Why marketers need to be less human to make real decisions

This post is by Nathan HodgesTrinityP3‘s General Manager. Nathan applies his knowledge and creativity to the specific challenges of marketing management, with a particular focus on team dynamics and behavioural change.

Marketing loves a choice. We all like to have options.

It’s great to have a roster of agencies, even if one of them seems to get most of the work, most of the time.

We like to present and judge three concepts and three territories, even if we have approved a single-minded brief.

Even though we’re busy, it’s always good to keep those extra team initiatives on the list of things to do – you never know, we might get around to them, and one of them could be gold.

We never give up on a new business prospect either, however discouraging the signs or however long the shot – there’s always a chance of landing the big one, however small that chance seems.

It turns out this is a far more deep-seated trait of human behaviour than we usually realise.

Decision making is naturally hard for all humans

Daniel Ariely, in his excellent book “Predictably Irrational’, describes a simple online experiment where he showed his MIT students a number of doors on a laptop screen, and allowed them two minutes to click on each as many times as possible to open them for money. Some of the doors yielded 50c a click, others only 20c or 10c, and so the first time he ran the test the students focused on clicking the 50c door to maximise their earnings. So far, so logical.

In the second test, he introduced a new element. This time, every time a student clicked on one door, the other doors would get smaller, until they disappeared altogether after twelve clicks devoted elsewhere. Same yields, same time frame, same objective. Yet in this test the students spread their clicks across all the doors – not to maximise their financial gain, but to maintain their freedom of choice throughout the two minutes.

They hated to lose the options, so they hedged their bets. Even when it cost them money to do so.

So, apparently it’s not just marketers after all – decision making is naturally hard for all humans.

As marketers and advertisers, we all like to think of ourselves as decisive. Anything less sounds wishy-washy and weak. The ability to make a decision feels like a core business skill.

As ever, George Costanza has something to suggest here – doing the opposite of what you normally do. If you think you need options, get rid of them. If you want to see how things pan out, don’t. If you want to make the call next week or next month, make it now.

When is it time to make a decision?

Making a decision – a real decision – is much harder than we think. A real decision means losing options, burning boats and closing doors. It’s a very different thing from what we normally do in marketing – expressing a preference. A preference involves ranking options, but not necessarily eliminating them. If subsequent evidence proves you wrong, you can always go back and make a different choice.

A decision isn’t like that. It means being wrong at least some of the time, and accepting that as the price worth paying for the focus, direction and clarity a real decision brings to the marketing process.

And of course, the greatest thing about focus, direction and clarity is that they all help create opportunity – which is what we were all after in the first place, wasn’t it?

Here are three questions that help tell if it’s time to make a decision:

  1. What is the cost – in time, effort and dollars – of keeping your options open or developing them any further?
  2. What is the opportunity cost of not making the decision now? Are you denying yourself crucial time to develop your chosen solution and make it work even better?
  3. Are you making a decision, or are you simply ranking the least worst of the options available? In other words, do you need to start again?

What questions would you add?

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About Nathan Hodges

As TrinityP3′s General Manager, Nathan applies his knowledge and creativity to the specific challenges of marketing management, with a particular focus on team dynamics and behavioural change. He is an HBDI Practitioner and an experienced facilitator and coach. Read Nathan's bio here or email nathan@trinityp3.com
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6 Responses to Why marketers need to be less human to make real decisions

  1. Good post Nathan, and great questions.

    Not a question, but there's an excellent principle from former US Chief of Staff Colin Powell, known as the "40-70" rule.

    That is, get as much data as you can so you have between 40%-70% probability of success… then go with your gut. The remaining 30% will take too long (or cost too much) to validate, and the procrastination aimed at reducing risk will actually increase it.

  2. Anton Buchner says:

    Nathan – great post. I've just returned from Japan and picked up Dan Ariely's second book at Narita Airport "The Upside of Irrationality". A must read for people in business to understand behavioural psychology of employees, customers and even on a personal level. Another great question to ask:

    Why am I doing this?

    Many marketers are unclear as to why they are really doing a particular activity. How it is intended to deliver on their company's business goals. Hence their decision making ability is very open, as you say, to being "wishy-washy". Being clear on goal delivery can make decision making a whole lot easier.

    • Nathan says:

      Thanks Anton. I've got Dan's second book on my reading list. 'Why am I doing this?' is a terrific question to ask at every step in the marketing process.

  3. Nick Hand says:

    Nice article Nathan. No question to add (and I don't recall who said it) but I have another worthwhile point I think: 'you haven't made a real decision until you've put it into action'. Too often people think "job done" once they make a decision – and forget to give he implementation the attention it needs!

  4. str4tgist says:

    Nathan, I have been meaning to comment since I first read your post. It reminded me of Mohammed Khan, the Creative and Managing Director of Enterprise, an ad agency that worked with me in the eighties in India. Their poser to clients looking for alternative approaches: "If you are looking for alternatives, find one" (meaning, an alternative agency). I don't see such courage among Clients and Agencies any more!
    Ariely may have been burnt but remains burnished (brilliant).

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