Annette King

Fast Mover Advantage: Annette King On Her First Six Months At Accenture Song

It's barely a minute since King joined Accenture Song, but she's already shaking things up with one of the largest acquisitions for years. She shares her early experiences of the business

By Claire Beale

Well, you don’t hire Dame Annette King and expect her to ease herself gently into a big new global job, now do you?

So, no one can have been surprised to hear that within months of being appointed global marketing lead at Accenture Song King has swooped on the Unlimited group, one of the biggest UK marcomms acquisitions of recent years.

It’s a typically bold move from the fearless King and illustrates something of the scope of her ambition for her business. But while it’s certainly a big play on her home turf, King is giving equal scrutiny to all the opportunities for Accenture Song in its key markets around the world. That doesn’t mean a wave of acquisitions, of course, [though, also: it might] it just means that the business now has an energetic dynamo focused on global growth.

No surprise, then, that King has been zipping around the globe meeting her clients and her teams, hearing their challenges, identifying opportunities, and laying new plans with them.

"There are few people I have met in my career that are more naturally reassuring and lovely than Annette, as a leader, in a meeting or just a passing conversation,” says Accenture Song chief executive David Droga who brought King on board from Publicis Groupe. “Her wisdom and experience are only matched by her authenticity and naughty optimism. She is a Song favorite already.”

Here she talks to us about the Unlimited deal, how the two-year-old Accenture Song is shaping up, and how its helping marketers seize the new opportunities of tech- and data-fuelled commercial creativity.

"It started with me picking up the phone to ask them if they were interested. Fortunately, they were."

Annette King

Unlimited is your first big deal at Accenture Song. Why is Unlimited such a great fit? 

Unlimited has proven in recent years that they have one of the industry’s strongest offerings across the board. Their capabilities and expertise have driven incredible performance for their clients - all of which has been underpinned by a culture where people genuinely love where they work and are proud of the work they put out in the world.   

Their unique skill sets are complementary to what we already have at Song but what was evident from the outset was how these could be supercharged by what we do. Particularly when it comes to our Gen AI offering that we know is a central focus for clients everywhere. 

Most importantly though, they’re a great bunch of people who have been successful but are now ready to shape and scale the agency even further with the support of our capabilities and people. 

So how do you see Unlimited slotting into the existing Song business? 

Unlimited’s offering is complementary to what we have built at Song, so for us, it’s now a matter of being fully equipped to take on the market and deliver. Watch this space.

 You moved very quickly. Can you give us some insight into how you managed to pull this acquisition off so swiftly?  

It started with me picking up the phone to ask them if they were interested. Fortunately, they were. From here, my Accenture colleagues Sohel, Bill, James Poole and I invited them to join us the following day to get an insight into what our ambitions were for Song moving forward. It was obvious pretty quickly that this was going to be a mutually good fit, so we took it from there. 

 Accenture has the best operation I have ever seen on the M&A front in our industry. The process is built to allow us to move super-fast when we want something of this scale to happen. 

 Do you already have your eye on other such deals and if so, are there any areas of specialism that you're particularly interested in? 

Of course, but that would be telling…

 You’re half way through your first year at Accenture Song. How’s it going?

 “This is the first time I've done a global job, so I’m just getting my head around the different parts of the world and the teams that we've got and the opportunities that exist. The way that Accenture Song looks at the world, there are three core markets: North America, EMEA, and then there are the growth markets, which are Asia, Australia, etc. So it's a big but simple structure to deal with, and then obviously, you've got multiple countries within each of those markets. So really getting an understanding of what we've got and what the unique skill sets are across those markets has been a learning curve.

 What I’ve been surprised about is the culture – it’s really warm, and the people are really welcoming and generous. And I don’t just mean at Accenture Song, but at main Accenture too.

 Tell us a bit more about how Accenture Song fits into Accenture.

 Accenture Song is a distinct part of Accenture but very, very connected to the whole of Accenture. We talk about frontstage and backstage. So if you think of Accenture Song as the front stage, it’s what the customer sees, interacts with, talks to and hears from. And the might of Accenture is the backstage, where the technology and the operations and consulting parts of the organisation do their thing. I think of it as a stage production, and how powerful that is; if you've got both sides of the curtain thoroughly covered, then that really should elicit the power of Accenture Song.

