Outgoing creative chief at Accenture Song and The Monkeys Scott Nowell on culturally infiltrating Accenture, failed beer fridge bans, pulling a reverse takeover of Saatchis and why Accenture Song is ‘outperforming’ the consulting growth curve
What you need to know:
- The Monkeys Scott Nowell is stepping away after 17 years at the agency he cofounded, won just about every award going, and sold to what is now Accenture Song for $63m in 2017.
- Many expected The Monkeys culture to be steamrollered by the corporate consulting giant. Nowell says it’s performed a cultural reverse takeover. And now the bigger Accenture business is “leaning in” to the Song model and culture, because it’s powering growth-wise. As he half-jokingly puts it, “the idiots are running the asylum”.
- He admits there are challenges in working for a process-driven monolith – fast-decision making for one, but says he and colleagues learned how to “work the system” from Accenture old hands.
- Nowell said The Monkeys could earlier have sold to Omnicom or Publicis and also spoke with PwC, but Accenture were the ones that, he claims, talked cultural preservation before talking money.
- He and Monkeys colleagues could have also become ice-cream magnates. All they needed was a “few hundred million dollars” and somebody to run frozen goods logistics.
- Nowell doesn’t rule out getting back in the saddle, but for now he needs a “reset”. For anyone mulling starting their own agency, he says “start smarter” and “try and balance your life”. Which he is about to do.
- The podcast is deeper and more amusing. Get the full download here.
The fear was that we were going to be roadkill. But I think almost the reverse has happened. It feels like it's more our culture infiltrating them from where I sit.
Cultural reverse takeover?
One of the cofounders of The Monkeys, the creative agency that landed one of the single biggest deals in Australian advertising when it was snapped up by Accenture for a reported $63 million is hanging up his boots, at least for now.
Few expected Scott Nowell, along with fellow founders Justin Drape and Mark Green to last the distance after selling to the consulting giant in 2017. Drape left in early 2021 to launch “decentralised” agency Exceptional Alien, leaving Green, now Accenture Song ANZ chief, the last of the three originals standing.
Within a corporate consulting machine, most commentators gave The Monkey’s fierce cultural independence little chance of survival. “The fear was that we were going to be roadkill,” admits Nowell. “But I think almost the reverse has happened.”
“We’d spoken to a few people about a potential acquisition. Accenture were the only ones who came in and they didn’t talk money. Their number one question was ‘how do we preserve your culture?’ So that made us much more comfortable about going forward with the discussions.”
So what was the answer in terms of cultural preservation?
“You’ve just got to keep doing what you’ve got to do – and how we do it has expanded into Accenture culture itself. So Accenture Interactive as it was then, now Accenture Song, it’s like the idiots are running the asylum. You’ve got David [Droga], running global as a CEO, and I don’t think you could have anyone more ambitious or creatively-minded in that job. You’ve got Mark [Green] running it in ANZ, another incredibly creative, ambitious person. And we’re doing things our way. That entrepreneurial mindset we’ve always had has now, I think, been welcomed by Accenture proper, and definitely people within Accenture Song,” says Nowell. “It feels like it’s more our culture infiltrating them from where I sit.”
Everyone that we've met within Accenture that has been there a long time are geniuses in how they work around that system – and they've been successful at working the system to their advantage. So we've had to learn a bit of that too.
Follow the money
While some of the consulting giant’s vast army “probably still think we’re weirdos”, Nowell suggests the financial results help the cultural medicine go down – and after some mutual “bum sniffing”, the “more closed” corporate and “more open” advertising packs began to run together – and start building products and solutions that go well beyond advertising.
“Accenture Song is performing incredibly well in the context of the bigger Accenture – and culturally, bigger Accenture is starting to turn the tide towards Accenture Song as a huge part of what they see as the future.”
“Because there’s so much growth in what we do. We’ve grown immensely this year,” says Nowell.
“The marrying-up hasn’t been an easy path. But getting these creative minds to marry up with the people who build the systems and come up with the technology, these amazing brains within Accenture and putting them together … it’s an engaging thing for the market.”
We grew our business by making decisions fast – getting things right fast, getting things wrong fast, recovering from the wrong things fast. And now we're in a culture that probably isn't as … You’ve just got to ask a lot of people if you can do something or not.
Drink, and other problems
He admits there have been awkward moments. “One that comes to mind is a request that we lock our beer fridges until 5 p.m. It went down very badly as you can imagine,” says Nowell. “I think various threats were made. It lasted one day, for about six and a half hours.”
Ultimately, in a firm where process rigidity helps keep hundreds of thousands of employees in check, you have to learn ways to work the system, acknowledges Nowell. The Monkeys he said, quickly picked up lessons from old hands within the Accenture machine.
“Everyone that we’ve met within Accenture that has been there a long time are geniuses in how they work around that system – and they’ve been successful at working the system to their advantage. So we’ve had to learn a bit of that too.”
He admits there are inevitable downsides in becoming part of a monolith.
