Conventional wisdom has it that no marketing budget holder wakes up in the morning cheerily anticipating the prospect of paying money to management consultants. Despite the contribution made to the public, private and voluntary sectors by these independent advisors, clichés abound which typically describe the experience in less than glowing terms.

The truth, however, is that consulting firms are omnipresent in business today, often deeply embedded in the workings of an organisation’s vital functions and processes, across all departments. With change now the new normal, exposing tantalising opportunities to improve efficiency and effectiveness, the core skills of management consultants are sought, perhaps even welcomed, as never before.

Clearly, too, the major players have targeted marketing services as a new frontier, identifying that technology is increasingly becoming the preserve of the CMO within a client organisation. To this point, American research firm Gartner estimates that, by next year, most of a company’s IT spend will be controlled by the marketing chief rather than the CIO.

Ominously, we have Accenture Interactive, Deloitte Digital, IBM iX, to name but three, investing heavily, by acquisition and upskilling, in capabilities which have traditionally resided in communications agencies. The consulting firms have understood that senior marketers are now driven less by the production of front-end marketing materials and more by a holistic approach to the user/customer experience. The preoccupation with data and the complex demands of digital integration have diminished the reliance upon a single agency and opened the door to the diverse, strategically and operationally adept talent pool offered by management consultancies.

The immediate threat is being faced by digital agencies which are directly in the path of the ambitious, resolutely marching consultancies. The likes of Deloitte and Accenture have already joined pitch lists for global digital marketing briefs, putting all major agency groups on notice to defend their territory. There appears to be some doubt that left-brain consultants can truly challenge the right-brain flair of communication specialists (or would want to) but the evidence would suggest an investment by the larger firms in building up a creative arsenal. And I, for one, wouldn’t bet on where this might lead, given the pressure on CMOs to transform their marketing operations.

Management consultants hold other trump cards too. They tend inherently to have the bigger picture in view, involving themselves in all aspects of their clients’ businesses, often already engaged in a top level advisory role. This fits well with all-encompassing impact of the digital transformation that companies are looking to undergo. Consulting firms have also managed to charge more for their services, providing the financial muscle to enter new sectors at pace and with scale, in part by focusing upon how to address the CEO’s longer-term strategic questions.

In short, the management consultancy offer has cleverly evolved to meet the needs of today’s marketers. There is more to consider here than technical ability, however. There appears to be a discernible preference for what could be called a consultancy style relationship.

I have heard, in a number of my recent interviews, a call among marketing services clients for this kind of engagement. In essence, consultancy style appears to contain three key ingredients:

  • Establishing and maintaining a strong link between any marketing activity and solving a fundamental business problem
  • Even in project-based assignments, agency teams educating themselves and/or challenging clients for relevant category/product knowledge in order to maintain the above connection
  • Understanding that, whatever the function, enabling an organisation to communicate and work more effectively and more quickly, to break the silos, is seen as key to growth

These qualities, readily regarded as core competencies of consulting firms, are particularly appealing for clients in a fast-moving environment where data, media and creativity are increasingly blurred.

A study undertaken by research and policy unit PolicyBristol Hub, posted in February 2015, also suggests that a consultancy relationship model, which they have called “management as consultancy”, is being adopted within organisations. This is being achieved by recruiting former external management consultants and by internal reinvention, to create “consultant managers”. Interestingly, echoing the above characteristics, this suggests that, quoting Professor Andrew Sturdy, Chair in Management at University of Bristol, “management consulting is not so much a successful, elite profession, but a type of management”.

So, the management consultants are coming, in substance and style. Marketers are increasingly attracted to their widened offer and the most influential clients continue to call for a new agency model to meet their spiralling needs. There isn’t an easy answer. What I do know, however, is that agencies possess powerful core skills of their own – problem-solving and inventiveness, energy and ideas. Success will demand greater immersion in clients’ businesses, mutually beneficial, consistent dialogue and the introduction of relevant, credible new skills, processes and talent. And, of course, there will need to be transparency.

This should not require the services of management consultants!