Staying out in front – from the dock

Alastair Blair leads a very different Accenture from the one he joined, writes Group Business Editor Dearbhail McDonald


Alastair Blair, country managing director for Accenture Ireland at its offices in The Dock in Dublin’s Hanover Quay. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Alastair Blair, country managing director for Accenture Ireland at its offices in The Dock in Dublin’s Hanover Quay. Photo: Caroline Quinn

When Irish creative agency Rothco was acquired by consultancy giant Accenture earlier this year, the reputed €20m deal sent shockwaves throughout the creative industry in Ireland and further afield.

It wasn’t the first time Accenture had swooped into the creative arena, having acquired, in 2016, London-based Karmarama – one of the UK’s largest independent agencies – one of more than 20 such acquisitions by Accenture Interactive.

But the acquisition of Rothco, which last June won seven Cannes Lions awards – Rothco’s haul of awards was the largest of any Irish agency ever at the festival – stoked fears of a rise in so-called “cagencies”.

The prospect of global consultancies invading the ad industry’s already hugely disrupted and revenue-challenged space, comes as that sector is mortally challenged by the increased power of digital platforms such as Google and Facebook.

For Alastair Blair, country managing director for Accenture Ireland, the Rothco deal was a significant move, proving how professional services companies such as Accenture are themselves adapting to a rapidly changing world.

“We are a big global organisation and there are a lot of small, nimble disruptors out there, so our acquisition strategy allows us to join forces and offer clients the best of both worlds,” says the suave Dubliner (52), who has spent 30 years with Accenture after joining as a graduate trainee.

The Rothco deal is the third major visible change at Accenture Ireland since Blair, a relentless optimist and sports enthusiast, took over as country managing director in September 2014.

The second is The Dock. Eighteen months ago Ireland became host to Accenture’s first global multi-disciplinary research, incubation and innovation hub.

Situated in the heart of Ireland’s so-called Silicon Docks, overlooking Grand Canal Square at Hanover Quay, the hub is home to designers, developers and experts in artificial intelligence, advanced analytics, internet of things, blockchain, security and all sorts of ‘realities’ including virtual, augmented and mixed-reality technologies.

Populated by more than 300 people, 80pc of them new hires from almost 30 countries, The Dock is complemented by the Fjord Dublin studio, a design pillar, and a dedicated tech lab.

One of the hub’s early wins was the development of ID2020, a global public-private partnership to help people such as asylum seekers, who do not have a documented identity, to access and share their information securely.

A team of designers, software engineers and experts in blockchain worked to bring the idea to life and the identity prototype, in partnership with Microsoft and Avanade, was showcased at a United Nations summit earlier this year.

The Accenture platform is now at the heart of the biometric identity management system currently used by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has enrolled more than 1.3 million refugees in 29 countries across Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. The system, led by the Dublin team, is expected to support more than seven million refugees from 75 countries by 2020.

“I’m sure Accenture will build others,” he says of its hub, “but Dublin was chosen very deliberately because of what Ireland is in terms of culture, mindset and attitude to innovation.”

Blair, who joined Accenture after qualifying as an engineer from Trinity College, Dublin, adds: “It’s the result of a very deliberate attack on the innovation space by Ireland Inc. The Dock is a mindset shift for Accenture – you’ve no idea how proud we are to have that crucible of ideas and people in Ireland.”

Accenture is traditionally known for its consultancy, change management and business integration services, representing a range of Irish and multinational clients including AIB, Bank of Ireland, the Revenue Commissioners, Microsoft, Ryanair and Pfizer, among others.

But Blair says Accenture has morphed into a driver of digital innovation, transforming businesses, including its own.

“We’re at the forefront of trying to deliver the future quicker,” says Blair, a married father of three, whom he says think about the world in ways he wished he could have as a child. “It’s about trying to bring the best of thinking quicker to business,” adds Blair, who specialised in a range of mainly financial services roles in Ireland, the UK and the Middle East, including a stint in London as head of Accenture’s Financial Services business in the UK and Ireland.

