In May 2008 I attended a fantastic conference at the Art Center College of Design called Serious Play. It was an inspirational experience that changed the way I think about design, play and business. It happens every two years and I am so looking forward to the 2010 version. Several videos of the speakers are on TED thanks to an agreement between the two organizations. Here are some of my favourites.

George Smoot

Stuart Brown

Bruce McCall

Tim Brown

It is good to be back.

I would love see more people smash the barriers to convention and reason. When I say madness I in now way want to disparage or mock the individuals that suffer with mental illness. This is about taking risks, breaking conventions, disrupting assumptions, and playing in territories that no-one else has.

Is the benefit of design thinking the ability to apply the process to a business problem, or is it the license for a slightly off the wall perspective that actually contributes to success?

The definition of madness that I think is so applicable to this discipline is ‘unrestrained excitement’ and the idea of  craziness – being rash or foolish. I also think in terms of being tangential or taking odd leaps of thought.

What if we surrounded ourselves with people that had a habit of saying “You’re crazy” because the ideas that were being created were really pushing the edge.

Is there a way to instill the essence of madness into the culture of an organization. Is there a way to be comfortable with seemingly contradictory concepts, or to be able to believe in the impossible, or to see what others do not.

A little madness is being able to imagine the unknown, to find inspiration for a marketing experience in the midst of a piece of modern art. What does the art say to you? What does the art express about the human condition? How did it move you? I think the entire Tate collection should be required viewing by any new strategist. When I think about the siloed state of education and the lack of exposure people have to wildly variant stimuli it really saddens me.

Of course, in our business environment we do need to have a way to control the madness to deliver a solution. Can it be harnessed? In the face of a wicked problem is it foolish to try and be defined? Or is it better to be wildly irrational with the hope that the outlying ideas will be the winners? Can we even hope to understand the market we deliver in? Is it arrogant to believe that we can understand something driven by the subconscious minds of other humans?

If you settle in a rut, you are unable to move out of the way if something is coming at you head on. If you are back and forth on the road, you can always find the open space.

A recent exchange I had with @chrisfinley was a comment on a post by Joshua Porter about the conflicted state some designers get into when they are confronted with the concept that they are changing behaviour. It does sound manipulative and could strain the moral fiber of people who are sensitive to questions of free will, but the fact is that we as marketers do need to advantageously affect behaviour if we are to be successful. But is behaviour the right term?

Perhaps behaviour has picked up a certain patina thanks to the work of B.F. Skinner and other behaviourists. In simplistic terms his theory was that behaviour was conditioned through environmental inputs and that consequently this behaviour could be controlled through an increase in positive or negative stimuli. The subject’s thoughts were considered in the behaviour, but there was a heavy focus on the receipt of the conditioning. The thought of pushing buttons (or applying electrical shocks) to manipulate the marketing target in a calculated manner is not an appealing idea to someone with dualist leanings. Perhaps UX designers that recoil from the idea of changing behaviour have a propensity to believe in a separation between the brain and the mind. That is best left for another post.

Despite the patina, the term behaviour may be too simplistic to accurately represent the complexity inherent in the interaction someone has with a marketing touchpoint. I am currently reading a great book that explores the relationship between technology and technique. I would like to explore the idea that rather than influence behaviour we are trying to influence technique.

“If we define technology as a modification of the environment, then we must recognize the complementary principle of technique: how the modification is used in performance.” (Tenner, 2003)

All communications through touchpoints are brokered by a technology. That technology requires a learned technique to be able to engage, interact and pull meaning from the touchpoint. It is pointless to create a thirty second spot if the target can’t operate the remote control. This base level of technique is the cost of entry for a member of society to participate in the channel.

If the technology being deployed is a widget, website, tool, appliance or other product that directly engages with the target then we as experience designers should be considering how we support the target in adopting or creating a new technique to use it. These techniques are personal and meaningful and support adoption of the product. A technique may encompass many behaviours – many that we may not be able to capture in research and testing. Rather than focusing on a simple set of behaviours, we should consider them in aggregate as a technique and devise our design methods accordingly.

Technique also has room to allow for the application of free will by humanizing the target. A positively engaged target will engage in the variety of behaviours inherent in a technique on their own accord. The idea of technique also allows for an evolution of that technique based on the input of the user. A behaviour may be too narrow to allow for variations that still ensure the same goal.

