The Importance of Intellectual Capital to an Industry Giant: An Interview with Accenture’s Robert M. Baginski

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Bob Baginski

It would be difficult to find anyone in the professional services industry—especially those in the consulting, systems integration and outsourcing segments—who isn’t at least superficially aware of Accenture.  A $15.6 billion giant, Accenture is arguably one of the world’s most successful professional services organizations—and most prolific marketers.  The company’s high-profile advertising campaign featuring golfer Tiger Woods, as well as its formidable marketing machine built over the course of 20 years, have helped make Accenture a household word in executive suites around the world.

Yet there’s more to Accenture than airport ads.  The company also invests considerably in intellectual capital development to fuel its marketing programs and demonstrate the innovative thinking of its professionals. Playing a key role in both the development and marketing of the company’s intellectual capital is Robert M. Baginski, Ph.D.  A 25-year veteran of professional services marketing, Baginski currently leads marketing for Accenture’s business consulting services—which covers traditional “horizontal” service offerings such as strategy, customer relationship management, supply chain management, human performance, and finance and performance management.  He also oversees the company’s global thought leadership marketing and credentials programs.

Bernie Thiel, founding partner of The Bloom Group, recently talked with Baginski about the importance of intellectual capital to Accenture’s marketing programs and overall business performance, the challenges in consistently developing strong content, and approaches companies can use to measure the impact of their intellectual capital development and marketing programs.

 

Q: How important to Accenture’s marketing activities is developing strong intellectual capital and staking a thought leadership position?

A: It’s really a key point of differentiation.  And given our history and reputation, and the way that our business has grown and expanded, it’s fundamental to us. Thought leadership is a pivotal part of our value proposition to clients and the total image we want to convey to the marketplace.

It’s also what companies expect of Accenture.  One of the things we hear continually from our clients is that they demand innovation and innovative thinking from us.

 

Q: Would it be fair to say that at Accenture intellectual capital serves as the basis for all the other marketing programs, that it sort of fuels the delivery of effective marketing programs?

A: It really does. Otherwise you’re content-free or a me-too marketer, and seen as a me-too company. If you don’t have the deep thought leadership that is on point—and aligned with the market needs and clients’ issues and opportunities—it’s very hard to differentiate and distinguish yourself from your competitors. So, you can have the most elaborate and expensive marketing programs in the world, but if you don’t have that deep content that enables you to differentiate, you’re not going to be positioned well in the minds of clients and prospects.

 

Q: You mentioned differentiation. How do you see intellectual capital differentiating Accenture and, more importantly, how do you ensure that the intellectual capital Accenture creates is differentiated from that of its competitors?

A:  We’ve historically been a strong player in intellectual capital development, but in the past two years—since we embarked on our High-Performance Business strategic initiative—we’ve just really changed the game. The company has really gotten aligned and much more tightly integrated under the High-Performance Business platform, and it’s the central message that we’ve been advancing to the marketplace through our advertising and other integrated marketing programs for more than two years.

And all of the investment that we’ve made, the deep research that we’ve done, to aid and abet the High-Performance Business agenda has had a substantial impact on our ability to set ourselves apart from our competitors.  It’s a clear and distinct message that Accenture owns.

 

Q:  Can you describe the High-Performance Business program a little further?

A:  Sure.  Leveraging our industry expertise and business experience, Accenture embarked more than two years ago on a major research program to identify the characteristics of the high-performance business and high-performance public sector entity.  As we’ve examined the forces at work in the global economy, we’ve asked: What makes—and will make—a great organization perform above others in its industry?

At a high level, we’ve found that high-performance businesses effectively balance today’s needs and tomorrow’s opportunities. They consistently outperform their peers in revenue, profit growth and total return to shareholders. And they do so over a sustained time frame, across business cycles, industry disruptions and changes in CEO leadership.

By studying these exemplars across multiple industries and functions, we have been able to devise a new framework to understand high performance and a methodology to help other organizations close the gap between themselves and leaders in their industries.  Accenture also has been able to develop insights and solutions that are distinctive and differentiated from what we believe our competitors have.  By capitalizing on these insights and solutions, our clients have built new capabilities and achieved competitive differentiation.  So the impact of our research has been substantial, both for Accenture and our clients.

