Twenty-five years ago when I was an undergraduate, I learned about a psychological phenomenon called “adaptation to stimulus”. This means, for example, that if you rest your hand on a table, at first you are highly aware of the table, but very soon the physical sensation of its hard, smooth surface disappears. In much the same way, if you buy a new pair of shoes, the first few times you wear them you are suffused with a feeling of wellbeing and smartness, but in time this fades and they become merely familiar.
Adaptation to stimulus is a part of what it means to be human. We forget the noise of the highway or the sound of the airplane jets. We block out the banner ads on the webpage. The brand that used to be new and sexy soon becomes old and boring.
What does this have to do with consultancies acquiring ad agencies?
Clients spend a staggering $1.1 trillion on analytics and consulting every year, giving businesses like Accenture huge clout, pots of cash and C-suite relationships. This boom is driven largely by the sensible imperative that ecommerce is clearly the future of many industries. If they don’t offer seamless web experiences and they can’t track their customers' behaviour, they’ll get left behind.
But what happens once they’ve all spent millions on their tech stack and optimised their ecommerce experience? Nobody will be losing any prospects and no cart will remain abandoned, but what then? The trouble with software is that it’s scalable and replicable. And if you can do it, so can everyone else.
Accenture, being full of smart people who think long-term, know what comes next. And, contrary to wide opinion, it isn’t the death of ad agencies—or at least not the good ones.
Which brings us back to adaptation to stimulus. The one thing we can count on in our industry is that whatever we come up with, it won’t last long, because every stimulus becomes normal and ignorable in short order. This effect has nothing to do with the media we consume, the way products are sold or the foibles of Generation Z. It’s eternal.
People will always look for the next new thing. And how do you get the next new thing? Accenture is betting hundreds of millions of dollars that the way to do it is with creative thinkers from the advertising industry. They know that rigorous methodical thinking, highly optimised processes and large efficient organisations are not the way you get to original breakthrough ideas. If they can buy that capability, then they can take those ideas, test them, scale them and sell them through all the way up to the CEO.
Every A/B test needs a new hypothesis to test. Machine learning is only as good as the (historical) data it’s been fed. If the big beasts of the consultancy industry are betting on our ingenuity, who are we to argue?
This means there’s no point in advertising people trying to be fake consultants. Our job is to think differently, not to think robustly and conservatively. Six months ago I was working at Droga5 London, and we frequently had clients come to us asking for innovation and brand-definition jobs.
You know what they didn’t want us to do? They didn’t want six-month, rigorous, consultancy-type processes. They wanted smart people to generate a bunch of interesting ideas in a few weeks, because that’s what the consultants couldn’t do for them (and because it cost them a lot less).
The truism among software developers is that the best people are worth 100X the regular ones. The same is probably true for us. So if you’ve any talent, and you’re working in advertising right now, this deal is great news for you because it shows that the people who ought to know believe in you.
Jacob Wright is chief strategy officer at BBH Singapore