“The interaction of inventors…with participants…allows technology and technique to produce striking results envisioned by neither…” (Tenner, 2003)

Technology and technique are not static but are engaged in a constant evolutionary dance. We should embrace that complexity, temper our desire to reduce interaction to behaviours, and focus on creating marketing that supports the creation of identity through technique.

“When we use simple devices to move, position, extend, or protect our bodies, our techniques change both objects and bodies. And by adopting devices we do more. We change our social selves. In other species, natural selection and social selection shape the appearance of the animal. In humanity, technology helps shape identity.” (Tenner, 2003)

Tenner, E. (2003). Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity. Vintage Books: New York.

The following quote has never been truer in marketing than now.

“The times are more powerful than our brains.” Pandolfo Petrucci to Niccolo Machiavelli (Kelly, 2006)

Marketing strategists attempt to exist in the future. Generally the very near term future (a few quarters out), but the future nonetheless.  When strategies are presented, they are usually presented as if this is the only approach to take, which smacks of a presumed ability to predict that future. It is a conceit that the brain can somehow get a grip on the times.

A quote I heard years ago went something like ‘Show me someone that claims they can predict the future and I will show you a liar’. Accurately predicting what will happen two or three quarters out is just as difficult as predicting what will happen tomorrow. It is all a best guess.

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity” Oliver Wendell Holmes (Kelly, 2006)

Marketing strategists try to own the idea that they can deliver that ‘simplicity this side of complexity’ in how they develop ideas for the client. The world is orderly and proper. The results of the focus groups point to a particular direction. A quick scan of the market has created this USP. Everyone aspires to that ‘single-minded idea’.

The continual hammering of the K.I.S.S dogma has created an allergy to openly complex and vague but actionable ideas. The desire to translate a program into ROI prior to pulling the budget trigger requires that assumptions be baked into the calculation.

Is it apparent that it has sprung from an attempt to bring a certain comfort to brand managers that are required to show that the program they have paid for will have a return on the organizations investment. But is the rush to prove the possibility of success limiting the chances of actually achieving it?

In preparing that guess, how much discipline has gone into the exploration of that strategy? Do they take the time to explore as many options as possible before landing on the preferred choice? Can we bring more knowledge from the methodologies used in futurism to explore more options and to put those options in front of the client?

Imagine if for every program that was planned it was required to create three to four alternate scenarios. These scenarios would be presented to the client and would be the basis for collaborative program planning. Multiple scenarios would be covered by the smart allocation of tactics that would have multiple roles and failure options built in from the beginning. The program would be able to handle several scenarios – not perfectly of course, but with a high percentage of coverage.

Marketing strategists would be responsible for a much better understanding of the present and of the variables they are beholden to. They would have to develop an ability to look into concepts that are much more nuanced than data. Being able to hold seemingly contradictory statements in the mind without seeking ‘black or white’ resolution would be a necessary skill. Observation and synthesis of seemingly disparate information is critical to parse the current landscape.

“How can you see, most clearly, the environment in which your actions will take place, and how those actions will fit with (or stand against) the prevailing forces, trends, attitudes and influences?” (Schwartz, 1996)

Facing a marketing landscape that is much more powerful than our combined minds, perhaps we need to move away from the pursuit of the rational and of the ‘single-minded-idea’. We need to apply the concepts of foresight and defend fuzziness in the face of the hegemony of data. We need to move towards holding multiple program concepts in an active state through a solid foundation of controlled futurism.

“All the notions we thought solid, all the values of civilized life, all that made for stability in international relations, all that made for regularity in the economy…in a word, all that tended happily to limit the uncertainty of the morrow, all that gave nations and individuals some confidence in the morrow… all this seems badly compromised. I have consulted all the augurs I could find of every species, and I have heard only vague words, contradictory prophesies, curiously feeble assurances. Never has humanity combined so much power with so much disorder, so much anxiety with so many playthings, so much knowledge with so much uncertainty.” Paul Valery (Schwartz, 1996)

Kelly, E. (2006). Powerful Times: Rising to the Challenge of Our Uncertain World. Wharton School Publishing: New Jersey.

Schwartz, P. (1996). The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World. Currency Doubleday: New York.

