Thermodynamic thinking – Learnings from Musk, Munger and Boyd…

Musk Munger

Most of the smart people I’ve come across have one thing in common.

It’s not when they get up, what they eat for breakfast or how little time they spend on social media.

It’s that they read widely. They devour books, articles, journals and anything they can get their hands on.

But it’s not just that they read a lot.

It’s the type of reading too.

From Musk to Munger, the smartest people seek obscure ways of thinking, outside knowledge and dissenting opinions. They try to learn widely from other areas and they look for inspiration from outside their immediate circle. This is the easiest way to avoid the dogma of specialisation.

It also lends itself to ‘thermodynamic thinking’.

Thermodynamic

John Boyd is described by some as the greatest military strategist in history that no one knows. He began his military career as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, but he slowly transformed himself into one of the greatest philosopher-warriors to ever live.

Boyd came up with an approach that revolutionised the military, and has been applied to numerous other areas (including most notably to business) since – the OODA Loop.

It’s a learning system, a method for dealing with uncertainty, and a strategy for winning head-to-head contests and competitions and a guide to thriving in a volatile and highly competitive economy.

Underpinning the whole theory is a fairly simple line of thinking – since we all live in a world of ambiguity and fluidity, any logical model of reality that we hold is incomplete (and possibly incorrect) so must be continuously refined/adapted in the face of new observations. Basically, the world is fluid, so our strongly held opinions and positions need to be fluid too.

Boyd used the second law of thermodynamics to explain why.

According to the law…

The total entropy of an isolated system can only increase over time.

How does that apply to how we think and learn? It’s simple really – if our mind is a closed, isolated system, if we’re not open and constantly seeking out new information, dissenting ideas and new approaches from other areas of knowledge, our knowledge doesn’t expand.

We become stuck.

We entropy.

Think of an isolated Amazonian tribe. They have their way of life. And if they never contact the outside world, thus never learn about other ways to hunt, new things to eat or how to create fire or harness electricity, they’ll continue to do what they’ve always done.

Or think of an entrenched company like Kodak, whose blindspots to attack from outside its immediate realm of interest and lack of lateral thinking ensured that it almost imploded.

According to Boyd…

“By observing and taking into account new information about our changing environment, our minds become an open system rather than a closed one, and we are able to gain the knowledge and understanding that’s crucial in forming new mental models”.

There’s some overlap here with Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ approach. The worst thing we can do is become dogmatic and entrenched in our views.

Open mindedness is vital to growth.

The hammer/nail problem

Charlie Munger agrees. According of the best known and richest investors in history, narrow-mindedness is holding us back.

“Someone who is really smart but has devoted all of their time to being an expert in a narrow area may be dangerous to themselves and others. Examples of this include macroeconomists who study the economy but are disastrous when investing their own portfolios and marketing experts who may think that most all business problems can be solved through marketing.”

As the saying goes, to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Of course, this is all becoming more difficult in the era of social media. Confirmation bias, or the habit of collecting information that conforms to your existing opinion, is built into social networks. We surround ourselves with a cozy filter bubble of our own creation.

But, as Ryan Holiday says, there’s opportunity in reading and learning outside your comfort zone. If you read the same things and think like everyone else in your industry, then you should expect the same average results as everyone else.

However, if you’re always looking for obscure new models, lateral approaches and different ways to solve problems, then that creates an unfair advantage.

Learnings transfer refers to taking what we learn in one context and applying it to another. It means taking previously unconnected ideas and connecting them to create unique thoughts and insights.

Sounds like like a great basis for creativity, innovation and smart business ideas right?

Musk and combinational intelligence

Opportunities abound for those who can develop connections across disciplines. Elon Musk is an excellent example. According to the man himself, he spent his youth reading widely and learning the foundational principles of a variety of areas like war, science and business.

Musk is a master at combinational intelligence. He’s an expert-generalist who studies widely in many different fields, understands the deeper principles that connect those fields, and then applies the principles to his core specialty.

HIs successes with PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX are a result of this incredibly unique mind.

It makes sense doesn’t it?

