Fishing for digital dominance… meet Brian

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Brian Whipple, CEO Accenture Interactive, describes the evolution of the world’s premier experience agency

The term “digital” has become overused, diluted and – in many ways – rendered useless.  After all in 2019, what ISN’T digital, and what’s the point in distinguishing? We have instead moved to a world that’s comprised of integrated and immersive experiences – as consumers, or as patients, as employees, etc – experiences that shape our buying habits and our quality of life. The recent announcement of Accenture’s acquisition Droga5 has raised the stakes of creating immersive customer experiences to a whole new level (read our POV here). 

Companies that are really seeking to align themselves to experiences need to break down their silos and better understand what their customers want… and really execute on that.  We caught up with Brian Whipple, Accenture Interactive’s CEO (and recent winner of an HFS Disruptive Award), to learn how his firm’s massive acquisition appetite has helped build a company embracing an entirely new philosophy, helping its clients align to customer needs in the post-digital world.  Accenture is integrating technology, design, commerce and content to help clients develop “living” experiences that meet customer needs today and are ready to evolve in the future – requiring a wide breadth of talent, expertise and even cultures within cultures to deliver on those experiences.  The bits and pieces that have come together at Accenture Interactive over the last several years, most recently with Droga5, are all adding up to Accenture’s mission to “create the greatest customer experiences on the planet for our clients.”

Phil Fersht, CEO and Chief Analyst, HFS Research: Can you talk to us a little bit about how digital came to be, and how Accenture Interactive came in to the space? Because you were really the first of the service providers to coin the “Digital” phrase, and really put it together, industrialize it, etc. Could you give us a brief history about how it came to be, how it got started, and what the original philosophy was, and how that may have changed in the last five or six years?

Brian: Sure. There are three distinct phases to date, for Accenture Interactive. The original philosophy was that the world needed digital diagnostic tools that work in the arena of digital marketing; things like online campaign optimizers, A/B testing it, “I’m going to present offer A, with this creative treatment online, and I’ll test it against offer B,” or, “I’ll move it on a placement in a banner,” or, “I’ll have the banner come up in a different media vehicle,” and you learn from that, then redirect investment. Typical relationship marketing/direct marketing concept, but for digital, so you’re optimizing how you serve up creative advertising, digitally. And that was the one tool.

A second tool would be around things like digital diagnostics, like scanning through webpages, looking at traffic, looking at problems, and broken links, and where people get stuck on a page, and when people abandon a commerce transaction, and diagnostics around digital commerce. And those were looked at from a software tool perspective, and so at Accenture, we made a couple of small software acquisitions, and the genesis of Accenture Interactive was largely around these software licensing tools, around digital optimization and digital diagnostics.

When I came on board, we’d started that, but there was what we perceived to be a much greater opportunity– and that was a particularly crowded space, at the time – and the opportunity was really around doing what Accenture does best, which is stick to a services company, but apply that best-in-class services company mentality to the marketing space, instead of to the CIO space. So there was this notion of developing capabilities for the CMO, instead of the CIO, but keeping the concepts of being their business advisor, trusted relationship, multi-year contracts, and bigger, not smaller.

Phase two of Accenture Interactive was developing large capabilities, really in three or four areas, those areas being strategy and design, marketing, but commerce and content. So, you know, design, marketing, commerce and content, those four practice areas, and so we built up global large scale practices in those four areas, and that was the main, huge growth engine for Interactive that you saw, and you saw us go in to the billions in the Ad Age reporting, and things like that.

Then, about two years ago, we slightly pivoted again, through leveraging those capabilities much more into reinventing experiences for clients, and it’s really not about advertising per se, and not about augmented reality per se, or email marketing, or any particular capability. It’s about stitching them all together, to reinvent how people receive patient care, from a hospital group, or how people fill up their car with gas, or how people try and close at a department store, or any of these normal, like, consumer experiences you and I have, that need all of those things, and that is where we are now, as an experience agency. That’s the evolution. That’s phase three.

Phil: You very eloquently expressed a lot about bringing the technology to the user, in our personal lives, into our commerce lives.  Some of these basic digital capabilities, how can companies respond to the needs of their clients as those needs arise, are working towards this emerging phase, getting more about how can companies anticipate their client needs better, before they even arise, and how intelligent can they become, as they start to evolve. Is that where you guys are going? Do you feel that’s what you’re already doing? Or do you think that’s the phase that we’re moving in to?

Brian: I think that’s, to some extent, table stakes now, but I don’t think it’s executed all that well. The notion of, essentially, in layman’s terms, giving people what they want, and in technical, or consulting jargon, it would be “personalization experiences”, and “expectation management”, and all those types of buzzwords. But what it really comes down to is, the technology is there to have micro personalized experiences today, but what people want may not be that, so it is about finding out the degree of personalization that individual consumers want, and then tailoring your experiences to those wants and needs. That orientation is what any consumer-facing experience should be aspiring to have today.