When it comes to the creation of a brand, there is little doubt that the brand is not built with advertising but is built through PR as per Al and Laura Ries in their book The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. They continue to point out that advertising is best used to maintain the brand over time and prevent erosion. The essential idea behind this is that each channel has its own strengths and as marketers we risk being negligent if we use a channel in a manner that is ineffective.

A truly successful brand finds a new category and creates something that the world has not seen before. In the book ZAG Marty Neumeier calls it radical differentiation. By creating a new category, a product has the advantage of occupying that select new space in the mind of a consumer and creating a new frame of reference. To credibly get in that space, the perceived objectivity of PR is required to establish a beachhead. Once in that space, the continual presence of advertising can be used to reinforce and enhance the construct.

In a recent meeting where we were considering creative ideas one of my coworkers stated that they knew that at CP+B an idea must have the potential to blow the roof off of PR for it be considered a decent idea. There is a recognition that in building a brand (or rebuilding one in BK’s case) you can’t use advertising alone. Based on tweets out of SXSW (via @armano) Alex Bogusky was clear that they “were not giant fans of advertising”.

What about the other channels we have access to? If the future of marketing is about transmedia, what are up against and how can we deploy those channels most effectively?

To set the stage I want to look at cognitive science where there is the concept of framing. It is a theory about the way we encode and respond to our environment. We create a frame around a situation and this frame represents our understanding of how the situation will exist, who will be involved, probable outcomes, and the meaning of each element encoded in that frame. These frames are continuously reinforced as we experience multiple instances of those environmental situations. For example, we all have a frame that corresponds to dining out. Every time we visit a restaurant, that frame is reinforced by the presence of waiters, food, drink, fellow diners, etc.

When we encounter a significant variation to that frame we have two choices: to accept the variation and reframe or to deny the variation and maintain our existing frame. It takes much more work to reframe than it does to deny the variation. And in order for the new frame to stay enriched, it needs to have continual reinforcement.

Our single biggest challenge in marketing is this frame. We are either trying to create a new one (radical differentiation) or we are trying to expand an existing one (a brand extension or a new player in an existing category). In both cases we are up against mental inertia and the ease of denial.

Of course there are exceptions to these general statements – in certain cohorts with a propensity to accept the new and different that frame change can be less difficult. In most cases though we are dealing with a significant challenge. That is why we need to deploy channels in a coherent and coordinated manner that exploits their strengths. Critical to enabling the reframe is delivering the catalytic message in as many relevant contexts as possible over a certain time period. And each channel is better at a different part of the reframing process

From what I have seen, PR is best to start that reframe process by using credible sources to establish a beachhead. Advertising then steps in to support by reinforcing the catalytic message through many mass touchpoints so that the initial frame receives continual incremental reinforcement. Direct response channels (and I include part of digital here) are great at activating behaviours that enable the consumer to physically engage in the new frame. Social media then acts as the ‘social proof’ of the new frame and closes the credibility loop started by PR.

Robert Cialdini speaks of social proof in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. It is the engine behind all social media marketing:

“It states that one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct.”

I want to focus on social media for the remainder of the post as it currently is the darling of the evangelists. In the model presented above it is how you hang onto a brands’ credible position in the collective conscience of the community. If Twitter is ‘social proprioception’, social media as an aggregate plays the inverse role: the collective minds all aware of the brand frame and establishing shared credibility through their interactions.

Clients are taking a cautious approach to the use of the new channel. A recent Forrester report showed that most marketers are budgeting less than $100,000 for social media efforts over the next year. And rightly so; it is still relatively untested and measurement is still more of an art than science. That money is largely coming from experimental budgets. Making effective use of new channels in a way that maximizes their strengths requires a good understanding of those strengths. That understanding is best created using a test and learn experimental approach. The same report also shows that 53% of those same marketers expect to increase spending – meaning that once they learn about it, they can deploy it.

We as a community need to collectively take a deep breath and stop over-evangelizing social media. It is an important part of the marketing mix, but it is and will only ever be a part. In a transmedia universe where we are working to reframe there is no de facto dominant channel or silver bullet. Each channel can have a central role or a supporting role depending on marketing objectives.  We would be smarter if we stopped skewing channel centric – remember, that is what mortally wounded advertising to begin with. As Robert Tas posted about media today:

“Planners and buyers, however, usually specialize in one medium. Unfortunately, this results in agency departments working in disparate silos…on plans for the same client”

Hardly effective.