The more people and fields you can pull from, the greater the likelihood you’ll come up with a new approach to an old problem. People like Faris Yakob, Adam Grant and Mark Earls have made the strong case that good ideas are merely new combinations of old ideas, existing ways of thinking twisted and shaped in different ways.

So the more old ideas you know about, the more unique the combinations will be.

As we build our reservoir of knowledge by learning across disciplines instead of staying within our own silos, we leave ourselves open to thermodynamic thinking.

And in a modern world full of specialisation, that’s very powerful.

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Further Reading:
OODA Loop – The Tao of Boyd
Munger and the pursuit of worldly wisdom
How Elon Musk learns faster and better than anyone else…
The rise of the expert generalist

 

 

 

 

Receptivity, intrusion and the balance between desired and effective advertising…

Having started a new role last Monday, this week has been a fascinating seven days of learning. Learning about clients, new planning frameworks and above all learning the names of my new colleagues! Isn’t that exactly what you want from a new job?

Of all the things I’ve learned this week, one new word that I picked up stuck with me – receptivity.

It’s a bit of a makey uppey planning word, but it’s a nice concept nonetheless.

Receptivity, when used in terms of communications, basically refers to how open people are at a certain time to communications, how receptive they are to being marketed to.

It takes cues from Google’s theories around ‘Zero Moment of Truth‘ – the perfect moment when your consumer is ready to buy and you’re in the right place with the right message (although it’s based around a broader time period than that).

It also overlaps nicely with McKinsey’s recent thinking into the updated consumer purchase journey and the importance of hitting people at the start of their buying journey, when they’re most open and easily swayed.

Receptivity is a brilliant concept. It focuses on understanding your consumer explicitly and tailoring your communications so as not to interrupt them. It’s rooted in the idea of pull marketing and is a lovely empathetic way to look at communicating.

In a world when attention is so short term and fragmented, brand loyalty is a misnomer and and choice is abundant, hitting people at the exact moment they’re most open is a very salient strategy.

But there’s another side to this coin too.

While hitting people when they want to be spoken to is fantastic, we mustn’t forget the dirty secret of marketing and advertising.

We also need to interrupt people.

Sure, it’s not nice to say, and the need to interrupt has diminished as we’ve become smarter over the last decade.

But if we want to keep our brand top of mind, to drive mental availability, then we need to be hitting light buyers who may not even be in market. Big brands need to be speaking to everyone on an ongoing basis. To do that, we often need to look past moments of receptivity and instead utilise moments of interruption.

A recent study into consumer’s favourite channels in which to be marketed to raised a few eyebrows around the industry. Indeed, I shared it on social with my own eyebrows raised, and it cause quite a reaction. According to the study of 24,000 16-49 year olds in a variety of countries, outdoor, cinema and magazines were their favourite formats.

Incredible right? I thought so too.

That was until my ex boss Paul pointed out something that completely changed the way I saw the graph (as is his wont!).

The top three preferred channels are the most ambient, creative or unobtrusive channels. After being asked ‘what formats do you prefer to receive brand messages?’ of course people were going to offer up those that annoyed them the least.

Looking at this in isolation, a kneejerk brand manager could take the opinion that he should be pumping more budget into magazines, cinema and outdoor.

But the question asked biases the response.

People can’t always verbalise the moment at which they’re most receptive, and they certainly weren’t going to ask for more TV, radio, digital display or mobile video ads annoying them online.

What’s my main point here?

Basically, what people prefer and what’s effective isn’t always overlapping.

That doesn’t mean we hit people with more retargeted pop-up ads or non-skippable pre-roll. (No surprise that the latter was found to be the least positive way for brands to market in the same study.) But it does mean we need to balance out our thinking when it comes to channel choice.

Secondly, moments of real receptivity are rare and fleeting. It’s our job as marketers to find those moments, but at times we need to be interruptive and hit people when they’re enjoying something else. That’s part of the job description.

It’s important that we find the middle ground. Advertising has to intrude, but it also has to know its place.

Data taken from Millward Brown Ad Reaction study. 

 

 

 

How can we solve Irish advertising’s other diversity problem?

“Diverse groups of people have better, more innovative and more creative ideas. Diversity is just good business.”

