The Fermi paradox

Derek Thompson writing for The Atlantic:

Enrico Fermi was an architect of the atomic bomb, a father of radioactivity research, and a Nobel Prize–winning scientist who contributed to breakthroughs in quantum mechanics and theoretical physics. But in the popular imagination, his name is most commonly associated with one simple, three-word question, originally meant as a throwaway joke to amuse a group of scientists discussing UFOs at the Los Alamos lab in 1950: Where is everybody?

Fermi wasn’t the first person to ask a variant of this question about alien intelligence. But he owns it. The query is known around the world as the Fermi paradox. It’s typically summarized like this: If the universe is unfathomably large, the probability of intelligent alien life seems almost certain. But since the universe is also 14 billion years old, it would seem to afford plenty of time for these beings to make themselves known to humanity. So, well, where is everybody?

James Webb Young’s Five Ways

Simon Clemmow writing in How To Plan Advertising:

“After a century or so of formal study, we still do not know how advertising works! This isn’t the admission of defeat it sounds; advertising is a craft, not a science, and asking how advertising works isn’t like asking how a bicycle works – it’s more like asking “How does literature work?“! Nevertheless, it’s very important to have a good grasp of the general theories that have been advanced and developed over the years, because they must all be part of our ‘mental furniture‘ when we’re defining the role for advertising.

‘Classic’ theories of how advertising works are mainly of the single-model kind; that is, ‘The way advertising works is this way’. These include AIDA (which states that Awareness is necessary and leads to Interest which is necessary before and leads to Desire which is necessary before and to Action); USP (Unique Selling Proposition, which depends on finding a motivating point-of-difference within the product); and Brand Image (which asserts that image is more important in selling a brand than any specific product feature, and that advertising works by ‘adding value‘ to the gestalt).

However, as early as the 1930s it was acknowledged that advertising could work in more than one way, and frameworks began to be constructed. The most enduring from that time is James Webb Young’s ‘Five Ways’ (1963), which says that advertising works:

  1. By familiarising
  2. By reminding
  3. By spreading news
  4. By overcoming inertias
  5. By adding a value not in the product

It is very easy to underestimate the value of these observations, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that most of the theory was developed which underpins our thinking today.”

There’s two important points made in this excerpt:

  1. Advertising is as much an art as it is a science.
  2. Advertising can work in multiple ways.

Fifty five years after James Web Young defined his ‘Five Ways’ and 21 years after Clemmow wrote this passage, I fear we still have not learnt these lessons.

Hedgehogs and foxes

There is a fragment of wisdom that is often attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus:

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Writing in his essay on Leo Tolstoy, The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin expands Archilochus’ passage into a broad concept of two types of thinkers:

“There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.”

In The Signal and the Noise, the statistician Nate Silver expanded on this again, and gave some illuminating examples:

“Unless you are a fan of Tolstoy—or of flowery prose—you’ll have no particular reason to read Berlin’s essay. But the basic idea is that writers and thinkers can be divided into two broad categories:

  • Hedgehogs are type A personalities who believe in Big Ideas—in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws and undergird virtually every interaction in society. Think Karl Marx and class struggle, or Sigmund Freud and the unconscious. Or Malcolm Gladwell and the “tipping point.”
  • Foxes, on the other hand, are scrappy creatures who believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem. They tend to be more tolerant of nuance, uncertainty, complexity, and dissenting opinion. If hedgehogs are hunters, always looking out for the big kill, then foxes are gatherers.

Hedgehogs believe in a single, neat, unified approach. Foxes believe in many, messy, disparate approaches.

Or as Karl Weick might put it, hedgehogs and foxes are specialists and generalists.

Global, international and multi-national Account Planning

Rita Clifton writing in How To Plan Advertising:

For the purposes of this paper, we should probably define global as being the approach that starts out with the intention of standardising as much as possible across as wide a geographical area as possible. And international approach would be less ambitious, but would still seek to take a common perspective across markets. A multi-national approach is one where the main thing in common is company ownership, with perhaps just a sharing of insights and information on a co-operative basis.

The four revolutions of consciousness

Tom Chatfield writing for The Guardian:

For the philosopher of technology Luciano Floridi, there have been four recent revolutions in human consciousness. First, Copernicus and Galileo demonstrated that the Earth was not the unique, unmoving center of our universe. Like the other planets, it orbited the sun; and these planets in turn were orbited by their satellites, indifferent to human claims of exceptionalism. Second, Darwin showed us humanity not as the fixed pinnacle of a hierarchical creation, but as one among countless lifeforms produced by blind selection. Third, Freud suggested that we are far from transparent even to ourselves – that our self-knowledge is at best tenuous and provisional.