Now, the execution of that, how many companies do that particularly well, and are really reinventing things for efficiency and for human good, a la something like an Uber, or like Amazon, Spotify, etc., but there’s tremendous growth ahead of us, in the broader experience industry, to do that. The capability is there, it’s the execution of that, to give people exactly what they want, is spotty, in the industry. It’s hit and miss, today.

Phil: Right.  And as things have evolved, a lot of CMOs have started calling themselves CDOs, and obviously, the use of the term “digital” has become a little bit too convoluted.  Accenture’s the master of coming up with new terminologies and phrases. How do you see this happening? Are you going to stay true to this digital value proposition? Or do you think is actually now morphing into something different?

Brian: I would say, at this point, at 2019, what isn’t digital? And the notion of things being digital, that digital equals new, or digital equals better, I think is a notion that should probably be about to sunset. Because anything new is inherently digital, so it’s sort of redundant in its vocabulary, as a general descriptor. Now, I think leveraging the many technologies that are out there, that are all, scientifically, digital, to create, reinvent, establish, meaningful, efficient experiences for our clients, and our clients’ customers, we’re just only at the infancy of that. It’s just that I don’t think we need to refer to it as digital because everything’s going to be digital. It’s table stakes. So I doubt that five years from now, we’re going to see new firms sprout up that’s going to be, you know, “ABC Digital”, or something like that. I doubt that.

Phil: Right, remember “e-business” 20 years ago? As you look at the type of business Accenture’s becoming, in a digital, interactive scenario, you’ve acquired 30-odd of these design agencies around the world, so you have a lot of local talent, and we’re familiar with how you’ve bedded some of those in.  And then you’ve obviously got a lot of competitors in the space, who may be much, much less focused on design, and they like to focus on the enablement of these digital capabilities. How important is it to have one company to do the design and the implementation, and the execution, and the management? Or do you think some clients have a good experience breaking it up. so, they may use Accenture for design, and go with a different business to maybe execute? What’s been your experience of that?

Brian: Yes. So, I definitely have a defined point of view on this, right or wrong, and that is that, as experiences are redesigned, all of them have built-in feedback loops and mechanisms, and are constantly… well, the word we would use to describe them is “living”. It’s not something you build it, implement it, and then go away for five years. They’re constantly evolving and changing, based upon new expectations and elements of the experience, and new technologies that come out available. So, within Accenture Interactive, and we are Accenture Interactive, these aren’t separate companies now, because we integrate them, as those companies come in, they’re not all design. Some are design, some are commerce, some are digital content, some are digital twin technology companies. They’re all pieces of a capability that are part of rendering compelling experiences.

So if you are a client who is reinventing how you try on clothes at a high-end department store in Japan, and rolling that out at your flagship stores in London, and New York City, and San Francisco, etc., then the design elements of that, along with the actual commerce technologies, and mobile technologies, connected device technologies on your app, as you walk in to the store, all with the customer service agents, and purchase histories, all of those things are all linked. So if your design of your experience is in a completely different partner than your technology experience, that becomes cumbersome, at best. So that is why we are not a design agency, and we are not a commerce agency, and we’re not a digital content agency, and we’re not an advertising firm. That is why we are an experience agency. Because you have to stitch all those things together, with people actually, physically, butts in seats, sitting together, so that all those things are naturally integrated.

There used to be this notion that a new process was designed, and then you’d hand that through to some “delivery organization.” And that delivery organization would then build it, and then it would go in to what’s called “production”, and it would run. That’s not the case anymore. All of these technologists, and the designers, and the creators, they all sit together. These are all integrated, very quick, agile technologies that people use, and, you know, artists and scientists are not all that different today.

It’s not so much that I think having them separate is a disaster, but I can tell you authoritatively that we see tremendous market value by integrating all those capabilities together, because it’s constantly evolving, and they’re not separate things anymore.

Phil: Interesting, I think that’s a very pertinent point. And as you’ve evolved the business and brought on lots of agencies, and these kids with nose rings, and all that type of stuff, how have you found integrating it into Accenture, over the last few years? What’s worked, what hasn’t, and where do you see this going next?

Brian: Yes, of the companies that we have folded into Accenture Interactive, there’s a couple of salient points there. One is that Accenture Interactive, and our leadership, Pierre Nanterme, and many other top executives, my colleagues in Accenture, have been very supportive of us having our own culture. So, Accenture Interactive is expected to push boundaries within Accenture, culturally, in terms of the types of studio office space we have, and things that are perhaps less strategic, like dress code, and things like you mentioned. So that’s point one.

Point two is that not all of the companies that are now part of Accenture Interactive are typical creative agency types.  Some of them are technologists. We have some of the leading, for example, ecommerce technology, around Hybris or Websphere, or people that are deeply skilled in Adobe Engagement Manager, or other tools like that. These are technologists and integrators, and many of them have cultures that are similar to the recent cultures of Accenture around technology integration. It’s just that we’re doing it in a marketing space, instead of, say, in financial management, or business, or supply chain, something like that. And all the marketing stuff is in Accenture Interactive.

