Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category

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.

Preparations are underway for the next great discussion about the state of marketing strategy. After a slightly-more-than-two-week hiatus to digest the thinking from the last session it is time to spin up the brains again. This time around, the session will be focused on exploring several themes that were distilled from the raw notes of the first session.

As with the last event, I am really looking forward to engaging in some great debate with some phenomenal minds. I highly recommend you follow those that are on Twitter: @douglasreid @markraheja @passitalong @michele_perras @b_co @johnnygagne. The others are not on Twitter yet, but should be soon. This thinking springs from their great minds and the series of events would not be possible without them.

In the continuing spirit of openness, here is some of the summary that was distilled from the raw notes of the last session. Note: it is still mental raw material and there are several more themes to come.
1. Problem formulation
–    Agencies have limited ways to formulate the problem
–    The relationship between uncertainty, fear and risk
–    We need to define failure differently

2. Canvas change
–    Disappearance of the blank canvas that traditional agencies have depended on
–    We now have a dynamic canvas
–    Channels are outpacing the agencies that are meant to feed them
–    Marketed at vs with
–    In a conversation
–    Engagement = journey thinking

3. Agency model
–    Trad agencies have limited ability to adapt or understand big ideas
–    Is there a way to educate the agencies?
–    Digital teams are leapfrogging traditional creative teams
–    Traditional teams are pushing back on digital
–    When there is a problem, they want to circle the wagons – don’t have a plan
–    A lack of integration with the trad agencies
–    Too many layers of bureaucracy
–    Too much short term thinking
Need to be:
–    Open – tech, engagement, process
–    Embrace – systems thinking and humanity
–    Legitimize experimentation
–    Outcome oriented
–    Proper reward systems

4. Strategist profile

What is it about digital that makes the role so strong
–    The platform and agile thinking
–    A sense of engagement and a journey
–    A better ability to adapt
–    Respect for the person you are communicating with, knowing who you are communicating with
–    Who is the story teller? Online, there is a storyteller
–    Identity needs to be severed from the tools of trade
–    Pure play digital works
–    Is it more about repertoire vs the channel you are in?
–    The transdisciplinarian
–    They live with flux, the ground does not stand still
–    Experimental, committed to take a chance
–    To overcome that which is seen as risk
–    What roles are good at orchestrating chaos?

Profile
–    skills to adapt
–    ability to frame problems
–    embracing irrationality
–    focus on outcomes
–    defines failure differently
–    more agnosticism at a low levels in an org

In software testing there are two approaches to designing the test cases that ensure the proper functioning of the system. With black box testing, the internal workings of the system are not known and the test cases focus on the proper outputs based on the inputs. How the outputs were created is not important – it is assumed the system works if the outputs are correct. In white box testing the internal workings of the system are clearly understood and the test cases are built based on an understanding of the code structure.

Let’s call a bluff. How many times have you been dealing with an agency or a team and their cards are played so close to their chest that you have very little insight into their process or thinking. What happens behind the curtain is proprietary. What happens behind the curtain is mysterious. What is behind the curtain is a black box. They outline the inputs required and after a period of time the output is returned.

I suggest we call that bluff and get rid of black boxes. We need to get over the arrogance that allows a team/agency to say “You can’t understand how we do what we do” or “We don’t want you to know how we do what we do”. The absence of transparency hinders our ability to find the common platforms that allow us to work together.

We need a white box revolution. We need people/teams/agencies everywhere to open up their methodologies to the world. We need to give clients and the industry visibility into how we get to the great thinking that they are paying for.  We need to allow objective testing of our process based on an understanding of the internal workings of our teams/agencies.

Unfortunately, this is anathema to how many agencies currently do business. There is this ‘magic’ to the strategic/creative process that is unquantifiable or not observable.   Ideas are generated away from the spotlight by teams that operate on insight. Transparency and measurability are said to constrain the creative process.

In the end though it is all about the fees being supported by the ‘dark art’ process it takes to generate the product. The fear is that visibility into the process would reduce the value of the exercise because it would bring subjective interpretation into the picture.  Fees or timelines could be questioned.

A black box allows for inefficiency, kludges, ‘wizard of oz’ situations, hidden costs, and a multitude of hacks or workarounds that help an agency get to the end goal. So if these musty closets were aired out, I am sure the cleaning crew would be called in within minutes. The safety of the opaque space would be gone and all the ugliness would be right out for everyone to see. Which is a good thing.

Creating a white box culture takes courage, agility, humility, and an openness to failure. It requires confidence and belief in the integrity of your process. It requires collaboration and the desire to learn and work with others. It requires a commitment to change and evolve with the market and with the demands of our customers.

In other words, it is exactly the time of mindset we need to be in to be able to tackle the wicked problem we face.

We need to consider the challenge of paradox.

“The entire realm of strategy is pervaded by a paradoxical logic very different from the linear logic by which we live in all other spheres of life.” (Luttwak, 2001)

In his excellent book Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, Edward N. Luttwak is talking about military strategy and the potentially beneficial behaviour of choosing the least ‘logical’ or inefficient approach to defeating one’s enemy. As I read the book, I realized that a similar paradoxical logic is also one of the factors contributing to the wicked problem we face in marketing.

Traditional marketing planning or strategy assumes a rational logic to the behaviour of individuals within a target group. That assumption is further supported by the use of research results to predict the response to a strategy or tactic. The conceit is that if we can figure out the right attributes of our target or figure out the behaviours of our target that are of highest value, then the plan to trigger the appropriate response is a nearly linear ‘if this then that’. But as we struggle with our challenge, it is becoming clear that the underlying logic of marketing is more and more paradoxical. In trying to control as much as we do, are we setting ourselves up for more failure because it is a Sisyphean goal?

Additionally, as we plan, we try to cover as many bases as possible. When there were limited options for reaching consumers, coordination would have been simpler and outcomes easier to manage. Now that there are so many variables at play, trying to keep a hand on every lever and a finger on every pulse may be impossible.

“…although each separate element in its conduct can be quite simple for a well trained force…the totality of those simple things can become enormously complicated when there is a live enemy opposite, who is reacting to undo everything being attempted, with his own mind and his own strength.” (Luttwak, 2001)

The current mind of the consumer actively works to unwind the efforts of marketers. The increasing level of skepticism, doubt, mistrust, self-knowledge, and sophistication works contrary to the marketer’s goal of finding a clear space to generate a consensual hallucination. While marketers try hard to simplify and fit the consumer into a persona or a segment model, the consumers become increasingly complex and difficult to classify.

We need to accept that the landscape is too complex and that we need to act differently than we currently do. We should consider that in the face of this complex monster we need to have a preference for the seemingly inefficient course of action. Taking the time to gold plate a brand or create an intricate ‘big idea’ may be the wrong approach. Perhaps there is a skeletal framework or a lattice structure that can be just enough for the consumers to build their world around. In paradoxical logic, the less articulated a program is may actually make it better.

Luttwak, E.N. (2001). Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

What does that mean?

That is the first question I am asked by most people when I start discussing consilience. Their brow furrows, they take a moment, and inevitably ask me to explain the concept.

Which is a great pity actually, because the idea of consilience is actually quite powerful. It should be pervasive throughout our society. Unfortunately, the rush to specialization has discounted the value of seeing the links between disciplines. It is true that the massive amount of knowledge about a topic has made that specialization necessary, but we let the pendulum swing too far. It is time to bring it back to the middle.

A recent essay by Denis Dutton illustrates the power of consilience. He is bridging the artificial gap that arose between the arts and sciences to create a view of the world that is as unique as it is rich. I highly recommend you read this essay.

I also recommend you read and reread the introduction by Steven Pinker. One of the top minds in cognitive science, he clearly endorses the movement towards consilience:

I see this as part of a larger movement of consilience, in which (to take a few examples), ideas from auditory cognition will provide insight into music, phonology will help illuminate poetics, semantics and pragmatics will advance our understanding of fiction, and moral psychology will be brought to bear on jurisprudence and philosophy.

We will truly begin to tackle our wicked problem when we can look at the challenge influenced by thinking that is a hybrid of (for example): Michael Porter x Yves Behar x Alice Munro x Damien Hirst x Peter Schwartz x Tim O’Reilly x Paola Antonelli

In a general sense, problems can be defined as either well-defined or ill-defined. Well defined problems have clear objectives and just require the application of the appropriate tools to complete. With ill-defined problems both the goal and the means to get to the solution are not clear. A significant amount of work is required to get either the goal or the process defined in order to begin, but from that point on the problem can be solved.

A particularly nasty variant on the ill-defined problem is the wicked problem. In this case the goal can be very difficult to define, and may shift over time. Determining a stop point can be very difficult as questions can be continually asked and formulation can be a continual exercise. A different process may be required for each formulation and so the process may constantly adapt as well. And as a final kicker, the variable nature of the exercise will always provide a wide variety of possible solutions. (the source for a lot of the info here on wicked problems is a great book: Rowe, P.G (1987). Design Thinking. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT  Press.)

We have a bona-fide wicked problem to wrestle with in the marketing strategy world. I have a feeling it will be a cage match.