In Praise of Reductionism
Coherent in output
Ideas don’t work through the communication of single-minded verbal propositions. They work through emotions and coherence. Whatever the copytesters might tell us, most ideas aren’t experienced and decoded in the real world as single-minded messages. Nor are they retained in the mind as as single-minded messages. They work through the creation of associations - they create new connections in the brain.
Paul Feldwick reminds us that great works of art don’t work as reductionist ideas. Where’s the single-minded idea in a painting by Kandinski, or Bach's B Minor mass? But they do have purpose, meaning, significance and persuasive power. Because our minds are pattern seekers and creators.
These days many of us are doing more than just creating telly ads. We’re creating experiences that live online, offline, and across the line. We’re creating long-form content not just short-form. We’re creating products and services. We’re creating sustained, long-term platforms for engagement, not just expendable campaigns. We’re giving consumers things to muck around with themselves, not simply directing marketing content at them.
And while the experience of them may (if they’re good) amount to something coherent and meaningful, many of these things are as impossible to reduce down to a single reductionist thought as it is to reduce a Rothko mural down to something pithy and single-minded.
Reductionist in input
But we’ve been describing the output. And woe betied the strategist who confuses the nature of the output with the nature of the input. Complexity and richness of output does not excuse muddled or vague thinking as input.
While coherence is something very different from single-mindedness or consistency, it most certainly is about fit. It’s about things fitting seamlessly, purposefully and meaningfully together. So coherence isn’t an argument for randomness or lack of focus.
You don’t get to a coherent brand by throwing discipline and direction out of the window. Coherence is built out of choice, not idle gambling. And unless there is a clear sense of what the point of it all is, the results are likely to be the proverbial dog’s dinner.
Before getting to something coherent, you need to reduce.
We need to reduce because we are oversupplied with possible choices. And while the pool of strategic and creative possibilities is vast, neither the creative individual nor the corporation has infinite resources (time, money, attention) at their disposal. We cannot do everything for everyone.
So strategy still needs to focus and prioritize. It must still be able to simplify and synthesize. It must provide a clear filter for evaluating possible solutions:
What precisely is the problem we’re solving?
What exactly is the behavior change we’re wanting to stimulate?
Who exactly do we want to stimulate this amongst?
What precisely is the role of communications in solving this?
Great planning for my money starts with problem defining before it ever touches possible solutions. Adrian Holmes was find of saying that “a great solution requires a great problem.” There are certainly strategists who can cut through the bullshit, ambiguity, complexity and myriad of choices, data and perspective like a knife through hot butter. That can clearly and precisely express - whether through the spoken or written word - what precisely we are trying to solve.
Yet this entire post would be completely obvious and utterly redundant were it not for the fact that there are plenty of strategists who evidently cannot. Or who don’t have much interest in it.
Robert Bean in his book makes a powerful and vivid case for reductionism:
“That brutal, ruthless, editorially-minded, scythe-wielding seeker of the Fundamental Truth. The absorber, stripper, truncater and reconstituter of information that was previously confusing for the rest of us yet, in his studied grasp, is reduced to something not just meaningful but motivating too. What an equal act of creative genius. What woefully under appreciated, under acknowledged and under-valued form of creativity.”
Strategy must still decide what NOT to do. Strategy as the old saying goes, is sacrifice. So hurrah for the scythe-wielder. And shame on any strategist who confuses output for input and is not able to fuel the creative process with choice, focus and purpose.
Robert Bean, Winning in Your Own Way: The Nine and a Half Golden Rules of Branding
Paul Feldwick, ‘Exploding the Message Myth’, http://www.thinkbox.tv/server/show/nav.1015