High Tops

Soon after Edelman announced its ambition to do more high-end brand strategy and creative, I walked into one of our offices to be met by the General Manager who was wearing a pair of Converse High Tops.  

Most of us middle-aged men in marketing agencies wear clothes that would look better on our kids, so no biggie you might think.  Except, in this case, the person in question was also one of our top financial, crisis and corporate reputation leaders and was ordinarily very traditionally be-suited to the extent most of us believed he slept in pin-stripes.

But there they were, peeping shyly beneath his Jermyn Street suit trousers. Equally as shocking, he had abandoned his Hermes tie for an open-necked ‘casual look’. It was as if your grannie had casually rolled back her sleeve to show you her new ink.

I’m not sure which of us was more uncomfortable.

The company had ‘pivoted’ and as the leader of an office of a firm that was now expected to be creative for brand managers as well as consult in the boardroom he was signalling, in a most personal way, his support.

But even if a company decides to change or extend its offer (organically or through acquisition) its managers and leaders can’t always keep pace.  At least personally they can’t.

And the wider the breadth of the corporate ambition, the more difficult the challenge.  Of course, not everyone should be expected to be great at everything. In fact no-one should. Leadership in professional and creative services means putting in place structure and people and then process and not just offering a vision or pretending that you are personally expert (or even competent) at every new capability your firm now offers.

That is often a challenge in two areas in my experience.  In smaller offices of network businesses where the ability to structure for all the new specialisms is limited (but the ‘shiny new’ temptation is high) and at the very top of those businesses where the CEOs and authors of the new strategy feel personally obliged to try and front it and ‘talk it’.  Or worse still, wear it.

I note this now because of the current consulting and marketing services group acquisition arms race to offer ever wider or deeper service offerings has prompted a spate of ‘High Top’ incidents. Publicis’ acquisition of Epsilon is said by Chairman and CEO, Arthur Sadoun to “accelerate the implementation of Publicis’ strategy to become the preferred transformation partner for its clients” and that they will now be able to “deliver personalized experiences at scale”, which is pure Accenture speak. Much of this is aimed at investors who hammered the stock for a dip in revenues but who might be tempted to value the group more highly if they think it is moving towards a more data led future. It is not the speech of a man who made his career leading creative agencies.

Brian Whipple, CEO of Accenture Interactive was wearing his when he said; “the cultures of Accenture Interactive and Droga5 were more similar than people might expect” and that Accenture Interactive offices “aren’t full of people in suits and ties talking about financials”. ‘We’re cool too because our offices look like their offices’ he seems to be saying.

Geeks trying to be creative or creatives trying to be consultative; pick your poison.

Acquisitions in professional and creative services businesses will always set out to achieve the ‘one plus one equals three objective’; the idea, that the combination will attract more and better margin revenue from clients and therefore value to both the acquiring business (often shown in share price) and to the acquired business (sometimes shown in the new yacht, house, art collection of the founder/s). Keeping both businesses totally separate cannot achieve any of that as nothing changes. Bringing both together immediately and totally from day one, so all those efficiencies and merged client offers can be realised in full makes logical sense, but as agencies (and some consultancies) are made up of real people who have loyalties and feelings, it’s an approach that will always end in disaster.

Successful acquisitions are made from some form of middle-way route between these two extremes.

At the moment both Accenture and Publicis talk about the continued independence of the businesses they have just bought. And that is quite right and the necessary first step in the dance. The second step is usually introducing each other to key clients and the third about merging teams for certain assignments and to create new ‘go to market’ strategies and offers all the while talking about cultural respect and the value created by combination. It’s only then, and usually towards the end of the earn-out, that a more full merger can be countenanced, and sometimes not even then.

It’s a tricky thing to get right, not least in leadership style and narrative, which is why you might be seeing more High Top incidents as geeks try to show empathy to creatives and vice versa.

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