In my 25 years of professional services marketing and sales, this is the most impactful research, capability-building, and marketing program that I’ve experienced.

 

Q: Can we talk a little bit about how content is developed at Accenture? Who’s in charge, how does that get done? I know Accenture has several research institutes in house.  How do they interact with the practices that are in charge of developing intellectual capital specific to their concerns and their industries?

A: Well, your question presumes that there is some centralization, an “ivory tower” corporate office overseeing all this and directing it. And, although we do have the institutes as well as company-wide processes and reviews, we’re relatively decentralized with this activity.  One of the benefits of our more decentralized approach is that it encourages the 123,000 individuals throughout Accenture to be a part of thought leadership creation and dissemination.  It’s not just 15 people doing the thinking and creation for the entire company. 

We do have three research institutes, and those three entities interact with each other and jointly develop programs or do research on their own.  But they also work closely with the horizontal and vertical industry practices to ensure that their work is tightly connected to the business and to what matters to our market and clients.  So if there’s a major thought leadership initiative, it’s often jointly funded and staffed by one of the institutes and one or more of the practices. The practices also do a lot of their own intellectual capital development—by themselves or with other practices.  So, for example, our Supply Chain Management practice did a major study on supply chain practices that cut across numerous industry verticals and geographic areas, and worked closely with the relevant industry practices to conduct the research, communicate the results, and apply the insight and solutions to client issues and opportunities.

The important thing is that our groups work hand-in-hand on intellectual capital development.  Before any money is invested in creating a content agenda, and certainly before anything is invested in marketing whatever thought leadership assets ensue, there’s a meeting of the minds. We present to one another, we meet with one another, we review our plans with one another in advance of major investment cycles.  And it’s not just one-way communications.  There’s a lot of feedback—“that would work great in my industry” or “that’s a really interesting idea but I just can’t imagine that it would work in my industry or with my clients.”  In addition to strengthening the ultimate output of the program, these meetings provide checks and balances to ensure that topics being pursued are really compelling and of concern to our clients.

 

Q:  You’ve been in this business for quite a while, and have been involved with a number of different intellectual capital development and marketing initiatives.  In your experience, what do you see as the biggest challenges in creating and delivering compelling intellectual capital in a professional services setting?

A: Do you have a few hours or a few days [laughs]?  First of all, it’s very difficult and complex—just not easy work at all.  And it’s all so…it’s not black and white.  There’s always the intellectual debate:  This idea sounds brilliant, but would it really benefit a client?  Is that a good idea or not a good idea? Is it a big idea or a small idea?  Is it global, cross-industry, cross business process...or is it suited to just one industry or business process,...or is it just effective in one unique client environment?

One of the challenges up front on the creation side is the filtering and review of all the ideas that are proposed. How do you decide, out of a list of dozens or hundreds of candidate ideas, which ones to invest in and further develop?  And investment is a phased approach. If we’re talking about a list of 30 ideas, a company may decide to invest in 10 of them.  You throw some investment at those 10, over a period of time, and at the end of that time period you have a checkpoint to see what the teams have developed. And that checkpoint can be two weeks or three months. But when you get those 10 ideas coming back to the boardroom, and you get a review and report on them, you’re not going to continue on to phase two with all 10 of them. You may find that there’s been some pretty good progress on five of them and they seem to be workable as you test them out.  So the continual selection and refinement of ideas is a very hard phase. To some extent you’re forecasting, you’re betting. You’re still in the R&D lab at this point.   Those responsible for assessing the quality and applicability of thought leadership germs must be highly attuned to the client and market needs, as well as deeply knowledgeable in various business and industry operations.

Timeliness, of course, is also a huge challenge.  If we’re starting out with a blank sheet of paper to develop some important intellectual capital, must it be relevant and available to our clients’ businesses in three months? Six months?  A year?  Two years?  I happen to think the answer is that you need some at various intervals over a 24- to 36-month horizon.  You can’t put all of your marbles in the three-month basket or in the 36-month basket. 

