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Managing Marketing: The increasing role of science in marketing and advertising

Adam Ferrier on science in marketing
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Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by TrinityP3 Founder and Global CEO, Darren Woolley. Each podcast is a conversation with a thought-leader, professional or practitioner of marketing and communications on the issues, insights and opportunities in the marketing management category. Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals.

Adam Ferrier is a Consumer Psychologist and the co-founder of MSIX the Marketing Science Ideas Exchange and best selling co-author of The Advertising Effect. Here he talks with Darren about the role of science in marketing and the importance of the symbiotic relationship between the Mad Men and the Math Men in driving innovation, creativity and most importantly performance.

You can listen to the podcast here:

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Transcription:

Darren:

Welcome to Managing Marketing and today I’ve got the great pleasure of having a chat to Adam Ferrier who is a consumer psychologist and co-founder of MSIX the Marketing Science Ideas Exchange. Welcome, Adam.

Adam:

Hi, Darren.

Darren:

The thing that I wanted to particularly have a chat about today is this whole idea of science in marketing ‘cause coming from a science and medical research background I find that so many people feel incredibly uncomfortable with those two concepts.

Adam:

Yeah, I think science has historically had a kind of a shield around it, which made it feel quite impenetrable and it had no place at all in the world of marketing. To get stuck straight into it about 10 or 15 years ago a guy called Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, won the Nobel laureate for economics and in so doing kind of discovered or built behavioural economics.

And behavioural economics was the first time that economics had been treated as a science. Before that it was just a whole bunch of theories and what they have done in the world of behavioural economics suddenly made science feel much more applicable and applied and also somewhat commercialised as well.

Darren:

I think accessible to a commercial application because it’s easier to distinguish pure and applied science and people often argue that in our modern world people should be looking at the applied science but there’s also a role for pure science as well because that’s where often a lot of initial interesting ideas are generated which will find themselves into being applied.

Adam:

But I think you’re already going to start freaking out a lot of people when you start talking like that who are going to be listening to this podcast and go, ‘shit, this is going to be too science-y, it’s going to get boring’.

When I was a psychologist (and I still am) everyone used to call psychology a soft science—it used to piss me off because there’s nothing soft; it’s just a difficult and complex science but still the scientific rigour is needed to understand and get sure footing around certain principles.

Darren:

You’re right. I don’t want to be a Sheldon here from Big Bang Theory and start saying, ‘well there’s only one pure science and everything else is irrelevant’ but I think it’s because the sciences based around human beings are incredibly complex because human beings are incredibly complex, aren’t they?

Adam:

That’s right and the way I look at the science of human behaviour or psychology is in the 50’s and 60’s a really good fundamental understanding of humans was investigated and we had really kind of big effects sizes for lots of the various types of experiments that were being done and ever since then it’s got more and more derivative of those kinds of things.

So, we’re finding out less and less of those big things about humans work and it’s becoming more and more nuanced. I think one of the things that holds science as an application in marketing back is that it’s just not worth it sometimes.

So, you might understand or find out something’s really true but it just doesn’t have that big an effect size and because scientists are really keen to publish everything they learn, sometimes the effect size of what they’re talking about can be really really small so therefore it might be interesting but not really worth knowing.

The role of science in marketing

Darren:

So my interest here is the fact I think there’s a lot of things about science methodology that could fit really well with the marketing process, for instance a cornerstone is the scientific method: the idea of how to take an observation, make a hypothesis, design an experiment, carry out the experiment, look at the results and see whether the hypothesis is proven or not.

So, science, beyond just the insights you’re talking about, that science can evolve and prove and then use those to inform marketing there’s a bigger gain here from my perspective, which is to actually embrace the practices of science, to take marketing from being an opinion-driven industry to more a fact-based or data-based application.

Adam:

Yeah, I think that’s a very worthy thing to do but there is a ‘but’. I don’t know why I’m being so negative against what I try to do but one of the issues is and I think the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute are doing a good job of being more science-based and evidence-based in their reporting of various marketing principles. Lots of marketers don’t necessarily want to know the truth.

