Tech consultants began to tread on agency turf years ago. Now, agencies are charging back. The thing bringing them head-to-head is the software that 's so central to large-scale digital marketing.
As digital marketing and customer data become increasingly overwhelming for big global marketers, consulting firms such as Accenture have designed IT solutions to help manage the information. Agencies, which had to use those tools, are now responding by investing as much as $10 million to build out IT of their own.
Publicis Groupe 's Razorfish recently launched Fluent, a software suite intended to help marketers sort in-house data and connect it to ad-targeting and analytics tools. Fluent also aims to manage creative processes so that multibrand marketers can trim production time and costs by reusing tools in a number of markets worldwide.
WPP unit Fabric is offering software designed to connect client data and (the many) third-party digital-marketing tools. It partnered with Indian outsourcing giant Infosys to form BrandEdge, a cloud-based digital-marketing infrastructure that can, for example, create a website skeleton that any brand in any market can reuse and customize.
This week, consulting firm Deloitte introduced a unit, Deloitte Digital, that it said will handle strategy, creative, user experience, engineering and implementation services for marketers in digital channels. The firm, which acquired mobile-agency Ubermind this year, said it plans to expand Deloitte Digital aggressively over the next year.
Deloitte and the agency companies are responding to the same challenge: Global companies need better tools to harness data and save time and money in digital marketing.
"There are lots of point solutions, lots of people doing analytics and targeting," said Fabric co-CEO Chris Perry, who, like many in his Seattle-based development team, is a Razorfish alum. "We provide a tool that simplifies the ways you join these things up."
Who will do it better? GlaxoSmithKline, along with three other top-30 WPP clients, has opted for Fabric, CEO Martin Sorrell said during the company's recent earnings call.
Razorfish has built and sold pieces of software to dozens of clients over the past five years, but never as Fluent.
Tech consultancy Accenture has a head start. It has longtime relationships with chief information officers, who usually buy tech systems. So when marketers needed a system of their own, the firm launched Accenture Interactive in 2009 with flagship client Procter & Gamble. The consulting giant doesn't intend to cede ground to competitors.
"The cooperation between WPP and Infosys brings together a number of skill sets that already reside and operate together within Accenture," said Brian Whipple, CEO of Accenture Interactive, via email. His company will avoid the agency-conflict issues that can arise from using a holding-company solution, he added, as most big marketers use many agencies from a variety of holding companies.
"We are able to work with all key agency relationships that our clients have, regardless of which ad holding company they reside in," Mr. Whipple said.
Its system doesn't work perfectly, however. Some agency execs familiar with P&G digital marketing have criticized Accenture's technology for not understanding how agencies use the software. That's the pitch Fluent is making.
P&G continues to work with Accenture Interactive but has in the past year clarified the difference between "tech work" and "creative work," a P&G spokesman said. P&G now partners with "a mix of tech providers and the tech branches of some creative agencies" for IT development, he said.
"We're an agency -- we think like an agency and are able to communicate that perspective to the [Fluent] development team," Fluent CEO Drew Kurth said. "Infosys or Accenture might not have that . ... When it comes to marketing it's such a different animal than IT. At its core it's a creative endeavor."
Selling software is also an appealing business model for Publicis and WPP. With traditional agency services, revenue depends on how many bodies are working on client business; software is built once and licensed to many, ostensibly making money while employees sleep. Publicis CEO Maurice Levy was so enthusiastic about the prospect that he invested as much as $10 million to build Fluent, according to one executive familiar with the matter.
Over the past few years, SapientNitro has been developing a similar technology with Adobe that it plans to announce soon. With an IT consulting group as a parent, Sapient knows the software-licensing business.
But the agency is also aware that marketers aren't accustomed used to buying IT, according to Dan Barnicle, SapientNitro's VP-content and collaboration. It plans to combine software usage and agency services in one charge, he said.
"Our experience is that marketers don't want to buy [software licenses]," Mr. Barnicle said. "Those are conversations they aren't ready for. We'll price our products the way they buy."