Another big challenge for some organizations involves getting the participation of the key subject matter experts and other individuals.  It’s no secret that market-facing executives are charged with selling and delivering high-quality, profitable work, and are paid and motivated to meet certain goals related to this.  When you ask them to invest time and intellectual energy in projects such as content development—which aren’t directly related to selling and delivering great work in the near term—why would they do that?  Many executives “get it” and view content development as a critical component of what it means to continually innovate and provide outstanding service to clients.  For others, the easiest way to get them to do that is to have the organization and their management teams put in place some incentives, motivators and management directives that encourage people to commit time and energy to intellectual capital development. 

Personally we in marketing at Accenture are very fortunate that Accenture has a history, a culture, of innovation and thought leadership creation.  Our company is absolutely committed to it.  And, as I mentioned earlier, I think our clients demand it and differentiation is unlikely without it. 

 

Q:  When The Bloom Group talks with our clients, we constantly are asked—especially by clients that don’t have a long track record in intellectual capital development—“What’s my payback?”  They are concerned, and rightly so, about what they get from, say, a six-month or 12-month investment in a research study or book.  How does Accenture measure the impact of its intellectual capital?

A: First of all, any marketing professional must be prepared to answer that question: “What’s the return on my company’s investment in marketing?”  And to do that, you need the right metrics.  There are three broad categories of measurement, and I think too often people stop at the first one, and that’s marketing ROI as measured by marketing results:  number of media placements, number of brochures produced, number of client forums executed, number of target executives on my company’s mailing list and the frequency with which I reach out to them, number of leads generated by specific activities, number of hits on my website, and so on.  That’s great, but it’s just the beginning.  If all of these numbers are off the charts, but the programs never enlightened a client or generated any business return, what would the marketing ROI be? 

And so the next category is of course the business return on investments.  If I generated 500 media placements last year, what does that matter?  Or if I went to an industry trade show and generated 150 unqualified leads, what did we do with those leads and what was the conversion rate?  When we talk about the business metrics, we’re talking specifically about revenue and sales. How do I associate the marketing investment in the programs I executed with revenue and sales?

The third category—and the one on which we should always be focused—is the value of marketing’s efforts to clients and client relationships. So, if we took a new book or a presentation to a client, if we took a new methodology or structured approach, what did it matter to the client? Was it simply a nice afternoon boardroom conversation, or did the discussion really matter to the client and help his or her company build new capabilities and meet its business goals?  On a smaller scale, did the white paper we wrote change the prospect’s or client’s way of thinking about how to solve problem X or address opportunity Y?  If it did, the client or prospect is going to know where they got that innovative thinking.  They might not hire you today, but you’ve certainly left a really significant impression behind that may motivate them to hire you tomorrow.

 

Q: That’s a nice breakout of the different levels of measurement.  Now if I’m the marketing head of a practice, however, I’ve really got control of only one of those:  my marketing scorecard.  How is it possible, if I’m a marketing person, to know the business ROI or client impact of my programs when I all I can really measure myself is the marketing scorecard?

A:  In a small business, it’s easy.  You do marketing programs and you generate inquiries and you’re probably the person doing the lead tracking yourself. That typically falls under sales, so you can study inquiry through closed sale in every instance.  In a larger corporation like Accenture, it’s certainly much harder to get a total picture. We only have visibility to a small percentage of new clients that come in through the benefit of marketing programs, but we do see some of it.  It’s easiest to track through Web programs and client forums, and occasionally strong content being played out in powerful media placements. 

We often make the connection as well through the kindness of colleagues who value marketing enough to pick up the phone and say “I just want to let you know that this new research study you just did was really instrumental in landing this engagement.”  It’s great to get that kind of feedback because it really helps you know that what you’re doing is valuable to the company and its clients. In the end, though, it’s important to remember that for those who subscribe to an integrated, portfolio approach to marketing, it would be presumptuous to claim that any one marketing activity, one impression, led to a new engagement.  We know that generally it’s the net of numerous, consistent, high-quality, impactful impressions over time that influences target executives and inclines them to favor one company over another.