He goes on to say we need a genuinely integrated solution. We truly need a real transmedia option. Paul McEnany reinforces the point in his post on Social Media Myopia:

“Which is partly why I’m so taken by transmedia planning, and why I don’t consider it just a new branding technique, but the central consideration for the ad industry to not just survive year after year, but thrive through a media landscape that will look much different in 5 years.”

The ultimate acknowledgement of the reality of how we should look at channel use comes from Steve Woodruff in his post on The Disappearance of “Social Media”:

“…social media will simply be…life. Just as it is for many of the teens who have known no different. I wasn’t in the session, but apparently Charlene Li alluded to social media becoming like the air that surrounds us. Exactly… We won’t be talking about “social media” for long, I predict. We’ll simply live in a global networked community.”

I hope we won’t be talking about any dominant channel for long. A networked marketing ecosystem that uses channels based on strengths and that surrounds our consumers needs to be our common goal. This ‘surround’ is the ultimate reframing tool and the key to winning the brand game.

Is there a minimalist approach to marketing, a stripped down version that relies on adaptation, variation, evolution, and a bare framework upon which the consumer builds the experience? Further to my post on incomplete design, I wonder if we can pare back the industry process baggage known as branding and be better positioned for success.

During a recent conversation about experience design with a former coworker, we discussed whether we are really designing the experience or really designing a series of hooks upon which a consumer can generate their own experience. In another conversation the idea came up that branding is like a ‘self-licking ice cream cone’ and has become more bloated and self-perpetuating while it becomes increasingly disconnected from consumers.

Several tweets struck a chord with me on this subject about a week ago. One of the people I follow (@mpwsmith) was at the #MEIC presentation by Brady Gilchrist. The tweets were vivid but one was very compelling “Think mercenary – get lean and kill.” It speaks to the idea of lean and efficient marketing. No heavyweight branding activity because an incredible amount of time is wasted on that activity which has little relative value. If the brand is created in the mind of the consumer based on their experience, is it a conceit to believe we can directly influence that construct with a large and complicated concept?

No doubt the branding purists are rolling their eyes at reading this. The concept of branding is gospel. The work required to develop it has become just as entrenched. Taking clients through the process is a given.

This self-propagating attitude is what George Stalk in his book Hardball calls a compromise:

…is a limitation on customer choice made by the industry…When such compromises are endemic to an industry, customers don’t even see them as compromises. They accept them as “the way the industry works.”

I suggest we break a compromise.

I think we should look at it this way: a great deal more budget should be spent on research, on the problem formulation; in essence the discovery phase. Much less time should be spent on the brand planning, development and ‘big idea’.

More time should be spent on determining adaptation responses, supporting variation, tracking evolution and dynamically measuring to create a constant feedback loop. More time should also be spent to architect the experience flow with the correct hooks.

Less time would be spent on gold plating an idea before sending it to market.

Rather than planning for success, the planning approach would be about planning the ‘fail plan’, how the program will cope with failure and with change. It would set rules for supporting the graceful degradation of the touchpoints rather than the build of the brand message.

I am not suggesting we do branding in completely, nor am I discounting the value of creative and having an ‘idea’ around which to structure the conversation. I think we just need to continue to question the compromises we force on our clients and our consumers and rethink our approaches. We also need to question how we manage a brand out in the market and do less building and more brokering.

UPDATE: A post on MarketingVox about a survey where a majority of CMOs feel that traditional branding is broken.

An overwhelming majority (87%) of US CMOs and marketing managers believe branding initiatives need to be more flexible today than in the past.

Forget the buzz titles. The backlash against ‘social media experts’ has been growing. And rightfully so. Here is a great post from @adamsinger that does a good job of putting it in perspective.

The new world of marketing stragtegy needs to be driven by clear headed realism. We preach to our clients at length about credibility, transparency and honesty when relating with consumers. We should follow our own advice.

Evolution rocks. I am currently working on a project that is adapting to the needs of the community on the fly. Direct feedback from the highly engaged members of the community results in real-time changes to the experience. It is fascinating to watch.

This brings me to a thought space that I have been exploring recently. By redefining failure, adaptation, response, and planning, can you create a new planning and design philosophy that aims for structured incompleteness as a starting point?

