Marketing in the “Middle”

First published August 1, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In case you haven’t heard, email is dead. In fact, it’s died several times. You could call it the cat of digital marketing, working it’s way through its nine lives. And it’s not alone. Search has died more than a few times. Display was DOA over a decade ago, and has resurrected itself, only to suffer several more untimely demises. In fact, for any digital channel you might care to mention, I can probably find an obituary.

For some reason, we love to declare things dead. We like clarity and finality, and there’s nothing like death for getting an unequivocal point across. Death, by its very nature, should be the final word – except that, in these cases, it almost never is. These channels, like Mark Twain, have had “the rumors of their deaths greatly exaggerated.”

It’s yet another example of how we hate ambiguity. We don’t like being in the middle, drifting between two far off anchor points. It feels uncertain and “mushy”. Humans don’t do well with “mushy”. We prefer predictability. We like to know where we stand, which requires knowing what’s under our feet. The middle represents “terra incognito” – undiscovered and unstable. We know, if we stand here, we have to be prepared to be nimble and fleet of foot.

This tendency comes down to an unfortunate human fragility – we like predictable outcomes, but we suck at making predictions. Not just some of us suck at it – we all suck at it. Philip Tetlock conducted a two-decade study looking at the success rate of “experts” in making predictions in a wide variety of subjects, especially politics. The outcome? Experts come out slightly ahead of coin tosses and chimps throwing darts. Tetlock’s long list of blundered predictions is staggering. Expertise does not lead to accuracy in divining the future. Yet, we still cling to this false hope. We crave a universe that unfolds as it should, or, at least, as we expect it to.

The messiness comes from the complexity of real life. There’s just too much “stuff” happening for us to make sense of it with our limited intellectual horsepower. Evolution, in its blind wisdom, has allowed for that by building in some natural defenses against complexity. We refer to them as instincts, emotions and beliefs. The nasty “gotch ya” in this is that the more we accumulate experience and knowledge, the more inflexible those beliefs and instincts become. We tend to adopt “big ideas” or “macro-beliefs” as guiding principles and philosophical anchors, which become the lens through which we see the world. We trade off open mindedness for expertise. Tetlock calls these “hedgehogs”, from Isiah Berlin’s essay. “Foxes”, on the other hand, draw on a wide variety of experiences to shape their views. They, by their nature, tend to live in the middle.  Tetlock found that foxes have much better track records when it comes to prediction. So, if you want to know what might happen, don’t ask an expert, especially one who is regularly seen on TV. Ask a dilettante – who is much more comfortable with “mushy.”

Ironically, Jim Collins, of Good to Great and Built to Last fame, also taps Berlin for the hedgehog and fox analogies, but he believed that “hedgehogs” are what makes great companies great, because they provide a single objective to focus on – the “hedgehog” concept.

So, who’s right – Tetlock or Collins? The answer, as you would expect in a column on this theme, is that they’re both right. The world is neither a place exclusively for foxes nor hedgehogs. The sweet spot is in the middle.

Nowhere is this truer than in marketing – which has to mirror all the irrationality of human behavior. There are no absolutes in marketing; there is just a lot of mushiness in the middle.  We need hedgehogs for the “big ideas” that make great marketing great. But we also need foxes to help us navigate through middle successfully.  In fact, the more time I’ve spent in marketing (trying assiduously to avoid becoming an “expert”) the more I’ve realized that the middle is where all the action is: between quantitative and qualitative, between strategy and big data, between creative branding and direct marketing, between science and art.

And here, in the middle, we hate to call anything “dead,” because you just never know what might happen.

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