How CEO Brian Whipple is leading Accenture Interactive during the pandemic while merging Droga5 into the family
In 2019, Whipple led Accenture’s consulting behemoth through a total of seven acquisitions including Droga5, its largest, as well as Spanish agency Shackleton; social media outfit Adaptly; and Latin American design firm INSITUM (recently renamed Fjord), among others. Under Whipple’s leadership, last year also saw the agency group build out its roster with new clients including Infiniti, Kimberly-Clark, Nestlé and the Louvre Museum.
Whipple and Fjord Chief Client Officer Mark Curtis recently detailed what they call "five new human truths that experiences need to address" after the pandemic: an overall erosion of confidence; a shift to virtual work; a desire to stay close to home; the emergence of a health economy with opportunities for all; and, depending on how governments handle the crisis, the reemergence or decline of top-down authority.
Ad Age caught up with Whipple to talk about how he's leading his company through the coronavirus pandemic while merging Droga5 into the Accenture Interactive family in the process.
This interview is lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Where are you located right now?
I live in the Boston area, North Andover, where I typically have a home. I don’t usually get to be here very much because I travel a lot.
How has working from home been for you since you do travel so much?
It’s been very different. Just like it’s been for everyone else, it’s groundhog day every day. In truth, it’s quite odd. Not necessarily bad but odd. Because I travel so much, internationally half the weeks, it’s a massive change. I have settled into some productive home exercise routines. I’ve caught up on some shows that I like.
[Accenture] Interactive is a very personal business. I love my leaders and team. The inability to see them in person is disapointing for me. I’m in touch with all of them through all the video conferencing but it's not quite the same as giving someone a hug or seeing how they’re doing in person. I’ve definitely been missing that.
What shows are you watching?
I’m just finishing "Ray Donovan" on Showtime. When I start something I don’t like ending it, even if it’s a 7.5 [rating] out of 10, I have to see it through. So I’m close to finishing the last season of that. I'm also watching "Westworld" and about a month ago I finished "Bloodline." It is interesting; there is an immense amount of quality entertainment that’s available now, even before COVID-19. My mom was a librarian. I’m not as great of a reader as I’d like to be, but I often think "no wonder people aren’t reading." Compared to what’s available now on streaming platforms Netflix, Amazon, Hulu. They all have original high-quality programing with major stars. There's so many of them.
On the five human implications you [and Fjord's Curtis] see coming out of this pandemic, how did you come up with those? Through conversations with clients? Or are they outcomes that Accenture Interactive foresees?
It’s a combination of what we’re seeing and conversations we’re having with top clients—people with insight into the broader ecosystem—and our own intituition in the agency space. It’s based on anecdotal research and through many conversations.
Are you using these predictions [such as an expected erosion of confidence] to guide clients through the pandemic? How are you advising clients during this time?
We’re helping our clients get positioned based on these five insights. We're advising clients on their strategies for when they need to emerge from COVID-19, or even their strategies during COVID. Everything has changed. They're looking at how their brand is built through experiences. Advertising is only a component of that experience. We're finding all businesses need a health angle, in ways businesses didn't really think about before. For example, car manufacturers are now going to make significant investments in having much higher quality air filtrations. They didn’t think about that before. [The pandemic] is impacting how companies design and offer services. Speaking to our clients on these five things and how they will affect them is one [service].
The second [service] is more tactical, related to flat-out commerce needs. And you have two buckets of that. There's the major commerce providers having enormous supply chain, quantity and volume challenges. They're having to keep up with marketing campaigns, platforms, delivery services. Then you have the other companies that sold through big-box stores or wholesalers. Those are pretty much shut down. Every company has to be direct-to-consumer now. How do you do that? The tactical side of the business is a super busy area for us right now.
How has the flow of new business been? Is it slowing or continuing?
I can’t comment on any overall specific revenue trends but I will make a couple of observations. Like all businesses, our business, of course, will be affected by COVID-19. Naturally, we will have large reinvention projects because clients are in bad financial situations. They will perhaps restructure and we will be involved in some element of that. Commerce and e-commerce are still big parts of experiences. We have significant demand in those areas. People are still buying stuff in all these different ways on Instagram, Amazon, Alibaba, through all these platforms and technologies. How it all nets out on our business is too early to tell.
I have many close friends at advertising holding companies; the WPPs, Omnicoms. Those are very well-run companies with super smart people but it’s going to be difficult for them. Clients are reducing ad spend and that will have much more of an impact on them than us because we are not traditionally an ad firm. Our commerce [division] is on fire. We are in naturally a better position than some but I don’t want to leave you with the impression in any way, shape or form that this will not affect us. It obviously will have an impact on our business, but companies still need to reach their people and consumers so we’re super busy right now.
To your point, there are a lot of agencies, many independents, struggling out there right now. Would Accenture Interactive think of buying any of them? Are you thinking about acquisitions right now?
First of all, I fear your assessment is correct. My heart goes out to the small, 100-person-and-under agencies that are typically tied to a handful of clients. I think it will be challenging for them. I hope all of them make it through this and come out on the other side. Do I think there is a correlation between their struggles and us swooping in to buy them up? No. That’s not our style. Our strategy is always the same: to add a new capability that is rendering good experiences for our clients or to scale existing capabilities. Let's say it’s a brand agency. Well, we have brands in our fabric with Droga5, The Monkeys. So we’d be thinking, could we add to that? We could. But us doing that would not be a function of COVID-19. I think you will see us being active in the inorganic space over the next 12 months but it’s not going to be as active as a year or two years ago. The reason for that is we have nearly all the pieces in place now.
What pieces are still missing?
I don’ think anything is missing, per se. What maybe needs to be stronger are certain geographies we’re operating in. Maybe something is strong in North America but not in Beijing or Hong Kong. Of course there are pieces we are looking to build out in various global locations. Our digital content business is just booming. As part of our thought leadership piece, we see AR and VR possibly being in high demand in a post-COVID-19 world. AR and VR we’re highly skilled in today but, if our hypothesis is correct, we might look to scale that as well. We might just look to boost capabilities in certain areas.
How has the merging of Droga5 been going? Has COVID-19 affected the process at all?
I continue to be very bullish on that. David [Droga] and I talk pretty much every week. We’ve had a few technical hiccups but now we’ve managed to seamlessly transition everyone to working remotely. I’m very bullish on where David and his team are headed. I don’t know if you saw the video for Facebook. [Watch the 'Never Lost' ad here.] It’s a very cool thought piece for Facebook that we did. That whole thing was created in a remote environment. On Droga5, they're great people and they’re doing some awesome stuff with our clients. It’s kind of like one interactive team. We co-locate some office space. It’s been great.
What changes do you see to the way people work and how business gets done?
We are going to see permanent virtual shifts on a number of platforms. There are already remote exercise platforms like Peloton or the MIRROR [Home Gym]. Those are only going to be three- and four-fold going forward. There will be permanent changes. While gyms will exist, they will probably exist in a different way, with more spacing, less headcount. From a human standpoint, it’s flat-out interesting. From a business standpoint, it will allow us to attract a broad array of talent from different locations. Companies including my own will, at the end of the day, be spending a lot less on travel two years from now than they did two years ago. We will adjust and become much more effective and efficient. Necessity is the mother of invention.
Do you think you will travel less?
I do. I think I will probably batch my travel more rather than go and come back, go and come back. I will have to get better at developing more relationships via video conferencing and WhatsApp. I will definitely still travel. I will still show my face in Hong Kong, São Paulo. I will be there in the offices and for those clients. But I’m basically on a plane every week, multiple planes, and I think that’s not going to be the case going forward.