The advertising world this year saw a historic development, when Omnicom and Publicis Groupe, the number two and three ad holding groups, joined hands to form the largest ad network, globally.
A lot was said about the merger of equals - a move against giant WPP, a perfect retirement plan for Maurice Levy, brilliant news for stakeholders, and so on. And what would happen in various markets globally, especially in Asia where Dentsu and WPP are still far ahead - would senior talent quit Publicis Omnicom to start their own shops, would talent flow out of WPP to join what is now the largest ad company, and the list goes on.
But what's silently taking shape in the background will, in the time to come, be the biggest shaker and mover for the advertising industry- the evolution of big consultancies and professional, IT/tech services firms into a somewhat hybrid agency.
Although not a worrying trend in Asia yet, globally, these firms have been silently taking away the agencies' share of the marketing wallet.
David Cooperstein, Forrester Research's vice-president and practice leader for CMOs and marketing leadership, at the Publicis Omnicom merger, said: "Both companies find themselves up against tech services giants IBM, Accenture, Sapient and Deloitte to deliver marketing and business strategy based on deep data, technology driven ad management, and channel agnostic/complementary creative juices.
"This deal is reflective of the agency and marketing services business as a whole, more than just the agency part of the business."
While it is not to say they can completely overtake agencies, there is merit in that argument - the agency model isn't evolving fast enough to retain clients by offering them the cutting-edge advantage through data and technology. This leaves ample room for these tech services firms to come in and grab their share.
Companies such as IBM, Accenture, Deloitte and, of course, Sapient all have parts of their business which deal with the creative aspects of marketing - idea creation, production and distribution - that many agencies claim as offerings. There are significant differences though.
"While a firm like Accenture can build digital infrastructure for e-commerce, they take their creative lead from the brand agencies. These firms may analyse media impact with marketing mix tools, but they don't actively do media planning and buying as an agency would," Cooperstein says.
"So they compete against the technical agencies like Razorfish or AKQA, and less so against creative or media agencies."
However, as digital blurs the lines, many of these firms will be seen to be taking active steps towards adding more creative or media capabilities on top of digital.
The advertising landscape is becoming increasingly dependent on data and analytics, driven by a shift in media consumption towards digital platforms such as Google and Facebook, which allow the collection of huge amounts of data and very targeted, relevant and on-demand consumer engagement. This trend will only accelerate.
"The consumption, measurement and trading of what we call ‘traditional media' will also become much more technologically sophisticated as it evolves and adapts for the digital age," says Stuart Clark, managing director of Havas Media International APAC and regional head of Middle Office, at Havas Media.
"Big consultancy and IT services firms such as IBM have the technological expertise and resources to add value in this area. They are developing platforms that can manage and monitor advertising media campaigns, and integrate marketing data generated by those campaigns into other business systems within the organisation. For many IT services firms, it is a natural extension of technology and services they are providing already for large organisations."
(Read also: Are agencies irreplaceable?)
COMPETITION FROM ANYWHERE
You don't have to go far to see what these "new competitors" are up to. In May this year, German automotive manufacturer BMW appointed Accenture, giving it two contracts related to digital marketing efforts.
Under the first contract, Accenture will manage the rollout of BMW's new platform to 100 BMW markets. Accenture is managing all aspects of the rollout, including the agencies involved, scoping digital requirements, training local content managers and agencies on the new platform and co-ordinating testing and post go-live support. The rollout of the new web platform allows for enhanced digital customer interaction using customer relationship management (CRM) technologies and web analytics.
For the second contract, Accenture will be responsible for taking BMW's centrally created online marketing campaigns and overseeing the implementation and content distribution to each major local market through country sites.
It will also manage content localisation for each market, including deployment to social media channels, starting with Facebook, as well as deployment to mobile versions of the site. The agreement also covers CRM campaign support.
Finally, Accenture will provide related training to BMW's local market teams.
The client cited Accenture's global presence, automotive experience and efficient delivery models as the key to designing an approach which supports "BMW's deployment of this market-leading website and the roll-out of future digital marketing campaigns".
The global content, campaign management and e-commerce services, helping BMW deliver the right experiences to the right consumers at the right times, are delivered by Accenture Interactive, the digital marketing services arm.
Accenture Interactive - Marketing Services has already worked with clients such as P&G and Marriott International. It is worth noting that in the same month, Accenture completed the acquisition of Fjord, a global services design consultancy which specialises in "creating digital experiences".
Just before that Accenture acquired Acquity Group, a digital marketing and e-commerce company that provides strategy, digital marketing and technical services to hundreds of companies to enhance their brand experiences and e-commerce performance.
Accenture's aggressive strategy is clear, and not far behind are the likes of professional service firm Deloitte. Deloitte Digital offers strategy, mobile, social, web and digital content management solutions helping clients "strengthen their brands and evolve their businesses".
Last year, Deloitte, in a bid to invest in online and digital capabilities, acquired Übermind, Inc., a mobile agency which will assist Deloitte globally, and in Australia.
Frank Farrall, national leader of Deloitte Australia's online practice, said: "With this acquisition, the full circle of creative business technology for organisations is now complete. Industry focused mobile apps, designed from the ground up for enterprise integration and market deployment, help clients address virtually any digital technology challenges in their business - now and in the future."
Some of its clients include ANZ Bank, Belk and Intel. In what was called a "strategic digital transformation", Intel launched a programme that focused on developing innovative digital strategies and extraordinary creative and engaging experiences to inspire purchases. As Intel's strategic advisor, Deloitte Digital developed a strategy, selected a quality web content management system, and developed and globally deployed the new website in multiple languages.
In August this year, it hired Maureen Carter, former vice-president of digital brand creative at Nickelodeon (family division of MTVN), as its creative director. In her new role, Carter leads the interactive team and works with Deloitte Digital's federal clients to develop new and innovative ways to integrate digital solutions into the everyday operations of government, including interactions with constituents.
Carter has significant experience in online and interactive media working for major entertainment and media companies such as BMG Entertainment, Comcast and Time Warner. She also has extensive interactive and advertising experience.
In another example, Booz & Company in December last year acquired Axon Advisory Partners, a Los Angeles-based digital advisory team, to launch Booz Digital. With the addition of Axon Advisory Partners, Booz & Company claimed it was the first global premier strategy consulting firm to offer end-to-end digital solutions, from strategy to design to execution. Booz Digital is a full-service team of strategists, designers and technologists who "help companies turn ideas into transformational digital businesses".
Booz Digital is also launching in North America. However, companies can contact any Booz & Company global office for access to this service offering.
"Advertising and media agencies are also investing heavily in this area, but they do not have the legacy technological expertise of the big IT services firms," Clark says.
"As advertising becomes more direct and data-dependent, with automated buying processes, there will be competition between agencies and IT services firms to provide the most effective technological solutions."
Read more on what's happening in Asia and what the industry has to say here.