I don’t know who discovered water…
… but it wasn’t a fish.
Substack tells me it’s been more than 5 months since you heard from me. I wrote a long missive about the fact that Occam’s Razor gets misquoted in a way that praises simplicity over actual reason, but then realized I was committing the business book fallacy - assuming that because an idea is interesting, it can’t possibly be correctly expressed in a tweet or two.
This morning, of course, I fell into the opposite trap, when I tweeted this:
This idea is one that has in many ways defined a lot of the strategist-on-strategist conflict I’ve been a part of, these conflicting two definitions of the “one true path”. This is a more fundamental disconnect than the one I called the “triangle of disrespect” - it’s not as nuanced.
Conflict between different disciplines of strategy is usually an attempt to establish hierarchy. The conflict between objectivity and immersion is deeper: it’s a philosophical choice that many don’t even realize is an option.
Let’s define terms:
Objectivity-driven strategists believe that you can’t see the shape of a thing from inside it. They observe, but try not to participate, lest they skew the results. There’s a tendency to rely on data and reporting to uncover the human truth behind a problem, and a belief that there whole discipline could stand to be more scientific in approach.
An objectivity-driven strategist will happily explain to you why an individual interview or personal experience is a red herring. They assume, consciously or not, a rationality in human behaviour.
Immersion-driven strategists believe that you can’t truly understand something unless you’ve been in the middle of it. They’ll do the reading and review the research but will generally treat those things as a filter for personal experience (regardless of if it’s their own, or someone else’s). Their tendency is more toward a verbatim as an insight rather than a new formulation. They need to try the thing before they’re comfortable understanding it.
An immersion-driven strategist will call or chat with someone who has relevant personal experience, and use that to (re)frame what the research is telling them. They assume, usually consciously, that human behaviour isn’t really rational, and so must be felt.
The obvious problem here, is that both of these people are going to miss the mark about half the time. The conflict of the rational and the emotional is where humans shine; we do irrational things for rational reasons and vice versa.
If you want an illustration of this conflict, look at any Western analyses of the religion of a past civilization. Then talk to someone who attends religious services every weekend. The gap will be large.
You can trick an objective-leaning strategist thinker into believing human insight comes from an analytics dashboard. You can trick an immersion-leaning strategist into believing that an experience immediately means understanding.
The most common solution (and one I’m not certain people even realize they’re using) is to pair up opposites. The emotive and culturally driven person ends up mentoring the analytical and data driven one, in an attempt to balance them out.
Sometimes it works great. Sometimes it’s a recipe for conflict because you have two unarticulated worldviews fighting over the same language and objectives.
But by giving people the language to discuss this, and asking questions like “is this idea more objective, or is it based on someone’s experience” can help elevate thinking and get people out of unconscious orthodoxies.
As I’ve been working for the last few years as part of an agency that’s very self-reflective and determined to keep growing and evolving, I’ve gotten very interested in dissecting the orthodoxies and fundamentalisms that shape things. Not only strategy as a profession, but advertising in North America on the whole, and within the many agencies I’ve worked at over the years.
Agencies, I’ve realized, are usefully analogous to both nascent religions and artist collectives. They’re driven by a mix of fervent belief, mutual dependence and a culture of open and gleeful collaboration in home of making a tangible impact. Also money & prestige.
With that lens, it’s been amazing to just reflect on what has made different agencies rise and fall (and led individuals within them to thrive, fail or leave). If you work in an agency, or want to, I highly recommend spending some time figuring out what the belief system (likely only partially acknowledged) and the artists statement (likely only partially accurate) are.