Steven Johnson, ‘Where good ideas come from

“A good way of ridding yourself of certain kinds of dogmatism is to become aware of opinions held in social circles different from your own.”

Bertrand Russell, ‘On avoiding foolish opinions

“Teams solve problems faster when they’re more cognitively diverse”

Harvard Business Review, March 2017

Irish advertising has another diversity issue beyond our shocking gender split and age problems.

It’s a subconscious bias rooted deep within our industry. It’s an issue that has been slowly creeping upon us, as Ireland’s society changes, urbanises and modernises, something that is harming the creative capability of our businesses, biasing us towards certain approaches and creating an unhealthy filter bubble around the industry.

The problem?

We hire too many of the same type of people.

Funnel of talent

Start at the bottom of the ladder and take the way we hire interns as an example. The average internship is low paid and based in Dublin, which is fine if you’re within commuting distance and can afford to live at home.

But what happens if you’re a brilliant young intern from Donegal, Cork or Waterford? The cost of surviving in Dublin, rent, food, commuting, is far beyond the average internship salary. How many brilliant people are we losing to the industry simply because they can’t afford to take an internship?

The result is that the funnel of talent into the industry is overwhelmingly from the Dublin commuter belt, white, liberal, urban, middle-upper class, college graduate range.

Don’t get me wrong. The people coming into the industry from this background are fantastic. Indeed, I’m in that exact demographic, so in theory I should be biased towards them!

But if they’re 90% of new entrants, then we have a problem. It causes a homogeneity of culture to emerge, an accepted way of thinking, and a lack of understanding of the common Irish consumer.

 

Empathy

Not having walked in someone else’s shoes makes it difficult to have empathy with them. We can only project our own thoughts and feelings onto a problem. Sure, we can do all the research we want, and that helps to a point, but your background will always shape you.

Not having people from ethnically diverse, rural, lower income backgrounds, when we’re constantly trying to market to these people, makes no sense.

As my old boss Gary Brown would say,

“don’t forget we’re talking to Mary from Mallow as well as Brenda from Blackrock.”

If I were a recent graduate in 2017, I really don’t know whether I would’ve ended up in advertising like the 2010 version of myself, and I’m a middle class white Irish male from the  edge of Dublin commuter belt.

Luckily, I had enough savings and a family rich enough to support me, plus I managed to get a full time role straight after graduation. But full time graduate roles are the exception to the rule now.

I definitely wouldn’t be in adland if I graduated in 2017, was from a lower income background or from a few degrees further south.

To me, that’s wrong.

Look at it another way. 90% of the interns we hire tend to come straight from university. A degree is certainly very valuable, but it also shouldn’t be a prerequisite to being a brilliant creative, a great strategist or a suave account manager. Again, we’re biasing the opportunities towards a certain type of person, and potentially missing out on a huge pool of talent that can’t afford to go to college, or isn’t academically strong but is a creative firecracker.

Aliens

This is also a self perpetuating problem, a circular issue. If, in 20 years time, there’s only a certain type of person at the top of agencies, then the circle will continue. Because we tend to hire in our own image, support our locality and bias towards our old schools.

As Jerry Daykin said recently, I don’t believe that active discrimination is the problem. But rather a set of systems, norms and subconscious bias that means we’re not doing enough to proactively recruit from outside the typical adland bubble.

All of this is not only discriminatory, but it’s also bad for business.

It biases us towards certain media choices (yes, there are plenty of people out there watching Mrs Brown’s Boys and ‘Dancing With Stars’ who haven’t a clue how to use Netflix). When it comes to media consumption, us young, digital native urban adlanders with great broadband are atypical. As I said at DMX, we’re aliens and the rest of the country are the majority.

It also means we can’t solve creative problems as effectively as we would like. As the quotes at the start of this piece say, having diverse backgrounds means more creative, innovative and faster problem solving. Most of the brands we’re dealing with are nationwide, selling to both Mary from Mallow and Brenda from Blackrock, so it makes sense that we need people with experience outside the adland bubble to inform the solutions.

