Complexity and Marketing

Complexity and Marketing

"Whenever possible, one should focus on removing fragilizing interdependencies** rather than imposing additional structure and activity that will only increase the fragility of the system as a whole."

--Nassim Taleb, Rupert Read and Yaneer Bar-yam; from the paper, ‘Precautionary Principle’

It is undeniable that we live in a complex environment. Our tools have not made life simpler and actually have made us far more fragile. By tools I mean everything from computerized cars to smart phones. My wife bought an alarm clock and you practically needed a PhD in engineering to set the darn thing. A friend of mine has a 12-year-old son who cannot tell time with a regular clock face…he prefers digital of course.

I was at a show that was billed as a conference for leading entrepreneurs. For three days I attended several presentations and workshops. One workshop was about complexity and how to navigate through it. This post was inspired by the topic and what I believe to be the workshop’s nonsensical approach.

The gist of the workshop was to become a better planner and the presenter had a system, which presumably you could hire his firm to help implement that system. His notion of dealing with complexity was to reduce dozens of brainstormed possible solutions to a numerical probability of success, collectively agreed upon, and choose that path.

The above “solution” is no solution at all. It seeks to limit options through algorithmic reduction. In reality, as the future becomes more uncertain and complex, we need to INCREASE optionality. Imagine you were driving down a road and you did not know where it led. It just kept meandering and you simply were not sure where you were headed.

Now, with an uncertain road ahead, filled with twists and turns (complexity), is it really a good idea to eliminate possible exits from the road? By this I mean, should you reduce the options to get off that road? For me, I rather have a lot of exit options while traveling an unfamiliar road. The more uncertain, the more options (exits) I want so I can turn around if I need to.

Which leads to the purpose of this blog post.

Marketing in a complex, uncertain environment will not be better served by limiting your options. One needs to increase them. This means increasing the number of tests you are willing to commit. I am recommending that you increase the number of bets you make…for tests are all bets.  I also suggest you make smaller bets. Why? Because the cost of failure needs managing more than success needs managing.

Marketers are optimists by nature. We BELIEVE in a successful future. I am not saying you need to become a grim pessimist, but suggest a healthy dose of stoicism is in order. If you crush down the cost of failure while increasing the number of tests, THIS is a recipe for a bright future. Increasing options while crushing down the cost of marketing failure is one way to negotiate a complex environment.

What has gone terribly wrong with marketing in today’s environment is that we find a host of marketing service providers offering solutions that do two things: 1) Increase complexity in the ecosystem, usually with false promises involving Big Data; 2) Add costs to testing, thus increasing the cost of failure

Adding complexity to testing almost always goes hand in hand with limiting options i.e. limiting testing. Adding complexity also adds to costs, so maybe we are actually dealing with one issue and its derivative.  So when a marketer is presented with proposals that add complexity, stop for a moment to consider if the recommended way forward adds more complexity. Complexity has a way of fooling you into believing it helps scale.  Simplicity always scales faster than complexity.

I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. --Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

If you want a few marketing heuristics or rules of thumb, opt for simple, fast and increasing your options and/or tests. And by fast, I am not talking of “real time bidding” which will be for another post. Ultimately, navigating the road ahead is best served by getting to the other side of complexity.

** [Note: What are “fragilizing interdependencies”? A couple of examples may help. If you are 87 years old and live with a 91 year-old person that depends upon you for care…and you depend upon them for your livelihood, both of you are fragile and interdependent. If you build a marketing model based on your ability to predict the future price of pork bellies…and that ability to predict the future is dependent upon thousands of variables that are inherently unpredictable, your model has fragilizing interdependencies.]

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