I’ve spent 20 years in marketing. Every year I discover new things that make me seriously question the beliefs I’ve previously held. Question the decisions I’ve made along the way. It’s pretty humbling.
Been lucky though. Was tasked to manage some truly wonderful brands. To create new ones. To take a stab at troubled ones. Was given the opportunity to build a marketing lab. To create hundreds of experiments. Test theories. And I got up-and-close with some of the world’s finest marketers. Incredible people that challenged and changed how I think.
Had some successes. And failures. For sure. While I’ve enjoyed the pleasure success brought, the failures are more interesting. To be absolutely clear on this - I’d rather not fail. Nobody wants to. I don’t care what they say. But we do fail. More than we admit. Often more than we even know. I’m convinced that our failures teach us more about our own decision-making than our successes do…if we let them.
If I were pushed to offer up just one way to improve decision-making, it would be this: Focus on how you and your team react to discovering you are wrong. This I believe is the critical distinction between what I call ‘fox marketers’ and the rest of us. If you genuinely enjoy understanding why something didn’t work and why your mental model was wrong, you will improve your decision-making. If you find it threatening, I’m betting you won’t.
Here’s the rub. Knowing why we make mistakes doesn’t alway stop us from making them. As you’ll see. But I believe you’ll improve your odds. Improving our odds is what decision-making is about. In 1951, Isaiah Berlin wrote ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’. The book divided the great thinkers of the world into hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs believed in having a big unifying idea that explained everything. They have a single central vision that they see the world through. They can explain everything through their ideology. Foxes, on the other hand, pursue many different ideas. Scattered. Often unrelated. Even contradictory. No single ideology or theory on how things work. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
Dante was a hedgehog. Plato, Pascal, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Proust - all hedgehogs. Foxes includes Shakespeare, Aristotle, Montaigne and Joyce. Tolstoy was, according to Berlin, a fox by nature, but believed in being a hedgehog.
I’ll pause here to clarify that I can add absolutely nothing to Berlin’s categorisation of the world’s big thinkers. I’d struggle to even pronounce half of these names. My interest in Berlin’s categorisation is due to a man called Philip Tetlock, a political forecaster and author. When it comes to understanding prediction and better decision-making, all roads lead to Professor Tetlock.
Tetlock analysed the characteristics of political forecaster experts. He found that they fall into two groups. One group tended to organise their thinking around big ideas or ideologies. Some were socialists. Others in favour of a free-market. Others still favoured state control. But the common thread was that their thinking was ideological. They would always find a way to explain what happened or what would happen through their ideology. For things that their theory couldn’t explain, they discarded as irrelevant distractions. Tetlock dubbed this group, the ‘hedgehogs’.
The other group were more pragmatic experts. The foxes. These experts relied more on observation than theory. Had multiple unrelated ideas and approaches. Used many different analytical tools. They chose the appropriate tool depending on the specific challenge. Gathered as much information from as many sources as they could. Talked in possibilities and probabilities. Not certainties. And - hugely important - they changed their minds when the data conflicted with their initial view. What Tetlock found was foxes were better forecasters.
Predicting how people will respond to our marketing initiatives is difficult. There are few laws that give us predictable results every time. Isolating and measuring the full effect of our activity is not easy. You might not know for months. Even years. We often don’t even know afterwards, let alone predict in advance with any level of certainty. And the right answer isn’t always intuitive. Not to you. Especially not to your non-marketing colleagues. Communication, of all kinds is nuanced. Advertising is no different. It is messy.
It is easy enough to measure how people respond to our marketing in the short term. It is far more difficult to measure how our marketing is influencing people’s behaviour over the longer term. And because it is hard to predict based on observation, we base our decisions on theories. We hypothesise what we think will happen.
Nothing wrong with having marketing theories. Not having theories about how our marketing will work is far worse. The problem is we fall in love with them. We see all results through our preferred theory of choice. And we are not good at changing our minds, even when the evidence starts to stack up.
What I’m getting to is - we are hedgehogs.