How to stop professionalising ourselves to death

*** "More than machinery, we need humanity; more than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness."

 - Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator


The corporation has always been an exercise in control, process, and replicability. And indeed much of the corporation - from supply chain management to human resources to legal to logistics to manufacturing to finance to legal - can be subjected to repeatable rules, formulas, and standardised practices. And, in the fullness of time given over to algorithms, A.I., and robots.  The need for control is obvious. As Schumacher put it in his 1973 classic, Small Is Beautiful :

Without order, planning, predictability, central control, accountancy, instructions to the underlings, obedience, discipline – without these nothing fruitful can happen, because everything disintegrates."

But when we succumb to the fantasy that we can professionalise creativity, that we can extract the play, unpredictability, and human element out of the process, that it can be treated like the manufacturing process, repeatable and reliable in its methods, and predictable in its outputs and outcomes, then things will always take a turn for the turd-like.

Of course when the legitimate instinct of the corporation is towards the repeatable, the reliable, and the predictable, there is no shortage of enablers and exploiters. MBA courses pretend that culture does not exist and offer little schooling in the psychology of human and consumer decision-making.Marketing degrees promise to reveal the (repeatable, reliable, and predictable) rules of marketing. Off-the-shelf research methods promise to have divined the secret of how advertising in all its forms must work. Salivating at the prospect of universal ‘laws’ lazy readers misinterpret the creative implications of marketing scientists. 

Marry all this to shrinking rates of time preference, the corporation’s understandable intoxication with the promise of automation (marketing included), and it is perhaps little wonder that we succumb to the illusion that creativity can be treated like any other part of the manufacturing process.

(By way of a side note, some advertising tasks - most obviously direct marketing - can be reduced to a If This Then That. But what works for converting existing interest or intent into purchase does not automatically translate into what works for exciting the indifferent, creating that interest, or indeed, for sustaining pricing - the oft-overlooked turbocharger of profit creation. Something that digital platform owners for the most part utterly fail to appreciate).

This isn't nostalgia for some non-existent Golden Age of advertising, nor is some kind of wistful romanticisation of creativity that wishes the hard realities that facing businesses did not exist. It’s about good business practise.

For once you squeeze out creativity’s ability to surprise, disrupt and delight, once you’ve taken human imagination out of the equation, you’re entirely reliant on buying as much timely, well-located, well-branded real estate as you possibly can.And as analyses by both Nielsen and the IPA have shown, you’re going to have to spend in excess of your current market share if you want to see any growth. Some lazy readers have bastardised or skim-read the work of marketing scientists to arrive at the belief that well-branded, broadly distributed wallpaper is all that is required. But the simple truth is that as Binet and Field have shown, creativity makes marketing monies work harder.Something that surely even the most hard-nosed of CFOs would surely welcome.

The retreat into formula, best practise, rules, and standardised solutions while it might feel all Serious And Grown Up is in truth a form of communal death, or at least a harbinger of fading vigour. As the social science writer John W. Gardner wrote in hisbook Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society:

When organizations and societies are young, they are flexible, fluid, not yet paralyzed by rigid specialization and willing to try anything once. As the organization or society ages, vitality diminishes, flexibility gives way to rigidity, creativity fades and there is a loss of capacity to meet challenges from unexpected directions. Call to mind the adaptability of youth, and the way in which that adaptability diminishes with the years. Call to mind the vigor and recklessness of some new organizations and societies — our own frontier settlements, for example — and reflect on how frequently these qualities are buried under the weight of tradition and history.”

So what are we to do? How are organisations and outlooks to remain flexible, and fluid? How are they to avoid becoming paralysed by rigid specialization and unwilling to try anything once? How do we preserve the adaptability, vigour and recklessness of youth? How are we avoid professionalising ourselves to death?

Eight thoughts.  

1. Like and respect the consumer

The empathy deficit that afflicts so much of marketing encourages us to treat the whole process like a manufacturing one in which the consumer is but a part. It is hardly surprising. When we’re not locked behind a screen we’re locked in meetings.For many of us, ‘the customer’ is now a entirely theoretical construct. Worse, one that being “average” is so much less intelligent than we (ultra-intelligent holders of marketing and business degrees!) are. The few moments of real world contact are reduced to putting people in an observational tank subjecting them to stupid questions and calling it ‘learning’. To bastardise the famous words of Jacques Cousteau, only studying people in focus groups is like only studying dolphins in captivity.