I can see the thinking behind this being a combo of lean management, agile methodologies, incomplete design theory, and whole lotta guts. It means building that framework around which the community creates the next version. It means prototype, test and learn. This is happening in the case of Twitter, sites that are in constant Beta, and sites that crowdsource design, but is there a documented repeatable way to approach it? I know there are people out there doing it.

New ideas are my drug of choice. I consume them constantly. I can’t imagine life without learning something new – or being forced to think differently about something. The world is full of great thinkers and thanks to the net it is easier than ever follow the ones you know and to discover new people.

When I wrote about consilience, I wanted to share a belief about knowledge that is close to my heart. I believe it is critical for everybody to learn from as many different knowledge spaces as they can. Modern life requires the ability to synthesize and learn from seemingly disparate topics.

In the spirit of #followfriday I want to share a list of a few of the people I have followed through the years. They are in no particular order – they are simply big thinkers that have enriched my life with what they have created.

John BrockmanEdge.org is the first site I suggest to people I meet, and is the first site I go to when I need inspiration. Hands down the most influential site for me.

Jerry HirshbergHis book is severely dog-eared and deeply informed my thinking about creativity and teams.

Jaron Lanier – Made me think differently. And wildly.

EBN – Many years ago I worked on a show that featured Gardner Post. Funny and brilliant. They pushed my view of media control to a new space.

Daniel Dennett – Set me on the path to CogSci with The Mind’s I.

Douglas HofstadterGodel, Escher, Bach was mindblowing. It also introduced me to The Musical Offering.

Stewart Brand – From my early interest in the Well and the Whole Earth Catalog to How Buildings Learn I have learned a great deal from his work.

OrbitalSnivilisation is #1 on my playlist.

Richard Feynman – For his curiosity and passion.

William S. Burroughs – His book The Adding Machine was the best thing to read in the middle of the Atlantic.

Who are your big thinkers?

A large part of this exploration is to determine the attributes or characteristics of the type of individual that would excel in dealing with the wicked problem we face. The ability to grasp the whole picture at once is critical to being able to face the challenge. And not just grasp the problem, but understand the interrelationships between each of the components in a marketing experience. With so many moving parts, so many balls in the air, keeping a sense of where they are at any given time is a critical skill.

The definition of situation awareness allows us to break the skill into three parts:

“…is the perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.” (Wikipedia, 2009)

Looking at the first part, you can understand that in an air combat context the pilot needs to have the ability to find and track other aircraft in the immediate airspace around him/her. Non-aircraft objects (like the side of a mountain) are also tracked and kept in a mental ‘holding pattern’. It is not until one of the objects exits the theater in some way that the pilot can let it go.

In a fractured marketing landscape the marketing strategist is also required to keep many, many environmental elements in mind as they work towards the resolution of a clients problem. Each channel, the targets, the messaging, the client, the creative, the market, the culture…and so on. The strategist must be able to quickly pick out the salient points.

In the second part, the pilot has to make a quick assessment as to the meaning of the object – is it a threat, how is it operating, what are my options. Being able to grasp the meaning of the object and act on it quickly is the key to success. The pilot must intelligently ignore the irrelevant and focus on that which requires quick resolution.

In the face of the information overload that we currently face, it has never been more important to be able to separate the signal from the noise. Grasping the meaning of a change in consumer behaviour, the appearance of a new trend, the market actions of competitors and so on is critical to achieving success. The key is to also be able to translate that understanding into action that will result in meaningful results.

The third part is about knowing what will happen next. Based on flight path or other signals, a pilot can predict the future state of another aircraft and start preparing the right course of action. Experience leads to a deeper understanding of the possible options and the reactions start to become tacit.

We are all trying to be futurists in what we do. For example, we plan programs based on predictive models or set target conversion rates based on customer behaviour. Planning is really just building a scenario and then acting on it. Research, brainstorming, discovery are all inputs into a scenario – of varying degrees of fidelity. This scenario is then acted upon when the program is produced and delivered.

Those of us that live and breathe in the digital space already exhibit the type of behaviour that builds this skill. Following a large number of people on Twitter demands a certain constant awareness of where others are and what they are engaged in. This has been called social proprioception. I would posit that in a marketing strategy skill context it is better to look at it as situation awareness.

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