their industry could reach up to &£100m this year. These are the marketing consultants, brought in by overstretched marketing departments for their insights into consumers, markets and future trends.

But some clients have reservations about how far the consultants should be allowed to get their feet under the marketing director’s desk. Some see them as corporate freaks who did not fit into the unforgiving culture of the brand owners and decided to go it alone. Others say they are the pioneers of outsourced brand development, and that they will overtake ad agencies and management consultants as the marketers’ most important tool.

The last ten years have seen marketing consultancies’ business mushroom in the UK. The Nineties smiled kindly on the marketing consultants – but will future decades?

Ask five different marketing consultancies what they do and you’ll get five different answers. They have sprung from diverse backgrounds – some were born out of design agencies, others once specialised in corporate communications, while some were (and still are) research based.

There are corporate identity makeover gurus, affinity marketers and, right in the middle of the sector, several agencies founded and run by corporate marketers who tired of championing a single slate of brands and launched their own consultancies. A number of advertising agencies, perceiving a potential threat to their business, have also bought in or developed brand boutiques of their own.

The birth of a consultancy

Nick Cloke and Mike Larkin, co-founders of Catalyst Marketing Consultants, spotted their space in the market from the other side of the corporate fence some three and a half years ago. Founding director Cloke explains: “The recession left marketing departments a lot leaner, to the point where they had neither the time, resources, nor expertise to develop existing brands properly, or bring new brands to market.”

Many brand owners slimmed marketing departments dramatically through the recession of the early Nineties – some even did away with graduate recruitment altogether. But not everyone subscribes to this version of the genesis of marketing consultancy.

Nick Shepherd, VP strategy and business development Europe for Kraft Foods, points the finger squarely at the advertising agencies:

“During the recession, they cut back on their investment in planning. The quality of planners in most agencies is a lot poorer compared with ten years ago. Clients grew dissatisfied with the brand and strategic advice they were getting from their agencies, and that’s where the marketing consultants stepped in.”

Either way, marketing consultants have become an established feature of the commercial landscape. But client sentiment towards them is still mixed – some view them as a useful resource, while others are unwilling to outsource a key business function. Ben Anderson, European marketing director at Kimberley-Clark, admits: “Consultants can force clients to do their thinking properly, to be rigorous about the marketing process.” The consultants themselves, however, would lay claim to considerably more than that.

Added Value is one of the UK’s leading marketing consultancies. Chairman Mark

Sherrington founded Added Value some 11 years ago, when he and partner Peter Dart both left senior marketing positions at Unilever. “We see the model of our work as being to set out the brand vision and the market strategy, followed by the connectivity – how the brand message will be expressed and conveyed to the consumer. Only then do we bring in the creatives.”

Fresh insights

Catalyst’s Cloke underlines the idea that consultants provide their clients with access to a portfolio of brand-development skills: “We offer a breadth and range of experience that’s hard to match. As former senior client-side marketing managers and marketing controllers, we can bring fresh insights to bear. We know what works – and we can deliver.”

When clients approach consultancies such as Added Value and Catalyst, it’s often because they suspect there are gaps in the market that they may not be exploiting, whether through lack of time, resources or expertise. Stewart Macintosh, deputy managing director of Added Value, says: “New brands are hard to build, it’s better to exploit what you’ve got. We’ll tell a client whether an opportunity really exists and, if so, how to tackle it – stretching an existing brand if possible, or launching a new one if necessary.”

But brand strategy and development are only half the battle. Added Value’s Sherrington adds: “Consumer insight is critical – qualitative and quantitative research drive our advice. Most consultancies provide consumer research as part of their range of services. For some, research is the heart of their business.”

Paul Edwards, chairman and chief executive of the Henley Centre for Forecasting, says: “We use our proprietary database to anticipate consumer demand and trends that will affect a client’s

business. For example, we have just completed some work for Camelot on how public attitudes to gambling are likely to change in the future.”