If only marketing had as high a regard for its audience and George Saunders does for his reader:

We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion. And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.”

People are not mute, passive subjects upon which advertising exerts its 'force'. They're experienced, complicit, intelligent consumers of marketing communications. If we deny that truth, not only are we horrible people, but we have no hope of creating excellence. Empathy and a sense of duty towards the consumer is the first virtue of the marketer, and without it, he or she is nothing.

2. Abandon the very idea of orthodoxies and unified theories

Whatever research vendors and inherited wisdom might tell us, there is no one way in which communication works. No-one makes this point better than Gary Duckworth. In his 1995 paper 'How advertising works, the universe and everything', he takes aim at the notion that “how does advertising work?” is even a valid question. Twenty years later and its still one of the best, most sage pieces written on advertising. and it is worth quoting at length:

'How does a bicycle work?' looks like a perfectly reasonable question. We probably feel we could make a stab at getting it right - maybe if we read a science or mechanics textbook. It is also likely that we could rapidly arrive at a form of explanation where most people would agree, and what is more (which may seem obvious, but is in fact interesting for our purposes) our answer does not change depending on which bicycle we are discussing, or where the bicycle is. We do not have to say - well, on a flat stretch the way it works is, whereas on a hill what happens…

Questions like 'how does a bicycle/the internal combustion engine/a lightbulb work?' belong to the world of physical, mechanical operations, the world of empirical science, of Newtonian physics where bodies are acted on by forces, and movement is created, energy emitted or whatever…

When the How Does Advertising Work (HDAW) question is asked, the questioner or the person answering frequently assume that the territory we are operating in is 'How does a bicycle work-land.' We are operating in the discourse of Newtonian metaphor. The assumption is not usually made explicit. I am sure people even know they are making the assumption. But the attempt is made to construct an answer as if a Newtonian species of reply would be appropriate - as if we can construct a total explanation of advertising, analogous to the way that we can construct a total explanation for the bicycle…

One of the business consequences is that we get companies with greater and lesser degrees of sophistication, promoting 'we can tell you if your advertising is working/will work-ometers'. After all, if we have at the back of our minds the presumption that there really is a way in which advertising (in general) works, it makes sense that there should be a meaningful methodological apparatus into which we can (in general) slot an ad, go through the motions, crank the handle and emerge with a 'measurement' of the 'force' our ad will 'exert' on our target.

We get advertising philosophies which pervade some companies, and some agencies, which are mechanistic and process-driven, believing that if we follow the 'process' we will automatically get a predictable 'result'. (In the same way that at school in physics I did experiments where trolleys on ramps were repeatedly subjected to precise forces and produced predicted accelerations.)”

Orthodoxies, models, best practises and universal theories might make life more simple and obviate the need for independent thinking. But whatmakes for efficient time management all too easily squanders creative opportunity. In his survey of advertising history and thought,  The Anatomy of Humbug, Paul Feldwick concludes that:

There is much more possible diversity in ways of thinking about advertising than we normally allow... we could use this diversity to give us greater scope ion what we do. For all its talk of 'creativity' and 'thinking outside the box', the ad business today is in danger of losing its diversity. Creative people and marketing people alike each go to the same schools, learn the same things, and the same things they learn are too often a third-hand mash-up of Reeve's USP theory and Bernbach's vague creative rhetoric.  But in creating ads, we still have the full resources of human culture at our disposal.  Ads don't need to look like they were written by Bernbach sixty years ago, or like last year's Cannes winner".

I can think of few better starting points than Paul's book for marketers wishing to liberate their minds from what Rory Sutherland has characterised as "the deeply-rutted convictions of earlier times".

3. Make dissent safe

Organisations will always provide reward for conformity. As Cass Sunstein, Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, has written:

In the real word, people will silence themselves for many reasons. Sometimes they do not want to risk the irritation or opprobrium of their friends and allies. Sometimes they fear that they will, through their dissent, weaken the effectiveness and reputation of the group to which they belong. Sometimes they trust fellow group members to be right.”

The rewards of dissent are far less certain, but they can have enormous value.

When it comes to group decision-making for example, studies have demonstrated how the existence of even just one dissenting voice can dramatically reduce both conformity and error and that without the existence and voicing of dissent, we lay ourselves open to potentially limiting and sometimes downright dangerous phenomena.

Without the voice of dissent we will very often use the decisions and actions of other people around us as the best source of information and guidance on what to do. In other words, we follow the behaviours of the herd.

