Dentsu Aegis Network’s Isobar sits on the blurring continuum between agency and consultancy.
Launched in 2000 under the name Roundarch as a joint venture between WPP, Deloitte and BroadVision, Isobar used to compete with the “who’s who list of digital agencies,” said co-CEO Jeff Maling.
But when WPP and Deloitte exited the investment and Aegis Group bought Isobar in 2012, the agency’s work in user experience, CRM and digital transformation became more competitive with big management consultancies that have become household names in adland.
“Many of the [independent digital consultancies] have been bought up,” Maling said. “The last four pitches we’ve done have been against Accenture, Deloitte, BCG and McKinsey, which increasingly want to take on both design and implementation work.”
Implementation is what sets Isobar apart from its consultancy competition, Maling said. As a part of Dentsu Aegis Network, Isobar can tap into its sister agencies to buy media for its digital strategies.
“What makes an agency is that you create products, you deliver and you’re on the hook for a marketing campaign,” Maling said. “Your deliverable is actual working code and an interface, rather than a PowerPoint.”
Maling spoke with AdExchanger.
AdExchanger: What role does a digital consultancy like Isobar play in an agency holding company? Have your services changed at all since joining Dentsu Aegis Network?
JEFF MALING: Research, strategy and planning have always been a core part of what we do, but we also implement. We run marketing campaigns [for] Lego, Adidas and General Motors. We redesigned and implemented all digital channels for Enterprise Rent-a-Car. We also do product development.
Do you buy media?
For high-volume work we leverage our sister companies, Vizeum and Carat. For lower-volume stuff, we do it ourselves. For programmatic, we typically leverage Merkle or one of our other media partners.
We’re moving to more addressable marketing, or personalized experiences using data management platforms. In some cases, we’re buying media to activate that.
Who are your clients? Why do they hire you?
Our clients are business executives, the CMO and IT. CMOs have more power than they did three to four years ago and a lot more budget to control technology. They’re being placed in charge of customer experience and often times they come in front of IT.
Clients hire us [to create] a digitally-centric marketing strategy, transform their interfaces and design and build that experience. Corporate execs come to us wanting to disrupt a new area. They want to be in a new category and need help thinking through the strategy and design.
What does a typical client engagement look like for you?
We’re designed around the client team. The client partner draws from marketing intelligence, marketing optimization, creative, user experience design, technology and project management disciplines. Each has its own career path, but they’re not departments.
We start with research. Last year we incorporated sister companies [Copernicus Marketing and Forbes Consulting] into Isobar and restructured them into Isobar Marketing Intelligence. Now we have the ability to do detailed brand segmentation. We figure out who are the customers, where are they, what they think about the product and if we need to reposition the brand.
Then we formulate a strategy, which leads to content design. That includes product positioning, branding, marketing materials and experiential aspects like apps and websites. What aspects of the experience do we need to change to meet a target? Then we create it all.
How does the Marketing Intelligence practice help Isobar compete as a digital consultancy?
BCG, McKinsey and Bain all provide deep segmentation, research and brand positioning work. It’s a good opportunity to go from research, segmentation and brand positioning through to transformation. It’s a very deep capability that we think was sort of languishing a little bit [at Dentsu].
It also works the other way around. We often get called in to design new products for clients, but they haven’t done deep research around market sizing and targeting. We’ve pulled in the Isobar Marketing Intelligence group to do work [like] pricing and feature analysis. Those are things we frankly didn’t have the capability to do before.
How long is a typical client engagement?
It’s projects and relationships. One of our health care clients signed a five-year deal with us and we’re in year seven now. The Air Force has been a client for nearly 17 years. HBO has been a client for eight.
Marketing projects are shorter and more similar to typical [agency work], but very digitally-centric and data-driven. Putting out a new campaign might take six to eight weeks. Transformation projects tend to last 18 to 24 months.
How does being part of an agency holding company play to your strengths as a consultancy?
There are pros and cons. Dentsu believes in cooperation and not having a lot of overlap between businesses. For us, it doesn’t make sense to have a media planning and buying business for scaled things because it’s so easy to tap into their capabilities.
One thing holding companies will struggle with as they begin to compete more with [consultancies like] Deloitte and Accenture is helping clients understand how they work together. Silos exist regardless of whether or not you have the same name, but there’s a perception that if you’re Accenture or Deloitte, all the different pieces work together perfectly.
Who will win out as business transformation and media activation come closer together?
As large consultancies begin to delve into media, they’re going to figure out there’s a lot of complexity to that business.
As things become more automated, the Carats of the world will have bigger consulting practices. They’ll have similar types of engagements to us. They’ll spend less time on the media planning and buying mechanics as that becomes more optimized and more time on consulting.
Edited for clarity and length.