Like many leading consultancies, Henley belongs to a larger media group, having been shrewdly acquired by WPP in the late Eighties. As Kimberly-Clark’s Anderson says: “The better consultants have advanced research techniques that can be well worth buying into.”

Together with brand strategy and consumer insight, many consultancies offer a third strand of service – internal communications. As Luciana Palmisano, head of marketing at self-styled “Brand Engagement Consultancy” Banner McBride, puts it: “You can’t have a successful brand unless your people are engaged.”

Three-tier engagement

Banner McBride is another WPP group member, this time grown in house. According to Palmisano, employees engage with brands at three levels: emotionally, intellectually, and behaviourally. Banner McBride aims to address all three. “Intellectually, we have to get people to understand the reason for the brand; behaviourally, we have to get them to understand how they are going to interact with it; and emotionally, we have to get them to like it,” she explains.

For most consultancies, work on a typical client project runs from three to six months.

Earlier this year, Mattel Games decided that Scrabble, the world’s most popular word game, was due for a makeover. They turned to Added Value and sister agency Brown ID (like others, Brown and Added are part of a larger media holding, in this case the Tempus Group, which also includes Internet experts Outrider and media specialists CIA).

Added Value spent three months researching a sample of 5,000 existing and potential players. Along with lapsed and current Scrabble players, they came up with six new target groups, from Family Entertainers and Serious Game Players to Reluctant Participants. The attitudes of all groups were critical in the subsequent redesign and repositioning of the game.

Jacobs was eyeing the lucrative crispbread market when it approached Catalyst for help. The consultancy was given just 12 weeks to develop a product that could be presented to the trade. Catalyst set to work answering four key questions: Who are the customers? What is the proposition? How should it be branded? And how should this message translate to the pack?

Jacobs gave Catalyst access to its worldwide larder of products, and within weeks the agency had developed the Jacobs Continental range, which was immediately stocked by major retailers, establishing Jacobs overnight as a category leader in crispbreads.

Less politics, more marketing

Paul Cousins has held senior marketing positions with several leading organisations. Previously marketing controller at Jacobs UK and Ireland, in February he jumped ship to join Catalyst at director level. “A good marketer is always excited and enthused about his or her brands,” he says. “I always kept that enthusiasm, but the further I got up the ladder, the less involved I became in marketing. I found I was spending all my time in meetings and dealing with politics.”

It’s a sentiment Sherrington of Added Value famously echoed when he recalled his time with Unilever in an interview with the Financial Times: “It was like trying to score a goal, but having to get the ball past ten of your own team first.”

Cousins was impressed with what Catalyst did for Jacobs: “It always delivered what it said it would.” When the chance came to switch sides, he didn’t hesitate. “I can apply all the things I’ve learned over the years to other areas and other companies I would never have had the chance to help grow. I’m back to spending 90 per cent of my time doing what I do best – marketing. The single greatest thing about it is the complete absence of politics.”

Plenty of marketing professionals on the client side would also love to be less embroiled in politics, but they still harbour reservations about outsourcing marketing. Ben Anderson of Kimberly-Clark says: “Marketing is not a function of business, it’s a culture business must-have.” Nick Shepherd of Kraft Foods does allow that marketing consultants “can be a useful resource, if and when you need them”.

Added Value has more than 150 clients, including Unilever, Egg, Coca-Cola, Shell, Mars and Levi’s. With over 300 staff working out of ten offices around the world, Added Value believes the story of marketing consultancy is only just beginning. Deputy managing director Stewart Macintosh says: “We recently acquired a US consultancy and a research outfit in Japan.” Added Value chairman Sherrington sees marketing becoming “exponentially more complicated, with global multi-dimensional brands across borders”.

Sherrington may have a point. Market leaders Unilever already seem committed to reducing their portfolio of 1,600 brands to just 400. With markets and consumers evolving ever more rapidly, perhaps it is consultants who are best placed to help the holders of potentially world-beating global brands make the most of their future opportunities.

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