“How do we deal with the single biggest change [technology and analytics] that has occurred in business, how do we deal with the power that is sitting with consumers?” he asks, quickly adding that the answer lies in investment, research, diversity and education.

Transforming Ireland’s education system is an urgent call to action by Blair, who is chair of Ibec’s digital economy policy committee. Blair also leads a sub-group of Business in the Community’s new leaders’ group on sustainability, that is looking at workers of the future in Ireland.

“The world is changing at an extraordinary pace,” argues Blair who says Ireland’s traditional access to deep skills as well as a young and highly educated workforce has allowed the country to adapt. “There is a real opportunity for Ireland to position itself well. However there is a need for a profound change to our education system to take advantage of the next wave of jobs. This may require a move to a more modular system that allows students to develop both that depth and breadth of disciplines required.”

Blair stalls, uncharacteristically, when asked about two potentially major threats to the Irish economy, Brexit and the ongoing tax and regulatory reforms in the US which has just seen American President Donald Trump threaten to pull the US out of the World Trade Organisation.

But he recovers quickly, hesitating in order to choose his words carefully. Resorting to a metaphor from his nascent days in engineering, he says that engineers like him like inputs, outputs and processes.

“With Brexit we have lots of inputs, but the process is unclear and the output, therefore, is equally unclear. My biggest worry is people and companies assuming it will be all right on the night,” says Blair who adds that some clients are advanced in their Brexit contingency planning while others are not. “Uncertainty is killing us, so we need to get clearer on it [Brexit] quicker. That is a political thing and I’m not in that world, I’m in the business of certainty”.

In line with many multinational companies with a large presence here, the Irish arm of Accenture – which employs some 449,000 people globally – does not publish its Irish results, which fall under its European reporting line.

Last year Accenture reported global revenues of $34.8bn (€30bn), the Europe region accounting for almost $12bn (€10.3bn) of the overall sum. The most visible sign of Ireland’s contribution is its footprint here, with staff numbers expected to soar to 3,500 by the end of the year. That’s a far cry from Blair’s hardest yard in 2009, when he had to inform some staff they were being made redundant.

“You can replace the headcount, but you don’t replace the feeling of sitting down with someone you’ve known for five, 10 or 15 years and telling them ‘this is where we are’,” says Blair who will lead Accenture Ireland’s 50th anniversary celebrations here next year.

“There is a paradox and a dichotomy in celebrating 50 years, because we are so many different companies and so many different names, but it [the anniversary] is a huge statement for us”.

One of the areas where Accenture has made a name is in diversity and inclusion – 43pc of its Irish workforce is female and 51pc of its graduate intake in 2017 was female. Accenture Ireland is also tantalisingly close to having 40pc of women on its senior leadership team. Voted LGBT employer of the year by the National LGBT Federation and by Ireland’s Gay Community News, Accenture partnered with the Royal Irish Academy on its award-winning Women on Walls Campaign.

For Blair, who is routinely spotted at any sporting event that will have him, social and economic changes such as Ireland’s 2015 marriage equality referendum, go hand in hand.

“This is not the company I joined,” says Blair thoughtfully. “This is not the country I grew up in and it is all the better for it. We are unrecognisable in terms of our confidence, our thought leadership and our workforce. The opportunity for Ireland is to grasp what we have and stay true to what we are known for, being fair, open-minded and extremely hard-working.”

 

CURRICULUM VITAE

Name: Alastair Blair

Age: 52

Position: Country managing director, Accenture in Ireland

Lives: Dublin

Education: BA BAI in engineering from Trinity College Dublin

Family: Married to Leslie, the couple have three children aged 12 to 17

Business inspiration: I’ve worked with so many great leaders, it would be hard to pick one

Favourite book: I often return to The Lord of The Rings trilogy. The film adaptations were excellent and allow me to enter a different world for a short time

Pastimes: Passion for all sports, especially rugby and golf

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