The Role of Consultants
By Mark Tungate
The advertising landscape may have changed, but the role of search consultant still depends on human relationships, say the experts.
Search consultants are often described as the “marriage brokers” of the advertising industry. But the business of fixing up clients with agencies is more complex than it might seem.
“Our role is essentially to make connections between the companies and people who work together in the marketing and communications environment,” sums up Kika Samblás, founding partner and managing director of SCOPEN in Madrid. “But we have to understand the culture of the companies and the vision of their managers, in order to perceive what their intentions and needs really are.”
A consultant’s core skills are knowledge of the industry and empathy with those who work in it. “Technology has become increasingly important in this business, but it’s still about ideas that can change consumers’ attitudes and the way they connect with brands. So you need a grasp of psychology to see which people have the chemistry that will enable them to produce those ideas together.”
Stéphanie Pitet, co-founder of Pitchville in Paris, would agree. “The one thing that hasn’t changed about this job is the human aspect. Often when a client wants to change their agency, it’s because of a relationship problem – perhaps a person they liked has left, or the team has changed.”
She says certain platforms have tried to “uberize” the search process: you enter your needs and a choice of agencies pops up. But so far these have had little impact on Pitchville’s business. “It’s quite reassuring that the ability to create relationships is still the added value we offer.”
Since the task of selecting a new agency has a defined time frame, can consultants have regular clients? In fact, Stéphanie explains, agency relationships last on average three or four years, so clients do return. “Either it’s because the agency has changed, the client’s needs have changed, or the procurement department pushes for a new competitive pitch. Also, clients who change companies come to us in their new role.”
As the digital world has opened up a variety of new ways of reaching consumers, it can now be a case of sourcing several agencies. Kika confirms: “More and more, it’s not just about one relationship, or one project, but about creating an ecosystem of partners for a client. In that case our involvement lasts longer. Sometimes we also measure the effectiveness and results of those relationships. While we still do in-out, one-off projects that fulfill a specific brief, increasingly we have a longer lifetime value.”
KNOWLEDGE IS KEY
Interestingly, neither Kika nor Stéphanie came directly from an agency background – in fact they both studied law. Kika then worked in finance, which she says now helps her see the bigger picture of marketing decisions.
“When we are selecting an agency, it’s not for that CMO, it’s for the company. So while you need to answer the needs of that one person, you also need to estimate the broader strategic impact. Beyond that, you have to be patient, and you have to be curious.”
If you don’t come from an advertising background, you’ll need to get yourself up to speed pretty quickly, because a large part of the consultants’ job is about knowing which agencies are out there, and what they’re able to deliver.
Stéphanie says: “We devote a lot of our time to meeting agencies – and the teams within those agencies – so we have a precise picture of who’s who on the scene at any moment in time.”
It helps that as potential sources of business, consultants are kept informed by the agencies about the comings and goings of talent. New agencies also tend to make themselves known, although occasionally Stéphanie and her colleagues will hear about one and make an appointment.
Kika points out: “It used to be that you just needed to know all the agencies, which was hard enough. But now you also need to be aware of other companies that may be of service to your clients, like marketing technology companies, for example. In fact you have to be very ambitious in terms of the knowledge you want to acquire and the people you want to meet.”
Travel is useful, she adds, as different markets approach communications challenges in different ways. “And of course after running projects with so many clients you can spread learnings and best practices from one company to another.”
Normally clients are very tied to their category, she observes, so a consultant brings the advantage of having worked outside that bubble and can import different models of collaboration.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SPEED
Recently some big clients – Procter & Gamble among them – have talked about reducing their reliance on agencies and bringing more work in-house. Could this have a negative impact on search consultancies?
Kika says: “Today there are as many models as there are ways of reaching consumers. An in-house approach can work for some companies, but not all. There’s no one single truth.”
In fact, today’s ever-shifting advertising landscape probably works to consultants’ advantage. “We try to recommend solutions that are easy and fast to implement, as speed is important these days.”
Stéphanie concurs. “Once they’ve decided to change their agency, clients want to do so quickly. I think digital has convinced everyone that because they can get information faster, and because they can see results faster, everything has to go faster. And so rotation is more frequent.”
Similarly, there is increasing pressure on consultants to demonstrate return on investment. Kika says: “Obviously we can explain the benefits of working with us, but we can’t yet give them concrete figures like ‘we will save you 25 per cent of your investment budget and you will have a return of plus 5 per cent on your sales’. We don’t quite have those analytics yet – but we’re working on it.”
Above all, consultants are “enablers”. Stéphanie concludes: “We save our clients time, we save our clients money, and we create the foundations for a lasting and solid relationship.”