‘Selling the power of creativity’: PwC’s CCO Russel Howcroft, one year on

Just over one year ago, adland heavyweight Russel Howcroft joined one of the big four consultancies as chief creative officer. Mumbrella's Abigail Dawson sits down with Howcroft to discuss his role at PwC, his achievements one year on and the relationship between creatives and consultancies.

Just over a year ago, Russel Howcroft resigned from his job at Network Ten as Melbourne’s executive general manager to join PwC. He was crowned with the newly-created title of chief creative officer.

At the same time, the former Y&R CEO and Network Ten executive was also appointed to the firm’s CMO Advisory Board.

Speaking to Mumbrella about his role at PwC, Howcroft said he works every day on “how PwC expresses itself” and “selling the power of creativity”.

Howcroft: ‘One of my roles is what I like to call enhancing the shiny-ness of the PwC brand’

“I have two jobs really, one of my roles is what I like to call enhancing the shiny-ness of the PwC brand, so obviously I work closely with the CMO of PwC [Mike McGrath]… and we work everyday on how PwC expresses itself.”

The chief creative officer says his title enables the management consultancy to talk about the power of creativity with its clients “about the importance of creativity, how creativity can drive business and drive successful growth outcomes.”

Howcroft says his role involves discussing and exploring creativity in “all its forms”.

“It isn’t just about creativity in a piece of advertising, it’s about creativity in all its forms which might, in an internal sense, manifest itself in the creation of a newspaper, but equally the notion of pushing for creativity might assist clients in spending more, in getting excited about, in pursuing something that they might not otherwise pursue. Not saying that happens all the time, but it is certainly one of our intentions.”

The second arm to Howcroft’s title is that he is part of PwC’s CMO Advisory, which is an offering to help guide CMOs on the use of marketing, budgets and their company’s marketing mix.

The members of PwC’s CMO Advisory practice include Megan Brownlow, partner and editor of the PwC Australia Entertainment and Media Outlook; Mike McGrath, the firm’s chief marketing officer; Lawrence Goldstone, partner of The Difference; Sunita Gloster, former chief commercial and strategy officer at Network Ten and Howcroft.

PwC is one of the big four consultancy firms which include Ernst & Young, Deloitte, KPMG and PwC

“I’m also part of the CMO Advisory team and that, of course, is dealing with clients. So I’ve got two jobs really: an internal one and an external one.”

While a chief creative officer title at a consultancy has the potential to cause confusion in the market, Howcroft’s role differs to that of a creative at an advertising agency.

Howcroft says his role varies to an as agency chief creative officer, because he is not involved in the day-to-day output for clients.

“At CMO Advisory, we are not involved in the day-to-day output for clients, our clients are using their advertising agencies, so the chief creative officer at the advertising agency is responsible for the output. Within the world of PwC I am one of the individuals that is responsible for how we express ourselves,” he clarifies.

Howcroft said the CMO Advisory has key principles which it strives towards and shapes the work that it does with clients.

“The first one would be around making sure marketing is seen as the transformation agent for the clients, so doing our best to put marketing at the centre of business and the centre of organisations in order to help them grow.

“We are pretty active around actionable advice, so actionable advice around what they might do with their brand, where they might spend their money, what they might do with their marketing mix and, of course, we are PwC, so trust and transparency is at the cornerstone of what we do as well,” he says.

Are consultancies a threat to creative agencies?

Many marketing and advertising agencies believe consultancies are eating their lunch, however, Howcroft says although there is a partnership there, the big four – Deloitte, PwC, Ernst & Young and KPMG – are not in the business of creating advertising.

“That’s different to Accenture,” Howcroft notes, “Accenture has just purchased a large advertising agency, there is a nuance there but it’s really important, certainly from PwC’s perspective, that we are interested in helping clients around: what’s their marketing strategy? What’s the best structure for that strategy? How much money should we be spending in order to get the outcome we’re after? We are not in the business of execution,” he adds.

Howcroft says a consultancy helping their clients with their marketing spend “makes perfect sense”.

“It makes perfect sense for a client with a substantive budget to look to people such as a PwC to give them a hand on that money, it’s because it’s a lot of money, so the big four can play a really tremendous role in putting confidence and trust around the spend, that’s why this is happening,” he explains.

Building on this growing trend, Howcroft says consultancies will also help clients rebuild trust in advertising and marketing.

“Consultancies are very focussed on how to rebuild trust. Indeed PwC’s core purpose is around building trust in society. Marketing and communications will clearly play a role in the rebuild. A massive role, actually.”

Thinkerbell, PwC and future acquisitions

In June last year, Adam Ferrier, Jim Ingram and Ben Couzens launched a new creative agency, Thinkerbell, which aims to bring “scientific inquiry and brilliant ideas” together.

Two months later, the business management consultancy invested a small stake in the creative agency.

PwC bought a minority stake in Thinkerbell

Howcroft said the consultancy chose to take a stake in Thinkerbell because “it’s a beautiful startup”, describing the relationship between the two as “friends with benefits”.

“It is a beautiful start up and there is a strategic investment with those guys [Ferrier, Ingram and Couzens] and there’s no obligation either way for us to use them or their clients to use us. It has been coined friends with benefits and that’s how I would explain it.”

The chief creative officer said while Thinkerbell does the advertising for PwC, the agency will have to go through the pitching process, just like every other agency, if it wants to partner with the consultancy’s clients.

“We are using Thinkerbell for our advertising so that’s one client they’ve got. Yes they can [tap into brands PwC work with], but again it’s all done on a job-by-job basis. There are no free kicks.

“Thinkerbell will go through the process that advertising agencies go through, they’re in the market competing with all the other agencies.

“I have known them for a long time, I trust them, I think they’re outstanding and I wish them the very best and we at PwC will do what we can to help, albeit really in a small way.”

Discussing other acquisitions PwC may make in the future, Howcroft said there are no immediate plans to acquire a big advertising agency.

It’s more likely the business management firm will invest in data and analytics, Howcroft says.

“We’re looking everyday at what we might do. What’s more likely is investment in data, in analytics, in the broader future of marketing in marketing platforms and marketing systems.

“That’s the more likely place, as clients have determined, or will determine, to take more control of their marketing and of their marketing spend. We need to be in a position to help them do that,” he adds.

Where to now?

Looking to the future, Howcroft says a consulting relationship with advertisers will be the norm.

“What an organisation like PwC can offer is just an unbelievably substantive resource. What we’re able to do is tap into all the world of PwC and then point that world at clients and at their problems and it’s very confusing out there.

“If you are a client, where do I put my money is a very tough question, it did used to be easy, it’s true, but it’s not easy anymore.

“Where do I put my money? How do I know that it’s working? What’s the right attribution model? How often should I be investing? How much should I be investing? All these are very good PwC questions and we are building a fantastic service for clients by just answering those questions,” he says.

However, Howcroft did say business management firms still face a big marketing challenge.

“These consultancy businesses, they are actually extraordinarily progressive and are at the forefront of a lot of business, they drive a lot of business as a result of their progressive business plans. The challenge is getting the marketplace to recognise that, to embrace it and to use it more.”

Reflecting on his year at PwC, Howcroft says he had an idea of what the job would be like before he started, but he has been surprised at its capability.

“I had an idea about the capability of PwC and I had an idea about what CMO advisory might be able to offer, but in both cases I have been surprised at just the sheer capability of PwC and the excitement of what CMO can offer.”


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