 There are more than 700,000 people across Accenture and I knew there were that many people, but the realisation that I'll never know them all was quite a big one. So, working out who it's important to know to get things done for clients, well that’s always important when you begin a new job in any organisation. But here it's really, really important because I've got to cut through to all sorts of different talents and expertise. And there are lots of people guiding me on who those people are, who those teams are, but it's the scale of that and how much bigger that is than anywhere I've worked before. But that's also exciting because you can say to some, “Do we have someone that knows about X, Y, or Z?” , and of course we do. Do we have people who know what's coming next? Do we have people who can work out what we're doing with the ecosystem partners? The answer is always “yes”.

Was that two-way flow of co-operation already systematised, or are you building bridges with main Accenture as you go?

 It was on its way. The articulation of it as frontstage and backstage is a recent decision and the expression of it came from a chap at Song in the UK. And it's just such an obvious and clean way of describing us that we've adopted it as our global credentials, which is great.

 So, we were well on the way and we're further ahead than we were, and there's so much more than we can do, as well. It's a progression of how this huge, wonderful thing works together.

There was a time when the management consultants were seen as a worrisome pariah coming to eat agencies’ lunch. Does it still feel like Accenture is this opposing force to the rest of the industry?

 I think we're part of the industry and we're making the industry more interesting and varied because we're significantly bigger than the agency world competition. And hopefully, we’ll help to up its game because of our technology strength, our huge investment in Gen AI and our truly global footprint.   So, we're part of it, but we're also different because we've got such an all-encompassing ability across technology and creativity. So hopefully as well as being part of the industry, we help to challenge and shake it up at the same time. 

Now you are in this differently shaped organisation, how has your perspective changed?

 I think it's about the scale of technology – I can see better here that when it all comes together in a well-formed way, that will up the game for the whole industry. There's no legacy here, we’re building as we go here, bringing it to life, which is really refreshing. So, I’m not trying to protect a business model that’s been around for dozens and dozens of years; we’re building one that is fit for now and the future.

 I think our competition has gotten better at changing, and at a greater pace. But for them, it is about moving on from legacy rather than seizing the now and going with it.

 Tell us more about the interplay between Droga5 and Accenture Song

 If you look at Droga5 in London and New York and indeed in Dublin, they're all doing well, and the work is really strong. But they’re really good at connecting into the rest of Song, and indeed, the rest of Accenture. So Droga5 is also fuelled by the ability to tap into all of the technology and capability that we've got across the whole of Song. So, while its pinnacle reason for being is creativity in all its different guises, it can access all those other capabilities while staying intact as a brand that clients still want to buy into, knowing full well that it’s part of Accenture Song.

And Droga5’s evolving, in terms of what it can do. It’s developing a broader set of skills around the types of creativity that can be brought to bear for a client. And that evolution is coming through some of the hires we've made and people they’re joining - like Pelle Sjoenell [Worldwide CCO, Droga5] and other great talent like Shelley Smoler [CCO of Droga5 London], Scott Bell [CCO at Droga5 US] and Jen Speirs [CCO, Droga5 Dublin.] Alongside other brilliant minds from Nick Law [creative chairperson Accenture Song], Neil Heymann [Global CCO, Accenture Song] and James Temple [global XR/spatial lead and global Gen AI creative lead] - all world-class creative talents that come at things from a different perspective to many people in advertising. 

We’ve got this fantastic and enviable mixture of creative talent that can think very broadly, all with an army of technology experts and capabilities right by their side. All under the leadership of David Droga. I believe we are to be envied for having this wealth of world-class talent. 

 Give us some sense of how this bench of talent actually works together.

 We’ve got people that run each of the three markets; Max Cremonini runs EMEA from Italy.  Sean Lackey runs North America and Thomas Mouritsen runs our growth markets. He’s ex-Ogilvy, so we already knew each other. 

We have strong teams in each market but it's important to me to get out there and meet them and understand the nuances of the markets, from the way business is done, to the way insights are gathered, to the way you learn to deal with clients and all the rest of it. While the core of the Song proposition is absolutely the same and the capability is the same, the way it gets delivered might be different in each market.

 Are your markets already working together if, say, a global pitch comes up, or are you having to build cohesion yourself?

 The three market leaders all know each other well, we all meet regularly and there’s the joy of Teams. And then we've got people in global roles across business development, Gen AI, as applied to the marketing practice - working on the actual tools, capabilities, and propositions that we've got that can help clients. We’ve also got strategic and executional data- and AI-driven capabilities around digital media, led by Kristen Kelly who’s a modern-day media genius.