Similarly, without the voice of dissent, so-called ‘social cascades’ can occur, in which social groups blindly pick up and mimic the behaviours of other groups without actually examining the information they themselves hold.

And without the voice of dissent group polarization can occur. In this phenomenon, our tendency towards conformity means that when it comes to collective decision making processes, group members end up exaggerating their in-going tendencies and taking an even more extreme position.

Lest those in business circles dismiss this dissenting stance as purely the whim and indulgence of mad scientists and wayward artists, it should be said that phenomenon of material and economic advancement is too, by its very nature, an act of dissent.

As Professor Sunstein has observed, the economic success of the United States is due to a culture of openness that enables and encourages the act of dissent that is innovation. Similarly, Jacob Bronowski observes in his history of Western thought, that the most creative periods of human history have tended to be those in which this spirit of intelligent dissent was welcomed.

Ideas, progress, and innovation are by their very nature fundamentally rely on the spirit of dissent, and the refusal to accept common practice, received wisdom, and widely accepted norms. This is the spirit that chooses not to conform to the prevailing opinion, and has enough courage and internal resources not to need to seek out the good opinion of others. It that recognises the inescapable truth that if everyone is agreeing, then the chances are that bad decisions risk being made.

Dan Wieden characterised this dissenting, unconstrained and untamed spirit "chaos", and in a talk to the agency talked of how it challenged authority:

[Chaos] cares more about truth than power. Political figures are fascinated with the agency and some, like Senator Bill Bradley, have come by on a fairly frequent basis, just to share a meal, get our sense of things. I remember the first time Bradley spent a couple of hours in our conference room with about a dozen freaks from the agency. Clinton had just been elected, and Bradley was being considered for Secretary of State. He wasn’t there to lecture, or press the flesh, but to listen. It was a fascinating meeting, very frank, wide ranging. When I drove him back to the airport, he said, “what an amazing group of people. So young, so bright, so well informed. But I gotta tell you what was most astonishing was the complete lack of deference…to you, to me, to anyone.” He wasn’t complaining, he was just mesmerized by the informality, the absence of authority."

If organisations truly wish to be engines of sustained inventiveness and progress, then they must make dissent safe. And in that, culture (to which I will return later) is the only solution.

4. Do not learn from testing vendors

Research is the practise of open-minded enquiry. To seek to know how things work. To strive to understand how they work they way they do. Purveyors of off-the-shelf testing methodologies have no such agenda. They’ve already determined how things should work. Their focus is evaluating your efforts against that. Their business model is predicated on replicable methods and outputs - and making lots of money from that.

Treating them like universities and institutions of learning is ill-advised. If you’re learning best practise from testing vendors you’re learning from the wrong people.

5. Do not learn from marketing scientists

Marketing scientists have much to teach us about how markets functions, how brands grow, and how consumers behave. All this is invaluable. But do not look to them for profound guidance on the creative application of their expertise. Just because a person can dismantle a bicycle into its constituent parts does not mean that they know how to build a bicycle.

6. Fear the obvious

Marketing long ago elevated ‘relevance’ to near sacred status, and in the icon and words of Bill Bernbach, it even has its high priest and holy incantation:

At the heart of an effective creative philosophy is the belief that nothing is so powerful as an insight into human nature, what compulsions drive a man, what instincts dominate his action, even though his language so often camouflages what really motivates him.”

Relevance to our minds, unlocks everything.But we approach being interesting or different with much less reverence and obsession. Yet good strategy does what the competition does not, cannot, or dare not do. The more we treat the development of creative solutions as a step-by-step process, the more we subscribe to standard orthodoxies, the more our outputs will look like every body else's. Organisations and individuals need to develop as Sutherland puts it, "a paranoid fear of the obvious" to complement our pursuit of relevance.

7. Create adaptive mechanisms.

If are organisations and their outlooks are to remain flexible and fluid rather than be paralysed by the illusion of professionalism, they need to allow forthe free and natural flow of people and ideas. And on this, the business theorist Arie de Geus has a useful perspective on howa organisation - as distinct from an individual - learns. This is a story from his book The Living Company.

Allan Wilson, was a late professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California at Berkeley.According to Wilson’s hypothesis, an entire species can improve its ability to exploit the opportunities in its environment. Threeconditions he argued, are necessary. First, the members of the species must have and use the ability to move around, and they must flock or move in herds rather than sit individually in isolated territories. Second, some of the individuals must have the potential to invent new behaviours - new skills. And third, the species must have an established process for transmitting a skill from the individual to the entire community, not genetically but through direct communication. The presence of those three conditions, according to Wilson, will accelerate learning in the species as a whole, increasing its ability to adapt quickly to fundamental changes in the environment.

