Wednesday, June 6, 2018

No one knows why.

Only 94%? That means 6% of CFOs wouldn't spend money to make money?

Having spent 97 years of my life in advertising, what's become more and more apparent to me is this: No one, no matter how eloquent, no matter how confident, no matter how loftily titled really understands the causality of anything.

No one can legitimately say they can make marketing communications an "if/then" proposition. That is, if you do X then Y will happen.

In fact, to go macro on you, in virtually every sphere of your life--from national politics to your relationship with your significant others--I'd guess that there's very little you can if/then.

My wife might say, "If I make George his favorite meal, then he'll be less grumpy." But she'd probably be wrong. Because there is no inevitable causality between my favorite meal and my grumpiness. I might love great brisket, and it might usually make me happy, but there's a good chance it can be overshadowed by a really crappy day.

Just as the Beatles might have said, "Imagine if we had a better drummer, then we'd have had more hits." But there are no guarantees there, either. A better drummer might have destroyed their chemistry.

In marketing, at least since the advent of the direct marketing wing of the business, causality has been our Holy Grail. Seemingly smart, seemingly well-intentioned people propagated rules that, they said, guaranteed success. If you write a long letter you'll get better response. Or if you write a short letter you'll get better response. And so on.

Reality of course lives a great distance from science. The truth is nobody--in any arm of the business--knows what will work when, and if it worked once that it will work again.

I'm not saying marketing and, in general, decision making are mere guesswork. There are smart things you can try. But even having tried those so-called smart things, there's no guarantee you won't fail.

You can do everything right and still turn out wrong. You can do everything wrong and still wind up right.

The best TV spot ever, Apple's "1984," was followed by one of the worst, "Lemmings." Sometimes you do things right and succeed. Sometimes you do things right and fail.

It's not that people are dumb, or they don't care, or they aren't trying, it's just that no one really knows what's going to succeed and why it may succeed. 

In other words, there's no science to marketing science. If there were science, why would anyone ever fail?

Throughout human history, people--charlatans really--have sold to the gullible (everyone) the notion that they have figured out the whims and caprices of people and markets. Bernie Madoff, for instance, knew how to beat the markets, remember?

But there's no secret formula or equation or recipe. And there's no trusting people who claim there are.

Which brings me, as usual, to a quotation found in Czeslaw Milosz's great book, "The Captive Mind."

"When someone is honestly 55% right, that's very good and there's no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it's wonderful, it's great luck, and let him thank God. But what's to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever says he's 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal."
By the way, you may want to check out this new book, "The Book of Why." I read the review in yesterday's "Times" and it sounds promising.

No guarantees, however.

There never are.

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