Each of these revolutions is in a sense a demotion: a revision downwards of our place in the order of things. We are neither the lords of creation nor even masters of our own minds. What’s next to lose? The fourth revolution, Floridi suggests, is one in which we must surrender our claim to be the universe’s sole site of analysis and insight. Our creations approach or exceed our capabilities in areas long believed to be uniquely human: deduction, recall, reasoning, pattern recognition, the processing of language, the modelling and prediction of the world.

Beautiful. Humbling.

Be the 4%

This article was first published on Medium.

In January 1991, Brian Eno appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.
Isolated on an imaginary island, Brian selected his eight songs, chose his book and decided on a luxury item.

As usual though, it was the connecting conversation that was the most interesting.

During one segment, Brian explained that as a young musician he had imposed a rule on his song writing. The rule simply stipulated that he was not allowed to use the words I, us or we.

He said that 96% of pop songs were written in the first person and addressed to the second person. And because they all followed the same formula they all sounded the same.

I will always love you. I want to hold your hand. I want to dance with somebody. That kind of thing.

For Brian, this wouldn’t do. He wanted to be different. So he set himself parameters. He avoided words like I, us and we, because that meant he avoided the first person. And by avoiding the first person he would avoid the 96%. He knew it would lead to different. He knew it would lead to interesting.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Brian wore make-up and feather boas before androgyny became a hallmark of rock-and-roll. He used recordings of tribal chants and American pastors before sampling became commonplace. For Brian different is a philosophy. And interesting is a way of life.

I think advertising and marketing could learn a thing or two from this.

Every year we read the same reports and devour the same decks.

Best-in-class this and best-practice that.

We anchor ourself in the existing rather than the exciting. We discuss disruption and deliver dull. We reduce risk and serve safe. We aim for original and create typical.

We can do so much better.

Rather than create campaigns that compete with the 96%, let’s avoid it.

Let’s set some stipulations.

Let’s produce some parameters.

Insist on interesting.

Demand different.

Be the 4%.

Leaky bucket theory

Byron Sharp writing for the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute:

The leaky bucket theory suggests that companies are always losing customers, so to maintain share, you have to win an equal number of new customers to keep the bucket full, so to speak. To grow share, you have to be especially good at new customer acquisition, or you have to slow the leak.

The idea of plugging the leak became popular with theorists who sold the idea to practical marketers, who believed, without any evidence, that retention is cheaper than acquisition. The most extreme, and fanciful, example was from a 1990 Harvard Business Review article, “Zero Defections: Quality Comes to Services,” which alleged that the leak could be plugged for huge gains in profitability. Again, there was no empirical evidence.

In my book,  How Brands Grow, I emphasize a move toward customer acquisition. Many up-to-date marketers now accept the idea that gains in penetration are required for growth, so customer acquisition should be the emphasis of growth-oriented marketers. In terms of the leaky bucket theory, the emphasis has shifted from plugging the leak to accepting it. All brands lose customers, so the strategy is to work hard to fill the bucket with new customers at a faster rate than it leaks

Financial crises and the far right

Simon Oxenham writing for the New Scientist:

To many, the rise of Donald Trump in the US and the UK’s vote to leave the European Union have come as a shock. It is feared that right-wing movements may now rise across Europe, including Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France. Why is the face of global politics changing so quickly, and could we have predicted this rightwards shift?

Some studies suggest so. Over a period of nearly 150 years, we have seen that every financial crisis was followed by a 10-year surge in support for far right populist parties, as shown by a recent analysis of more than 800 elections by German economists. Interestingly, they did not see the same right-shift reaction in response to recessions or macroeconomic shocks that formed part of the normal cycle of economic rises and falls and weren’t explicitly sparked by a financial crash. The UK is now eight years on since its last financial crisis – although it should be returning to pre-2008 levels of far-right support around about now.


The full study can be found here.

The economics of direct-to-consumer brands

Tom Foster writing for Inc.:

The key to making the economics of DTC companies work is balancing acquisition costs with a customer’s life­time value–how much the average cus­tomer spends on the company’s products over the long term. There are generally two ways DTC companies try to do this. Those that offer expensive products that customers aren’t likely to purchase frequently (a $295 suitcase, a $1,000 mattress) must be profitable on the first sale, and try to keep customers coming back by rolling out accessories or new product lines. Those that sell inexpensive items (razors, toothbrushes, socks) must try to lock in customers for repeat pur­chases, which many try to do through subscriptions.

Media buying priorities

Faris Yakob writing for WARC:

“Recently, I spoke at a How Brands Grow event and chatted with Professor Byron Sharp. He got a few questions about media allocation and (paraphrasing) gave a simple answer: buy the largest amount of the highest-quality exposures against all category buyers for the lowest price (in that order). Quality involves viewability (a non-viewable impression is an oxymoron) but also attention level and context, which have been dismantled by audience buying.”