To test his hypothesis, Wilson revisited a well-documented account of the behavior of titmice and red robins in Great Britain. In the late nineteenth century, milkmen left open bottles of milk outside people’s doors. A rich cream would rise to the tops of the bottles. Two garden birds common in Great Britain, titmice and red robins, began to eat the cream. In the 1930s, after the birds had been enjoying the cream for about 50 years, the British put aluminium seals on the milk bottles. By the early 1950s, the entire estimated population of one million titmice in Great Britain had learned to pierce the seals. However,  the robins never acquired that skill. Being territorial birds, not social ones, they lacked the necessary social system for propagating innovation.

The implications for the organisation would seem to be clear. Hire for social and collaborative skills. And blow up the silos and processes and attitudes that prevent sharing and collaboration.

8. Let go

The theoretical physicist Professor Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute is interested in the subject of vigour and has been turning his attention from scaling effects in the natural world to the causes of corporate mortality and the dynamism of cities. And the contrast between how cities and corporations operate is instructive.

Professor West's analysis of the workings of cities reveals how cities scale sub-linearly. In other words if you double the population of a city, the networks that support it (number of gas stations, length of roads and electrical cables, etc.) do not double, but increase by 85%. A systematic saving of 15%.

However where West’s analysis gets really interesting is that the social and economic dimensions of a city (wages, patents, GDP, etc.) all appear to increase super-linearly with city size. In other words when we move to a city that is twice as large, we become, on average, 15% more wealthy, more productive, more creative. And we do this using a fraction of the infrastructure.

For West the engine of this super-linear growth is the fact that cities are homes of extraordinary diversity:

The thing that is amazing about cities is as they grow, so to speak, their dimensionality increases. That is, the space of opportunity, the space of functions, the space of jobs just continually increases. And the data shows that. If you look at job categories, it continually increases. I'll use the word "dimensionality."It opens up. And in fact, one of the great things about cities is that it supports crazy people. You walk down Fifth Avenue, you see crazy people. There are always crazy people. Well, that's good. Cities are tolerant of extraordinary diversity.”

In contrast, as they grow companies allow themselves to be dominated by bureaucracy and administration over creativity and innovation, strangling variance and diversity - in effect their own death warrant.

The solution quite obviously lies not in more or different mechanisms of control, but in resisting their stranglehold on both minds and ways of working. Here is Geoffrey West again:

Think about how powerless a mayor is. They can’t tell people where to live or what to do or who to talk to. Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.”

The exercise of control will eventually kill a company. The protection and nurturing of culture, is its only hope.

One more thing

I cited Schumpter at the beginning of this piece:

Without order, planning, predictability, central control, accountancy, instructions to the underlings, obedience, discipline – without these nothing fruitful can happen, because everything disintegrates."

But it is what he goes on to say that really matters:

And yet – without the magnanimity of disorder, the happy abandon, the entrepreneurship venturing into the unknown and incalculable, without the risk and the gamble, the creative imagination rushing in where bureaucratic angels fear to tread – without this, life is a mockery and a disgrace.”

If the marketing organization is to stay flexible, fluid, willing to try new things once, if it’s to remain vigorous, and adaptable, if it’s not to become buried under the weight of best practice, benchmarks, process and inherited ‘wisdom’ then it’s going to need to cast certainty to one side, stop pretending we can professionalise what resists codification, and stop taking it (and ourselves) so seriously.

Or as Professor West puts it, “Allow a little bit more room for bullshit.”



Les Binet and Peter Field, The Long and the. Short of It. Balancing Short and Long-Term Marketing Strategies

Jacob Bronowksi, The Western Intellectual Tradition: From Leonardo to Hegel

Gary Duckworth, 'How advertising works, the universe and everything', Admap, January 1995

John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society

Arie de Geus, The Living Company

Stephen King, 'Practical Progress from a Theory of Advertisements', 1975

George Saunders, 'What writers really do when they write', Guardian, 04.04.17

Cass R. Sunstein, Why Societies Need Dissent

Rory Sutherland, 'Marketing to confuse the competition'

Geoffrey West, The Universal Laws of Life and Death Scale In Organisms, Cities And Companies