So, although we have what we call a culture of cultures, in Accenture Interactive, and we embrace that, as long as you are united, around the P&L incentives, and around the mission of being laser-focused on creating the greatest customer experiences on the planet for our clients. So I think, if you were to go in to our studio in Hong Kong, or in São Paulo, or in New York, you would find, you know, high-end, you know, virtual reality studios, next to designers, next to commerce architects, and the like, and many account service people, who are really the experience architects for clients, all working together. And yes, at Accenture, they have embraced that. But the key to it is, you have to have innovation, not far away from the core, but you have to have it at arm’s length from the core, or else the innovation will stifle, and our management has been great about giving us that arm’s length.

So, of them are called agencies, but they’re more like commerce integrators; some of them are true agencies, like Karmarama in London, or Rothco in Dublin, but culturally they have to buy in to the notion of being aligned around customer experience. So, for example, Karmarama in London; if they want to just be a really strong brand creative ad agency, then we’re not the right home for them. If they want to do that in the context of helping clients reinvent broader experiences and leveraging technology, and all that, and work on much larger transformational assignments, we are the right home for them.

So, there’s a certain weeding out of cultural affinity that happens naturally, in our process, when we look at possible acquisitions, and that is aided by the fact that we don’t ever, and I’m adamant about this, ever do a deal for the sake of just getting bigger, or growing revenue. Never, ever, ever. We would do a deal to add a new capability, which we feel is part of rendering future experiences, such as Mackevision, with its digital twin augmented reality technology, and such as Karmarama. Or we are trying to scale a new capability –scale this experience agency thing, in a geography where we are subscale, such as what we did in Tokyo, a few years ago, with IMJ. And that becomes the seed for Accenture Interactive in that space.

So, in summary, Accenture is very supportive of us having a different, but yet complementary culture, and it’s very much our role to help push the broader technology firm, and we’ve been given that leeway. But in terms of within Accenture Interactive itself, there are different cultures.  A commerce architect is not the same thing as a service designer, and we don’t force them to be the same, but you have to be aligned around the desire to reinvent experiences, rather than working only in your silo. If they don’t, then they don’t become part of the Interactive family in the first place.

Phil: Right. That was very well put, and I think that’s given us some food for where this shifts. I’ve got one final question for you, Brian. If you were anointed the Emperor of Digital, which we kind of did, but if we did that for one week…

Brian: [Laughs].

Phil: What’s the one thing you would empower, to change the industry for the better? What would you enforce, on making digital better for everyone?

Brian: Without a doubt, I would take a couple of these experiences that have direct impact on human benefit, and change them. Not all, but many of them are in healthcare, and I would unite resources, really of the world, to kind of tackle them. I’ll give you two examples. If you have a loved one receiving chronic care for some kind of cancer … you know, every three weeks receiving a chemo infusion, and the like. The coordination of care between different hospitals, the flow of data between the anesthesiologist for procedures, and the oncologist, and the general practitioner, and the specialist, say it’s a throat cancer, so the ENT. All the different disciplines, the coordination between them is abysmal, and it’s abysmal globally, in the Tier 1 medical centers of the world. And that is an experience we can solve with data, with technology, and with user requirements, and changing that experience through a better design. We just have to align and do it, and create the economic incentive.

So I am very passionate about some of these experiences that have not changed in 20 years. Maybe you have a child that broke her ankle on the basketball court or the soccer field. That child goes in to the emergency room, or trauma centre of the hospital, where you don’t know how long it will be until he or she is seen, you don’t know what doctor’s on call, they don’t have any of your medical insurance information, it takes forever, you don’t know what the options are, you don’t know which hospital… but all the technology is there to solve all of that. Aligning some of these experiences to create human good is something that is an increasing priority for us in 2019.

The problem is not technology. The technology is there. The problem is – and this is sort of the headline of this answer – that we have to help clients break through what we call the “permission barrier”. The permission barrier is the census of consensus management, and risk aversion, and lack of innovation, because I don’t want to screw up, and I just want to do what my competition is doing. There’s some of that going on right now, and I actually think technology, right now, is being underutilized. And we’re seeing it in healthcare, being one of several places. I hope that helps.

Phil: I think your wish is something that is very commendable, and I’ve seen it, myself, with how much impact it can have on the healthcare systems, and interacting, giving people more information, and everything, so I think it is truly revolutionary, and it’s great to hear.

Brian: You know, so much money is put in to solving healthcare issues, and it should, I’m not trying to subtract any of that money, but if we could also pay attention to what the actual patient experience is, in terms of the quality of life, not the quantity of life, I think that would be a very good thing.

Phil: Yes. Good. Well, that was a great wish to have, and I look forward to sharing this discussion with our network.

Brian: Thanks for the reach out. I’d like that, and have a great weekend. I appreciate your time.

Posted in : customer-experience-management, Digital Transformation, OneOffice


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