 One of the many things I like about being here is that we get to the ‘what difference does it make to your business results?’ much quicker than in my previous places, you know: “What is the ROI?” Or “What extras might this development deliver for you?” Or “What might it save for you?” That’s much more the mindset here.

We can all feel that we're at this moment of seismic change - in life, but also definitely in this industry, driven by AI. So, we have innovation hubs dotted all over the world, clever people working on how to apply the possibilities of this change to our client’s businesses. Combine that with having creative prowess under the leadership of one of the greatest creative people in the industry – well if I was a client I’d at least be curious about that offering.  

 Is there now a seamless baton-passing of clients from Accenture to Accenture Song?

 It works very well, actually and as the Song proposition becomes clearer and clearer - both internally and externally - it becomes a lot easier for those people at Accenture who own those deep client relationships to see the merit of bringing Song in because we do something over and above what the rest of Accenture does - but we stand on the shoulders of Accenture.

The Song structure now is super clear. There are four practices [Marketing is the division for advertising and brand-building: Design and Digital for products, services and experiences; Commerce for sales optimisation; and Services for clients’ relationships with customers]. It's very well organised, everybody knows who does what and we’ve got all the right people in all the right roles, so everyone’s on the same page across Accenture and Accenture Song. And because Accenture is such a huge company, there will always be more we can do, and more clients that we can help, which is what's so exciting, right?

 What are you seeing clients asking for now, that they wouldn't even have thought to ask for five years ago?

 It's still early days for AI, so many clients are somewhere between curious, experimental, and sort of wanting to get on with it. We’re able to understand where a client’s at on that scale, and so what they’re asking for is our guidance through the possibilities - what we can do together today and what we’ll be able to do tomorrow.

 Content production is probably where the most obvious use of technology that is coming into play, along with all the data-driven parts of the spectrum. But our clients are all at very different places, and I think the next 12-to-18 months will be a roller coaster of discovery for everybody and that we will be in a very different place at the end of that.

 So how important is creativity going to be in the effective delivery of all the tools and expertise that Accenture Song has?

 It’s essential. It's the manifestation of everything, it’s what the customer sees. And it can be more or less relevant depending on how well data is applied to what you put out into the marketplace. So, creativity is fundamental.

 Are there other areas of the offer that need beefing up?

 Obviously, I can't comment on whether we're making any other acquisitions, but investment in Song is alive and well, both in terms of building and potentially buying. Because we're properly global and because we cover the full range of what there is to offer and because things change at such a pace, there will probably always be geographical or specific capability to invest in.

 One of the things I love about being here is the pace, keeping up with what's happening and responding quickly and not sitting back and wondering what's going to happen but being part of the change, part of the progression. And that's energising because there's always someone that will listen to what you think might be around the corner. And if that means an acquisition makes sense, then some people will listen to you and act quickly.

 We’ve got a good geographical footprint, but I'm still working out if the footprint is big enough in all the different countries. But the pitches that I've been involved in or been aware of since I’ve been here, where you pull markets together to be able to answer the brief, that happens very smoothly. And I've yet to see an instance where we don't have anyone in that market or a particular capability in that market. I’ve only been here six months, but I haven't had that issue yet. And I've definitely had that issue in previous places that I’ve worked, because even if you're a holding company, and you're big, if you're not somewhere then you're not somewhere. Whereas Accenture is everywhere.

Your career seems to have tracked pretty closely the cutting-edge of the industry, is that how you see it?

 I consider myself lucky and/or clever to have made the choice to go to Accenture Song when I did, the timing has been really good. And I feel very fortunate to have my 30 years of varied sets of experiences. I started in direct marketing, talking about data 30 years ago and putting it to good use in the form that it was in at the time. Then I was fortunate enough to be in that part of the industry as it digitised, before any of the rest of the ad industry did and spent many years enjoying a period of relatively rapid evolution [King led Ogilvy One to become the UK’s most successful direct marketing agency].

And then I had the opportunity to branch out across the broad spectrum of creativity [King became chief executive of Ogilvy UK, responsible for all ten operating units across the spectrum of marcoms], and then the opportunity to take on media and all the other elements of the communications industry [King was poached by Publicis Groupe in 2018 to run their entire UK business].

 So, to now be able to take all that experience into a company with all these other wonderful technology-fuelled and data-fuelled capabilities and talents, it’s just really fortunate timing. I like to say it was planned, and maybe subconsciously I had some kind of sense of where things were going, but it definitely wasn't a conscious plan. But yeah, it's been a good ride of being in the right place at the right time and being fortunate to work with really great people.


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