Russel Howcroft always had a vision for the industry, from his very early days at Melbourne’s Leonardi Advertising. But his decision to join consultancy giant PwC in the newly-formed role of chief creative officer marks the arrival of the business consultant as a genuine threat to the creative industry. This is a game-changer.
The creative side of the business has been muttering about consultants for the past few years, but the appointment of one of Australia’s highest profile advertising men marks an escalation of the battle for the minds of marketers – and, more importantly, for their budgets.
Intriguingly, Howcroft is not a creative; he is, in fact, the quintessential suit. A salesman for the industry who has achieved well plying his trade on the ABC through various incarnations of Gruen, succeeding in educating a once disinterested nation in the value of advertising. Or the very least, softening a nation’s hatred just a tad.
For the better part of 20 years, Howcroft has been advertising’s master cheerleader.
Working alongside the charismatic continental Cesare Leonardi at Leonardi in Melbourne in the 1990s, Howcroft honed his skills as an industry salesman, almost single-handedly keeping alive the local chapter of the AFA (now the Comms Council).
His career grew, through Arnold and then leading Y&R nationally, before joining Ten, with Hamish McLennan following him later.
He was chair of the AFA, and now sits as chair of the TV cheerleading squad, ThinkTV.
He is, as one old friend observed, the most enthusiastic man in the room. An engaging everyman, quick with a quip and a wry insight. But always with the interests of the industry at heart.Now that enthusiasm is being turned to what many in the industry see as the dark side. Young Skywalker has become Darth Vader. And he has a significant force at his disposal.
The consultancies have been a nascent threat to the industry and, indeed, some agencies have tried to counter their early influence by reverse engineering themselves.
Earlier this year, WPP opened its own consultancy, 1 Kent Street, importing expat creative Simon Collins back from the UK to take the creative lead.
More recently CX agency Lavender moved into the space with the launch of Lavender Consult.
The threat to the industry has been real and growing, but in Howcroft PwC has gone nuclear, capturing one of the industry’s most consistent and effective weapons with plans to take things to a new level.
Howcroft is saying his passion for the industry and creative remains undiminished. But he knows that in moving to a consultancy he has become a powerful challenge to an industry he once nurtured.
As one observer put it: “Does he realise he is driving the nails into the coffin of the industry that he once celebrated?”
Just how PwC will use Howcroft is still to be made clear.
He could simply become a figurehead, rolled out at opportune times as a Trojan horse for PwC’s broader offers.
Or his remit could indeed be deeply strategic, tasked with forming a team and leading them into battle – a more likely scenario given Howcroft’s partnership status which will demand a revenue return.
As enterprise and marketers continue to try and make sense of the challenges and choice that mark the digital and experiential age, creative agencies are battling to speak the same language, while the consultancies, cashed up and seeing a gap, are speaking the language CMOs and CFO’s want to hear.
Much of the activity is in the digital realm, where the consultancies are seeking to cross sell analytics and strategy with the creative that hooks the punters
And much of the early movement has been in the US where the the top three “agencies” in the 2016 Ad Age Ad Age Agency Report were in fact consultancies – with Accenture at the top of the list.
Agencies that have been swallowed by the consultancy giant in recent years include Karmarama, Reactive and Heat.
Accenture is reported to have acquired 40 marketing firms in the last two years, while PwC, KPMG, Deloitte and even McKinsey have been active buyers and hirers.
Locally, Deloitte acquired storytelling agency The Explainers in August, adding to a number of strategic acquisitions in recent months.
Last year it bought consumer retail specialist Mash Up, adding in store experiences to its digital division.
Deloitte CEO Cindy Hook said, at the time, the expansion of its services was getting the business closer to its client’s customers.
“They very much complement our design thinking approach to problem solving and, as part of our customer practice, will help our clients connect with their customers in ever more engaging ways,” Hook said.
Even the likes of IBM, Adobe, Oracle and Epsilon are adding a creative component to support their marketing dashboards.
Having spent his life nurturing the creative advertising industry, Howcroft may now be cast as the smiling assassin. Sent forth in his suit and jovial demeanour to destroy what he has built.
As one colleague who has enjoyed a close relationship with Howcroft over years surveyed the implications of the defection of the man who once questioned the role of consultancies in advertising, he was left with a single thought: “Perhaps he might offer me a job?”
The fear is real. Mark the date.