But what’s the solution? How can we start to overcome this diversity issue and make the industry more empathetic and open to all?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, but I believe there are two ways, an internal approach and and a recruitment approach.

1) Spend more time outside your bubble

What’s the best way for those already in the industry to avoid naval gazing? Getting outside the bubble as much as we can. It’s all great learning about how other people live online, but nothing beats real life contact, the chance to chat to someone eyeball to eyeball or observe situations. In theory, this is easy, in practise, most of us never do it. We get caught up in the office, and don’t know how to ask for time to go and explore.

According to a recent survey, primary research informs less than 2% of creative briefs. For 94% of planners, their main research inputs are “the internet” or other secondary data. That’s not good.

Ogilvy in the UK have taken the decision to get out of London and do some primary research in towns across the UK:

“We’re sending all our planners rogue. Every month, they will get on a train. And visit Bradford. Torquay. Grimsby. North, south, west, east (and we don’t mean Bethnal Green). Bustling urban centres and remote rural outposts. They will go out into the streets and talk to people. Real people. Take a hypothesis. Test it. And report back. Not with PowerPoint slides. But with photos, video, words.” 

Their ‘Get Out There‘ approach is a fantastic idea. Up to now, it seems to be mainly for strategists, but I believe should be expanded to every part of the agency.


Rothco did something similar last year with the ‘Taxi Driver Report‘ too. Another great way to collect disparate, diverse viewpoints and see life from another angle.

In a brilliant post on Linkedin, MEC strategy head Peter Buckley outlines that “best practice for those designing products is to spend at least 2 hours every 6 weeks with the people they’re designing for.” The ‘2 in 6’ rule. That’s a nice approach to take.

Let’s stop thinking of ‘consumers’ and numbers on a sheet, and instead start thinking about people.  

As Jim Carroll says, “we all believe that at its heart good marketing understands and addresses the changing needs and desires of consumers. But we can only understand consumers if we think of them as human beings.”

Getting outside your immediate environment creates novelty and the space for creative thinking. So let’s do that more often eh? After all, a marketer’s secret weapon is simply talking to people.

2) Open the pathway and positively discriminate

The second way to solve this diversity problem is more difficult and debatable. But here are my thoughts.

Let’s start promoting talent from outside the normal routes, offering scholarships and better conditions for talented, ambitious people that otherwise wouldn’t have a hope of entering adland. Like some UK agencies have done, let’s stop prioritising academic success and the university degree so much, and instead bias towards creativity.

You don’t need a degree to be a good fit for advertising.

Let’s treat our interns better. According to a survey by agency Chemistry, the majority of Irish interns are unpaid and a third feel ‘unfairly treated’.

Pardon the French, but this is fucking mental.

We’re in a war for talent with huge, attractive companies like Accenture, Google and Facebook and yet we can’t afford to invest in young talent attraction? Get the finger out adland. 

Chemistry’s new internship approach is fantastic, and Core Media have done a great job with their graduate programme, but such approaches are too few and far between in the Irish industry. Let’s change that.

Positive discrimination is obviously fraught with danger, but if we want to get atypical people into adland, we need to think about it.

In Summary

Wow, that was a rant right? I’ve been waiting to get that off the chest for a while.

One of the key revelations we’ve all been woken up to over the past year (Trump, Brexit etc), is the fact that we all live in increasingly smaller filter bubbles. We seek out opinions and ideas that conform to our own, and fail to engage with a broader spectrum of perspectives, whether they’re wrong or right. In adland, this is particularly pervasive.

I don’t for a second believe that Ireland is as polarised a society as the US or UK. But Irish adland is moving that way, unless we do something about it.

I’ve had a very similar conversation with three leading Irish agency directors recently. All three were very aware of this, along with other, more pressing diversity issues. IAPI have done some stellar work in the area too. There is a desire to change this.

The future is bright, just so long as the future is open and diverse, not closed and uniform.

 

Disclaimer: I completely see the irony of a white, middle class male complaining about discrimination! Age and gender are two far bigger discriminatory issues that need to be tackled first in adland. But the above is a serious issue too. I’ve written this piece because I feel it’s something I have enough knowledge to talk about. 

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Further Reading: