Strategists as micro-futurists
The following quote has never been truer in marketing than now.
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.