The inimitable Christopher Hitchens once famously pointed out that, while everyone may have a book in them, that is also usually where it should stay. As hard as it was to disagree with him on any topic, on this one it was – and remains – impossible.
For every grand master of writing, there is a seemingly endless stream of authors whose skills, clearly, lie elsewhere. Gravel-collecting, perhaps.
In the world of business columnists, Hitchens’ rule is taken to the extreme. Books at least provide a threshold; column inches much less so. Due to an over-reliance on page visits, many of the top outlets of yesteryear have gone the route of quantity over quality, thereby providing a platform for second-rate ‘industry experts’ who you wouldn’t trust to sit the right way on a toilet seat.
As a result, readers (for good reason) flock to specific writers. The best, such as Scott Galloway and Mark Ritson, are forces of nature with as sharp a wit as a mind. They have a high propensity for clarity, a low tolerance for bullshit and will tell you what you need to hear whether you like it or not.
Importantly, they have also been there, done that, have the T-shirt and the photograph, and thus bring an undeniable amount of clout. There are two opinions – theirs, and the wrong one.
However, as much as we all need such lighthouses to navigate the stormy sea of nonsense that is the discourse of our industry, theirs is not the only approach, as the perpetually brilliant Rory Sutherland consistently shows us. Instead of painting in monochrome, he regularly asks us to consider nuance.
It is, in a sense, a more difficult game. Most of us crave binarity and being told what to do, so that we can do it (hence Sundays are sacred, not just one day out of seven). Rory seldom provides any. Rather than strive to be correct, he aims to be interesting.
If this comes across as unashamed fanboying, well, that would be because it is. Rory is simultaneously one of the nicest and most intellectually intimidating people I have ever met. The man is an unquestionable genius who sees things the rest of us mortals are quite simply incapable of.
One of his most famous observations is that the value something adds is often other (or greater than) the core function in serves, even if we often fail to immediately recognise it. An automatic door, he notes, is “no substitute for a hotel doorman because the role of a doorman encompasses functions beyond opening the door, such as recognition, security and signalling the status of the hotel”.
No simple answers
When it comes to decision-making in business, such psychological insights are invaluable, particularly to combat dangerous reductionism. To illustrate, as the current pandemic has many of us working from home (a privilege, it is important to realise), self-proclaimed thought-leaders are claiming it means that companies, post-coronavirus, should abandon the traditional office.
This line of reasoning falls into the doorman trap. Offices have many more uses than mere work, as anyone currently trying to be productive at home with a small child would likely agree.
Within marketing, it is imperative to take both the macro and the micro into consideration, not least because it allows us to see the full picture. But it also provides the foundation for acceptable strategic evaluation.
One of the most common mistakes that marketers make is to forget that brands don’t act in a vacuum, but in a complex, competitive space filled to the brim with randomness. This means that the outcome of an action taken is partially, largely or wholly out of our control. Thus, the only way to avoid analytical traps such as halo effects is to judge the decision made based on what the decision-maker knew, and could have known, at the time.
Most of us crave binarity and being told what to do, so that we can do it.
In theory, evaluating the quality of the decision rather than the result of it after the fact, is a relatively easy concept to understand. In practice, it is entirely counter-intuitive to most. Such is humanity – we judge ourselves on our intentions, but everyone else on their behaviour.
In order to qualify as a solid strategic decision, in marketing as in any other field, two conditions must be fulfilled. Firstly, we must understand the forces at play – the rules and the exceptions, and how they apply to our brand’s specific internal and external context. Secondly, we must be aware of how our subconscious might lead us astray. People in the know will recognise this as the Munger Two Step, named after Warren Buffet’s legendary partner Charlie Munger.
For example, there is ample evidence to suggest that maintaining or increasing spend during a recession is a strategically sound idea. It often is. But much like how a current investment increase may net cheaper excess share of voice due to an overall vertical decline in spend, an investment decrease may allow the brand to maintain share of voice for the very same reason.
And money is a finite resource. Without knowing the financial reality of the individual brand, it would be impossible to say which decision would be the correct one.
But biases also steer our interpretation of said contexts differently depending on what we would like to be true. If you work within the marketing department, all things being equal, confirmation bias would likely lead you to recommend spending. If you work within the finance department, all things being equal, confirmation bias would likely lead you to recommend saving. Either could be right, but that also means that either could be wrong.
Both aspects – the context within which the decision is taken and the pitfalls of the decision-making process itself – are essential to understand. Which also goes to show why it’s so important to read both the likes of Galloway and Ritson, and the likes or Sutherland. We need to understand our brands and our brains alike. We need the black, the white and all colours in-between.
Now perhaps more than ever.
JP Hanson is the chief executive of international strategic consultancy Rouser and a marketing keynote speaker.