We’re more interested in the whole of business and creating success stories and more people’s careers are invested in success rather than invested in doing the right things. So, the scientific method: setting up a hypothesis, doing testing and learning, and then adapting as we go—to do that you have to be open to being wrong.

I think one of the biggest differences between people in marketing and scientists is scientists are prepared to be wrong—well most of them are. Some of them still lie about the edges and only publish when they prove things but marketing especially you’re not allowed to be wrong.

Darren:

Yeah, I’ve had that thrown back at me a lot and what I say is, ‘would you rather do a small experiment that tells you whether you’re right or wrong or keep doing what you’ve been doing for the last 10 years not knowing it’s wrong but actually not achieving anything.

Adam:

That’s right and I hope this doesn’t sound boring but then we’re back to effects size—effects size versus resources needed to do the experiment. So, if you’re talking about something big and you can run a small experiment then the effects size is probably worth the complexity of doing it.

In our market, it often doesn’t happen as much as bigger markets. Take the States where I think it’s in some ways more progressed around the test and learn mindset because they’ve got the market size to warrant doing the initial exploration.

Darren:

What I’m seeing that’s changing that is a lot of marketers here are talking about agile marketing.

Adam:

What’s changing is the ease of being able to test and learn…

Darren:

The context.

Adam:

Which is much more nimble than it has been before.

The benefit of combining the art and the science

Darren:

That’s right digital data technology allows you to take groups of people and actually test against them and do it before, ‘what am I going to do, make two TV ads, run one on Channel 9 and one on Channel 7 in different markets and see what the result is?’

One, it’s too public so that the failure (and failure might not even be failure—it might be underperformance) would be too gross for someone to live with.

But the industry, to move the discussion forward, looks at science and marketing as two parts and we see that with Math Men and Mad Men (which I hate). We like thinking about dipoles. We like to say, ‘there’s science and that sits over there (and that’s all the propeller heads) and here’s all the cool mad men over here that work on gut instinct, but in actual fact the two inform each other, don’t they?

Adam:

Yeah, totally. There’s some really interesting businesses mainly in the tech space that are proving the best results are when the two things can be kind of blurred completely. So the true innovations and the fantastic kind of marketing-led businesses that are both clever and beautiful, they somehow find a way to bring those two things together by employing people who really understand data, the scientific method you’re talking about, as well as people who are humanistic, get the value of design, get the value of beauty and bring those different kind of disciplines together to create something great.

I disagree with you somewhat: I think they are different disciplines and I think they’re very hard to find in the one person. So, the clunky dichotomy of math men and mad men while it’s a bit ugly and stereotypical I kind a think it’s right. It’s normally an organisation that reconciles that rather than finding the one person who reconciles both of those things.

Darren:

So you’re saying as a label it’s often true that one person is either moved towards a science, analytical approach or they’re towards a more intuitive relationship approach.

Adam:

I think so and I think the big picture dichotomy is also kind of true as well. And we’ve struggled with this in terms of purely in a creative sense trying to find really data literate creatives and they are very creative but in a different kind of way to the non-data literate creatives.

Darren:

But it’s interesting for me because in my experience, and I have a lot of friends who are scientists and especially mathematicians……

Adam:

And they’re all really creative.

Darren:

They’re incredibly creative. They’re into music, they’re into art. We talk about people like they’re two-dimensional. Some of the greatest doctors I’ve ever worked with are also unbelievable cooks and artists and musicians and yet they perform amazing surgery and do unbelievable research.

The idea that someone fits a pigeonhole of either being creative or intuitive doesn’t feel real to me.

Adam:

It doesn’t to me either when you talk about the person in a holistic sense but maybe when you come down to the craft of what they’re actually getting paid to do maybe they do tend to fall into one box or the other a little bit more. So, your surgeon could be a really beautiful musician but would he take a creative approach to surgery? Probably not. He’ll probably take a more scientific approach to that.

Darren:

His application would be different except that even in the scientific method we mentioned before the observation and hypothesis is a creative process.

Adam:

It is massively creative.

