Accenture's role at Ford is a test

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Ford Motor Co. made a good strategic move in hiring Accenture to scrutinize how best to spend its media money. Now the heat is on the consultants to prove they truly understand marketing. Let's hope Accenture succeeds, for that could raise the stature of management consultancies as a source for innovative solutions for a marketing and media world in flux.

The question is: Who offers the most insightful, critical marketing intelligence, management consultants or agencies? Accenture now has the field to make its play.

Ford hired Accenture Marketing Services to figure out the optimal way to use media for coming U.S. product launches. Isn't that something that could be done by Ford's global agency partner, WPP Group? Yes. Will Accenture's ideas be better than WPP's? That's to be determined. Accenture's assignment is "an additive thing, not a substitutive thing" that displaces WPP shops, one executive said. But the Accenture project puts pressure on WPP.

Ford is WPP's largest client, contributing 8% or about $630 million of the holding company's 2004 revenue by Advertising Age's analysis. WPP is working hard to meet Ford's needs, including a plan unveiled last month to realign various Ford agencies. WPP media shops, for example, will operate under the banner "Shared Media Services" to give the automaker more efficiency and clout in media buying.

But Ford is a troubled place fighting to find a fix. Ford shares today trade below the price when WPP bought its first Ford shop, JWT, in July 1987. WPP chief Martin Sorrell over time consolidated his hold on Ford advertising by buying two other big shops, Young & Rubicam and Ogilvy & Mather. That doesn't give Mr. Sorrell a lock on Ford-or on marketing intelligence.

Accenture surely can crunch the numbers and propose a media strategy. But a bigger question is whether it brings a keen marketing sensibility. After all, what Ford really needs is not just the optimal media plan, but the best thinking on brands, consumers and marketing. Let's see WPP and Accenture battle on Ford Field to prove who has a better idea.

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