Socrates, BOD and the necessity of constant self reference

Socrates: ‘The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing’

Finian Murphy wrote a great piece on the ‘Agility’ blog this week that struck a chord with me.

As a marketer, it’s almost expected that I have an ego, in fact, the nature of the business is that to succeed, a little ego is probably necessary.

As a brand planner, I’m paid to have an opinion. Understanding the marketplace, culture and the consumer is part of my role, and brands expect me to verbalise that as strongly and succinctly as possible.

As a writer, I always strive to have a strong opinion, backed up as much as possible by logic, research and a good argument. The best journalists make us shift our opinions and open our minds to the other side.

And it’s because of these traits and focal points that Finian’s post really hit home.

For me, being self referential is an absolutely vital trait. As advertisers, we often work towards a confirmation bias, taking a strong opinion on an issue and twisting the logic or research to suit our point.

This can be both dangerous to the clients we work with, but also untrue to ourselves and unprofessional.


Finian raises the issue of cognitive dissonance as:

‘the stress and discomfort we experience when we’re confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values’.

This is a constant in marketing and particularly the planning role (Finian is also a renowned planner in Irish International), and it’s critical that we embrace, rather than avoid it.

In a marketplace that’s so defined by ‘disruption’, looking beyond the accepted norms of what your business or brand means is critical. 


Like Finian, I believe that we must all be willing to be challenged on our views. At the very least, it strengthens our rationale and improves the clarity of our thoughts if we must defend them.

Marc Andreessen wrote a brilliant piece on this a few months back, including this great quote:

‘Existing knowledge often blinds us to the depths of our true ignorance’.

This can lead to irrelevant, unnecessary dogmatism, or as Andreessen frames it, ‘the Smart Person Fallacy’.

True experts in a field are often the ones that ask the most questions and are the most skeptical about their ability to understand. A healthy dose of skepticism isn’t neurotic or unconfident, it’s positively necessary to be a good marketer.

Old Dog

Brian O’Driscoll, the best rugby player and possibly sportsman to ever grace these shores, speaks often about the reason why he found Joe Schmidt so invigorating to his game. O’Driscoll, open to learning and improving every day, found that Schmidt could teach the old dog new tricks even in the twilight of his career.

Often in business we can fall prey to the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ which says that the more we get involved in a project or campaign, the more we invest, the more difficult, and less likely it is that we can see failure impending  and a necessity to turn around or stop.

The concept of ‘pivoting’ is a hot buzzword in the startup game, but knowing when you’re wrong and admitting this can be a very positive thing, if you’re open, intelligent, un-egotistical & truthful enough to do that.

I’ve been told by someone that I admire that business is half arguing like a dog for you opinion, half knowing when you’re wrong and admitting it.

Self reference keeps the dreaded ego in check and can be a vital component in any successful business person’s make-up.

Socrates said that ‘The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing’. Who am I to argue?

You can read Finian’s piece here.