Darren:

And in fact what I like about it is it’s a distillation. When anyone asks me, what creativity was when I was a creative director I’d go, ‘it’s a bit like coming up with a hypothesis, you observe, you think about it, and then you create a hypothesis. The hypothesis is the interpretation of the patterns you saw in the observation that perhaps no one else had seen previously—and to me that is creativity.

Adam:

That’s right. Coming back to these tech companies—you’ve got beautiful platforms that feel great purely based on data but people tend to test and learn and optimise within a various area. They tend to get very skilled and a little myopic in that. Then they sometimes tend to optimise what’s best within that particular world rather than being able to take a step back and look at the broader picture.

That’s what I mean by maybe sometimes these people have both skill sets but when it comes down to the applied craft or what they’re doing they enter a particular mindset and maybe it’s harder to change gears.

Darren:

Compartmentalisation. Maybe if there were more women and less men that wouldn’t happen?

Adam:

Who knows? I’m not even going to touch that subject.

Darren:

There’s a good example when you were saying before about bringing the two together. The guy at Pixar, John Lasseter, the animator that joined Pixar from Disney and he joined Pixar at a time when they were all coders in the early days of creating computer visuals.

They’d be so excited because ‘look I’ve made a ball bounce up and down and look at the shading on it’. And he’d be excited with them and what they’d created but he’d go, ‘that’s interesting—could you make a rod that bent in the middle?’ And they’d go, ‘oh that’s interesting’ and then he’d leave and they’d do their coding and the next day or week he’d come back and by the end of it he’d actually created a whole human being.

The ball had become the head, rods had become arms and legs and he’d actually created something that people could relate to.

Adam:

It’s a great example. It’s a really nice articulation of what I was trying to talk about and I think for the same reason I think that’s why we created MSIX—is there’s loads and loads of people with these amazing skill sets doing really interesting things that they just need to meet the right person and create the right connection.

That’s the reason why we bought these science-y kind of boffins who make robots or really nice data and analytical skills with more kind of lateral thinking or people who come from different contexts or different parts of business. Being able to make those kinds of connections and bring those two things together a little bit more is important because I think one thing feeds off the other.

The science and the creativity feed off each other and it’s just about trying to find those connections to get the best of both worlds rather than seeing yourself as one or the other.

Darren:

A lot of people talk about and there’s been scientific papers on this that diversity in all its shapes and forms actually increases innovation because it’s actually the meeting of different perspectives that leads to new ways of thinking.

Adam:

Isn’t it also that as well as creating the environment for that diversity to hit each other and ping into something new and it’s creating kind of collisions? That’s a fascinating space and it’s how to construct creativity and innovative thinking.

Darren:

I think that’s where a lot of people talk about the consulting firms moving into the world of the agency and maybe one of the things that agencies have lost is this idea of, ‘what is the core of the agency?’ It’s creating an environment and a culture for people to be creative, to be innovative, to think differently and the consulting firms are trying to find ways of moving into that space.

Adam:

Yeah, I think it’s a really interesting observation in terms of creative agencies especially forgetting what they’re getting paid for. What they’re getting paid for is to come up with these lateral, more creative ideas and not try to wear the trappings or look the same as other areas of business.

The issue is other areas of business are trying to steal or trying to morph into what creatives are like. So, the weirdness that creative agencies used to have has now been usurped and they no longer seem or look or feel a little bit weird or freaky and I think that’s to their detriment.

Darren:

I think that people that used to be attracted to agencies are now going to tech start-ups.

Adam:

Or they’re going to Google, as we saw from the Special guys.

Darren:

They’re finding new places that create that opportunity for them to be able to expand the palate that they work on because when you think about it, creativity for a lot of agencies is how to come up with another TV ad or a web page—you know the palate has shrunk.

Adam:

For many the palate has shrunk so much and again that’s kind of why I love this idea of Marketing Science Ideas Exchange. The other thing I also do is I’m chairman of the Consumer Psychology Interest Group, which is a group run by the Australian Psychological Society

I’m absolutely fascinated by trying to make creativity more accountable and more evidence based so that we know we’re doing the right thing or trying to solve the right problem rather than just trying to be creative for the sake of it.

My passion is actually not science or even marketing science. My passion is ideas and I love them and the more out there the better. But if they’re not doing the right thing by the client’s business they’re not only useless they can be harmful.

Providing a scientific framework for ideas

Darren:

As an industry we talk about ideas but I think a lot of the language actually diminishes the power of what we’re talking about. When people talk about the big idea and it’s really just a TV ad it blows me away.

The number of times people have said to me, ‘oh we had this big idea’ and I watch it and for the life of me (and I am advertising literate) I’m trying to find what was the idea beyond an entertaining piece.

Adam:

The phrase I look out for is, ‘here’s the big idea—it opens on…’. As soon as you hear the big idea opening on a certain scene you know you’re being sold an ad.

Darren:

Where was the insight? Where was the opportunity to disrupt or change the status quo?

Adam:

Rory Sutherland from Ogilvy speaks very very articulately on this and he says part of what the scientific revolution is doing within marketing is giving us a language and a confidence as to why things work, so we are much better able to go on the journey of doing something if we can articulate why we know it’s going to work and the principles behind why it’s going to work.

So, we no longer have to have the big swinging dick, executive creative director saying, ‘trust me’. There’s a whole lot of language behind what they do as to why they work and most creatives (the ones I’ve met) are kind of sensitive, get the zeitgeist, the good ones at least get it but they struggle with the language. They struggle with being able to articulate why it’s going to work.

If they can’t articulate why it’s going to work then the marketer can’t articulate why it’s going to work. So, science and its whole scientific process of trying to understand and having a more scientific nomenclature around what we do, how humans work and all that kind of shit at the very least will give us the basis to articulate why it’s going to work.

Darren:

It provides your framework. I remember, as a creative director, and having teams present…I was the big kahuna. I was there and the teams would present work and I would look at the idea and I would want to understand where it came from and I’d often say, ‘where did that idea come from—what was the thinking that led to it?’

And creative people genuinely are not often able to reflect back on the process because it happens often at a deep sub-conscious level that they can’t then deconstruct it to be able to give you that sense of ‘this is the process’. Sometimes process is enough for people to be able to believe in something beyond what’s just being presented.

Adam:

I can remember many years ago when the executive creative director said, ‘do you mind writing up this idea?’ I was surprised that they needed someone else to write the actual idea up because it was a beautiful idea–they just didn’t have the ability to kind of zoom out of it.

Darren:

It’s perspective, it’s the creator’s curse because sometimes they are so deep in the creation of the idea they’re not able to leave it sitting on the table and step back away from it to actually get perspective.

This is the thing; you mentioned before the role of commercial ideas in a framing of commercial relevance. The human mind can produce millions of ideas and in fact people that are completely in touch with being creative will have thousands of ideas and maybe a handful of them will be enough top of mind that they are able to articulate and capture them but what makes one idea in a commercial sense more valuable than another is its application to actually driving change.

Adam:

Yes.

Darren:

Yet the number of creative people that say that the thing they hate is that framework, the framing of their creativity because they find it is incredibly limiting in a way of judging the quality of their work.

Adam:

I think there’s some merit to that. I think it’s an easy thing to write off but what they need to understand is a really tight distillation of the problem and a really tight distillation of who we’re trying to get to do what and therefore the person who’s got to have that idea doesn’t necessarily need to know all the machinations behind that thinking. That thinking just needs to be given to them in a very clear distilled fashion and then they can come up with the ideas to do that.

Darren:

Because, Adam what I like was what you said before, that often in agencies ideas are killed based on someone else’s opinion, right? Here’s the distilled idea, here’s the idea or the problem or opportunity we’re trying to solve–I don’t think that works.

Whereas when we introduce a scientific framework or a language that is based on the science of persuasion, of behavioural economics, of what actually motivates people to enact change in their behaviour and develop habits, what we’ve got then is a language that allows the critique of the creativity in a way that is more formal and in some ways that is less subjective

Adam:

That’s exactly right and that’s a really exciting thought to talk about because there are two different ways that good ideas can flourish in that environment. No1. Is if you understand the science of behaviour change, the science of psychology then you know what ideas will and won’t work by just understanding the science and what we understand about various aspects of human behaviour.

So that doesn’t require any further research or testing—that’s level one.

