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?

–    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

As a regular reader of Edge I have always been impressed by the list of attendees at the yearly Edge Dinner  (the ‘Billionaires Dinner’) and how John Brockman seamlessly brings these great minds together. Inspired in part by the role he plays in the dinner and on the site he edits I began the conversations that lead to the dinner that occurred last night.

As I mentioned in a previous post, a couple of co-conspirators and I (@passitalong and @markraheja) structured a dinner to discuss the current wicked problem facing the discipline of marketing strategy. We pulled people from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds to ensure we had as many different perspectives on the problem as we could. As the days ticked down to yesterday, I hoped that the event would be as awesome as I thought it could be.

And it was.

From the moment the intros started around the table new ideas were tossed into the arena for discussion. You know things are going to go well when one of the first people to speak says “I want to challenge the problem statement as I feel the issue is much deeper than this”. The discussion went on without a break for about 2.5 hours as the food and wine flowed seamlessly (thanks to Craig for damn fine service). By the end, there was unanimous agreement that we needed to do that again and do it soon.

Many of us were scribbling furiously to get as much down as we could (at one point one of the participants commented that “We should be recording this”). To keep the momentum going we have created a Google Group and have started the process of sharing notes and thoughts with each other. The intent is to eventually release this to the greater community – I firmly believe that knowledge should be shared and that the more minds we can put against the challenge the better. Sharing is also the reason that I want to publicly document as much of this as possible.

Here are just a few of the tangents that came out:

– channels are outpacing the agencies that are meant to feed them

– what roles are good at orchestrating chaos?

– a generation or two of marketers need to die off before real change can occur

– more than a new vernacular, we need a new vehicular language

– identity needs to be severed from the tools of trade

– we need to define failure differently

And there were many, many more. I have seen some of this thinking in other contexts, but last night the raw material started to aggregate. Who knows where this will take us, but it will be an amazing ride.

Amazing like the brilliant dinner I had the fortune to be a part of last night.

I was recently asked to contribute to an eBook by Sean Howard @passitalong . As a fellow big thinker and fan of ideas I was grateful to be asked to contribute to the project. He pulled together an impressive list of contributors: Ellen Di Resta, Gavin Heaton, Mike Wagner, Mack Collier , Mike Arauz, Katie Chatfield, Alan Wolk, Peter Flaschner, Charles Edward Frith, and Matthew Milan.  The result is a very engaging document. Give it a read below.

The Passion Economy

At a recent talk by Jane Fulton Suri I saw several ideas that clearly stated some of the thinking we need to include to wrestle this problem to the ground. But one really stood out as one of the most important. We should all be asking ourselves the following:

What skills, methods and values are common across all disciplines?

It seems reasonable, and almost common sense. But what I liked about it was the inclusion of values in the equation. All too often any exercise that attempts to do what we need to do focuses the majority of its effort on skills and methods. The human element expressed through values is often too unquantifiable for process minded individuals to want to tackle.

We need to stop looking at it from a task, skill or “this is our sandbox” mentality. Communicating common values can create bridges in understanding and can ease the pain of changing a frame of reference. Common values transcend process, role, title, agency, and frame the goal in terms of “What does this mean to me?”.

This week a group of smart people from different disciplines but united by the fact they play a role in the strategic process will be getting together to discuss the challenge laid out in the first post. The conversation will play out over some great food and wine at one of the best restos on Queen East. I am sure there will be some spirited debate as every person attending is not a wallflower when it comes to this topic.

To set up the conversation my co-conspirators (@passitalong and @markraheja ) and I drafted a problem statement and a rough discussion guide. It is not meant to be strict, but more of a guide (and I love tangential conversations as well – they tend to lead to the best thinking). The problem statement is also meant to focus the greater mandate and is under constant evolution. To understand why, see the wicked problem post below.

I firmly believe that to make any headway with this challenge everything must be open – it really goes without saying in this day and age. Here is the guide I sent to the participants :

Problem Statement:

The convergence of Strategy, Planning and Design under the term ‘Marketing Strategy’ in the current fractured market has led to challenging situations where the sum of all efforts is less than the parts.
Confusion and inefficiency/ineffectiveness results from a lack of clarity around how disciplines should work together, what they have in common, and what they are required to create.  Disciplines are being forced to redefine how they impact and bring value to the problems our clients increasingly face. In many ways disciplines have become partially incomplete or are now irrelevant.

There is a need to rationalize this convergence; to come to a shared understanding of how the roles, tools, methods and even language, of these disciplines, must evolve.
This understanding needs to be based on three fundamental platforms:

1. The industry requires a ‘unity of knowledge’

2. We need to be more ‘meta’ in our execution

3. We need to be able to truly deliver in a transmedia manner

Discussion objective:

To validate the problem statement and to discuss ideas that stem from it. Ultimately, the results of this discussion will be shared with the group and will form the foundation for a larger event.

[Delicious food]

Welcome, review of problem statement and objectives
Personal Intros – thoughts on the challenge
Discussion Topic 1: How do we achieve a ‘unity of knowledge’?
Discussion Topic 2: What is the new model for teams/agencies?
Discussion Topic 3: How do we deliver in a fractured landscape?

(Thanks to one of the participants for the great phrase “concerned practitioners”. So, so right.)

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.

This blog is about change. It is about the need for a new way of thinking and working in the discipline I am in – marketing strategy.

The hypothesis is that Marketing Strategy is in a fractured state right now and that it is deeply in need of a renaissance. With the current marketing landscape and the number of different disciplines/roles/processes engaged in defining strategy across so may channels the community needs to rally and begin to look at our challenges and opportunities together.

The thinking has three fundamental platforms: 1. The discipline requires a ‘unity of knowledge’; that currently there are too many silos and a better interdisciplinary approach is the only way to tackle the future, 2. That we need to be more meta; we need to be better at creating an objective approach to our targets and also to redefine the way that agencies engage with each other – a new model and vernacular is required, and 3. We need to be able to truly deliver in a transmedia style; using each channel to its strengths and proper role within the holistic narrative.

I hope to use this blog to share my thinking and to point to great thinking from others. I believe that knowledge should be shared and that the process of change should be open and transparent.

I will also be posting to Twitter on a much more frequent basis. You can search for it under #newstrat or follow me @cuthbertsteel.

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