“We grew our business by making decisions fast – getting things right fast, getting things wrong fast, recovering from the wrong things fast. And now we’re in a culture that probably isn’t as … You’ve just got to ask a lot of people if you can do something or not.”
Greeny and Justin were giggling like school boys. I asked them what was going on and they said Saatchis had just called saying they wanted to buy us as a reverse takeover – we would go in and run Saatchis.
Publicis, Omnicom, PwC misses
Nowell says initial conversations were also had with PwC, and The Monkeys could also have ended up inside a traditional comms holding company.
Five years before selling to Accenture, he says the trio were approached about a potential “reverse takeover” of Saatchi & Saatchi locally, the firm they had left in 2006 to go it alone.
“I remember getting back to the office and Greeny and Justin were giggling like school boys. I asked them what was going on and they said Saatchis had just called saying they wanted to buy us as a reverse takeover – we would go in and run Saatchis. Looking back at it now, it was when they were in a bit of a hole, they saw that we were on the ascendancy and wanted to get us back in there and right the ship,” says Nowell.
“We just weren’t ready. We weren’t financially structured to do any kind of deal and honestly, we didn’t really want to go back to a life that we’d just left. We wanted to forge a new path – and stuck to that.”
At one point a potential deal with famed San Francisco agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners was mooted.
“We met Jeff [Goodby] and got to know them, there was a bit of a plan for a pan-Pacific micro network… and there’s a lot of love between us. But they are owned by Omnicom, we were independent, still growing and probably not fully formed and structured as a business ready to sell,” says Nowell. “But that was a valuable lesson in seeing what other people, companies like Omnicom, were looking for.”
The experience made the founders think harder about business discipline as they began to mull a sale in earnest. A decade after launching, they were all feeling the effects of going hard around the clock. “We’d all had minor health scares,” says Nowell, “and this was all in a very short space of time. We all looked at each other and said ‘we can’t keep working like this.’”
Hence putting out the feelers and hence Accenture, which had just bought London hot shop Karmarama, quickly getting in touch and having the sense to talk culture before cash – and then blowing them away with the promise of moving way beyond comms.
“While we were in discussions around doing the deal, we went into the Accenture Interactive offices, and they were running the Samsung global ecommerce platform out of that room. They were looking at whole new supply chain things for Woolworths, they were re-imagining how you put your tax in – these massive projects that took a long time. And that was the moment,” says Nowell. “If just felt like if you had that [big, complex business stuff] and our kind of narrative and brand strategy, this is going to work.”
We had a growing communications business. We also had this ice cream business that was getting bigger and demanding more time. What we needed was partners who could do the frozen goods logistics and all of the things that need to be running smoothly before you even think about marketing. But it gave us an education that you just don't get in advertising.
The ice cream incident
Things could have gone differently. A couple of years before all the dealmaking, The Monkeys and sister design agency Maud got into the ice cream business, backing themselves to relaunch eighties brand Homer Hudson, taking a 50 per cent stake in the business and bringing on Bulla as a contract manufacturer. While at one point it was stocked into some 800 Woolworths stores, the experiment ultimately failed. What was missing between the grand plan and reality?
“Probably a few hundred million dollars,” says Nowell. “But I would never call it a mistake. It was one of the best learning experiences we had as a business – because it wasn’t our core business.
“It was offloaded by Unilever to our then partner. He said ‘can you guys help get this brand off the ground again?’ And we, as the greedy entrepreneurs we are, said ‘only if we are an owner’. And he said ‘yes’. So we split that – and it was a fascinating journey,” says Nowell. “We got to test a lot of ice cream. But the frozen goods distribution thing, the logistics of it, is real.
“We had a growing advertising and entertainment and communications business. And we also had this ice cream business that was getting bigger and demanding more time. Really what we needed was partners who could run that side of it, and do the frozen goods logistics and all of the things that 100 per cent need to be running smoothly before you even think about marketing and advertising.”
The experience also offered the entrepreneurs a “school in empathy”, says Nowell. “It gave us the education, especially in FMCG, that you just don’t get in advertising. So we’re able to walk into a room and say, ‘Okay, we know what you’re going through’”.
I'm still obviously deeply interested in this world. I'm just trying to make myself not think about things for a while.
What would Scott Nowell do?
For now, Nowell doesn’t have to walk into any more client rooms. While his ex-big boss David Droga is banging the drum for more creatives in boardrooms, Nowell sidesteps any suggestion he’d be a perfect candidate.
“I knew I needed a bit of a break and to reset,” says Nowell. “I’m still obviously deeply interested in this world. I’m just trying to make myself not think about things for a while.”
He’s undeniably earned that right. But for anyone thinking of taking the same path and launching their own independent creative hotshop, what would Scott Nowell do differently?
“You could probably do it smarter,” he replies. “We were fairly naive, which served us extremely well. But I think you could start something a lot smarter.”
“Getting an accountant,” he says, less than half in jest, but also keeping something in the tank beyond fumes. “The old adage is true, the more you put in the more you get out. But you’ve got to try and balance your life.”