All is not well in advertising. The shares of the biggest groups are sharply down and new competition has arrived from an unlikely source. Professional services firms such as Deloitte and Capgemini have been ramping up their work in a field that the likes of WPP and Publicis, the advertising agencies, used to have all to themselves. Will the beancounters win the day against the Mad Men?

The consultancies certainly have their wind at their backs. The upheaval in traditional retail, with the rise of Amazon, the slow death of shopping malls and the possibility of new digital routes to market has prompted a big rethink by brands about how to best reach customers.

Consultancies such as Accenture have suddenly discovered that they have a competitive edge. They can advise brands on how to orient themselves in an evolving digital landscape and then cross-sell them advertising options alongside the other services they offer. Need help restructuring your business for online retail? No problem! Now how about that new brand campaign?

The consultancies have become a fixture at Cannes Lions, the advertising industry’s biggest annual shindig, rubbing shoulders on La Croisette with Google, Facebook and other heavyweight digital media players. Their investment in advertising services has catapulted them into the big league to the extent that Accenture, PwC, IBM and Deloitte crashed a recent ranking of the world’s 10 largest agency companies, sitting just below WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, Interpublic and Dentsu.

With the shares of advertising groups depressed this year by concerns about reduced spending by their brand-owning customers, the consultancies have also been mentioned as possible acquirers of the big agencies.

They are already working together. When McDonald’s put out a tender for help creating “the restaurant experience of the future”, the year-long pitch process was won by a joint bid from Capgemini and Publicis. In a note to employees made public by Campaign, the ad industry magazine, Arthur Sadoun, Publicis’s chief executive, wrote that the companies would “create innovative digital services” for McDonald’s employees “in their kitchen and store operations, and for their customers”. Capgemini will build a “global digital retail centre” in Chicago to service McDonald’s.

This is a far cry from the work of a traditional advertising agency, which once focused most of its efforts on delivering creative campaigns to run in print, radio or television. But not that far: the best advertising agencies have always had deep market research functions that went beyond merely branding and selling products. In the 1920s, J Walter Thompson created the first “test kitchen” for its clients. It is credited with popularising the grilled cheese sandwich for Kraft. Using research to spot market opportunities has always been part of the agency armoury.

The beancounters may have parked tanks on their lawn but the agencies have not sat still. WPP and its rivals have diversified beyond traditional creative and media buying functions in recent years, adding data analytics and processing, electronic trading and automated buying of digital ad inventory to the services they can offer clients.

And yet the emergence of consultancies still presents a formidable challenge to agencies — not least because depressed market capitalisations make them vulnerable. The prospect of a consultancy firm buying an advertising holding company was raised by Jérôme Bodin, an analyst at Natixis, in a recent note that triggered heated debate among senior advertising figures. “With valuations at all-time lows, Publicis and WPP are possible targets,” he wrote. “Accenture is today the most credible buyer.”

Some executives have scoffed at the likelihood of such a deal but the consultancies certainly have the firepower to pull one off. Accenture has a market value of more than $91bn. Publicis, by contrast, is worth €12.7bn.

The ad industry has also shown an inability to consolidate. The proposed 2013 combination of Publicis and Omnicom was supposed to herald a new dawn but broke down after a power struggle between the two sides in a deal that was supposed to be a merger of equals. It would likely cause a shudder down the back of Man Men’s Don Draper but might an outside third party — such as a big professional services firm — have more luck?

Matthew.Garrahan@ft.com

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