OK, it hasn't quite come to that , but as marketing requires more technology to reach consumers, the consulting and IT giants are inching beyond software and closer to agency turf. Where the disciplines once remained in their separate corners, the tech side is looking to learn the language of brands.
Consider that Deloitte recently acquired mobile shop Übermind for a reported $40 million after the Seattle agency entertained a range of suitors, including agency-holding companies. Having made its name in systems integration and enterprise technology, Deloitte is adding the creative and design chops that built consumer-facing products such as Apple's first online store and Target 's mobile and tablet apps.
"There was a time when you could have just great technical and business knowledge and build great apps," said Mike Brinker, Deloitte principal and leader of a service line that includes the 200-person Übermind as well as e-commerce, social-media and content teams. "But it's no longer an option to have a bad user experience, so having agency-type creative skills is imperative."
Deloitte is not the first IT consultant to see that need. It's following a path Sapient Corp. forged years ago when it created its own agency, SapientNitro, which brought in $515 million in global revenue in 2010.
And even Accenture is creating a marketing-services arm and partnering with agency players to win new business.
"Everyone is coming to the same place, trying to find the sweet spot between tech, creative and data," said Glen Hartman, global managing director-digital consulting for Accenture Interactive, the 2-year-old unit. According to CEO Brian Whipple, now CMOs are knocking on his door, in addition to the usual chief information officers.
"The largest brands in the world were getting incomplete solutions from their myriad vendors," said Mr. Whipple, who earlier in his career worked at agencies. "Clients, in my view, are finding it more credible to reach into marketing from technology" rather than the other way around.
That's because brand websites and online advertising require complex data analysis, customization and global management, Mr. Whipple said.
For American Express, Accenture Interactive targets and optimizes display ads and tailors site visits so content is different for each person, depending on demographics. For Procter & Gamble, Accenture manages global digital-marketing campaigns for brands, including Olay and Gillette.
However, Accenture Interactive isn't claiming quite yet that it's a creative agency. Instead, it's been working in tandem with digital agencies to pitch new business around the world. One of its partners is European shop LBi; Mr. Whipple declined to speak about that relationship but stressed that relationships with agencies are "complementary, not competitive."
Sounds a bit like a "frenemy" -- the term WPP chief Martin Sorrell has used to describe Google, among others -- doesn't it?
What these "frenemy"relationships mean for adland is a landscape that is more crowded and competitive. Agencies, too, are stretching to become friendly with information officers. Shops such as Publicis Groupe 's Razorfish do what Accenture and Deloitte claim they can, such as manage global digital campaigns and create technology, apps and websites for marketers. Add in SapientNitro's ascent in the agency world, and a rumble seems unavoidable.
"If I look at the landscape right now, Deloitte's traditional competitors are very strong on the business or technical side, but not creative," said Deloitte's Mr. Brinker. "On the other side, digital agencies are very good on the creative side, but have no depth in business knowledge or enterprise technology."
"We compete with Campbell-Ewald on one end and IBM Interactive on the other," said Barry Fiske, creative director at SapientNitro. "Sometimes we're working alongside [these companies] on client work, and sometimes you need to be partners with your competitors."
It remains to be seen if Accenture Interactive will emerge as a threat to agencies. On a recent earnings call, Accenture's CEO-Director Pierre Nanterme said the company is helping clients "with digital strategy, website transformation, social media and digital management." But its primary contact with P&G is with the global business services division, not the marketing department.
That's likely why a discussion about one of P&G's highest-profile recent campaigns -- Old Spice's "Man Your Man Could Smell Like" -- sounds more like an executional disaster through Accenture Interactive's lens. "The Old Spice campaign was a wildly expensive manual execution," Mr. Hartman said. "When you ask, "How do you do that at scale on an ongoing basis?' the room gets quiet."
That outlook isn't scaring business away. Accenture Interactive says it grew more than 50% in revenue and in headcount last year, with more than 1,000 people, but would not provide specifics.
"Data is the new sexy," Mr. Hartman said. "There's nothing better than for a CMO to point to the big idea that won the day that can be replicated and scaled to drive new consumers and sales."