So, you can have more robust conversations about why it will and won’t work. The second level is getting back to what we were talking about before, which is about actually testing and learning and getting evidence for is this going to work or not, which obviously if you can make the space to make that happen it’s good and then you can have more objective cases and more objective conversations and less subjective ones about will it or won’t it work.

However, I get back to the initial issue around people don’t necessarily want to know. They just want to know the success story, which is a cultural thing which we need to address.

The scientific understanding of creativity

Darren:

One of the things I also wanted to raise with you is the scientific understanding of creativity. So, it all comes down to – and I’m not sure if you’re aware of it – entropy. Entropy is the measure of order and disorder and the second law of thermodynamics is that everything is getting more and more disordered so entropy – disorder is increasing.

There’s chaos theory and complexity theory and in both of those it says that human creativity exists at the boundary between the two—did you know that?

Adam:

No, I didn’t know that. But I understand it in kind of simpler terms: understand the problem, leave the problem, come back to the problem and in leaving the problem you create new connections and so that will then help you come back and solve the problem. So that’s how I try and understand it.

Darren:

We’ve both worked in advertising for decades and the most creative people are often those that seem the most chaotic, the people who are often not neatly packaged as far as their work space goes and maybe forget things.

But it’s interesting because complexity theory says that if the universe is moving to chaos (which is what entropy says), the people that exist on that boundary of complexity, because in chaos there are no human endeavours, in chaos it’s beyond your ability to do anything (chaos theory says you can’t do anything) so, at complexity, at that boundary is where creativity is.

Because there are an infinite array of possibilities before it tips over into a world where you just give up and go home.

I love that idea because what it says is that creativity requires a certain set of circumstances and that is an environment where anything is possible.

Adam:

So you’re saying it’s a good thing?

Darren:

Yeah.

Adam:

I think the only issue with what you’re saying – to give a bit more of a plug for getting a scientific process within this – is in an environment where anything is possible, with infinite opportunity it’s even harder and harder to know what to do and it’s even harder and harder to decide what to do.

So in that environment you’re creating, ideas are everywhere and great ideas are everywhere and therefore that can create a sense of inertia within an organisation so how then do you know which one’s the right one to do and how then do you get the evidence to know that’s the best opportunity versus the others?

So, then I think you come back to having to have a really good understanding of why something’s going to work, which then comes back to a more scientific process.

Darren:

I think we agree because one is about generating infinite ideas but what we’re lacking at the moment…

Adam:

Is a backbone against which to know which ideas are right.

Darren:

A framework that can actually judge ideas. What is the idiom, ‘ideas are a dime a dozen’? Because no one actually came up with a framework to judge the value of all those ideas.

Adam:

Again just in the world of science—the macro frameworks that everybody agrees to in this whole weird complex kind of world of human behaviour and marketing are non-existent—no, that’s not true…

Darren:

Are embryonic.

Adam:

Are embryonic. However, there are a couple in terms of the stages of change in the body of psychology and in the body of behavioural economics. Kahneman’s system 1, system 2 has kind of taken hold or the code of biases and heuristics kind of results are starting to take hold and various people are trying to shape all of those.

That’s a fascinating space to be in because in this world of complete and utter chaos these frameworks are becoming more and more valuable and what I would suggest to your listeners is to understand what’s the framework your organisation lives by? How do you make decisions and how much of this do you take on board?

Do you want to be an evidence-based culture? Do you want to be an intuitive-based culture or somewhere in between? And it’s very important to kind of set up the framework of how you make decisions and work things through rather than reinventing it every time because the businesses that reinvent it every time…

Darren:

They waste a huge amount of effort.

Adam:

Exactly and they become tense places to be in.

Darren:

Again going back to the scientific method that’s the idea that you don’t reinvent every time. Everything is an incremental improvement on what you knew before.

Adam:

That’s right and there’s a process and people know where they are in the process and that’s really kind of comforting I think especially as we get more and more complex.

Darren:

What I like about this is that people will often say that there is no process to creativity. You articulated a process before: immerse yourself into the problem, allow it to percolate in your subconscious, in the back of your mind, then the generation of ideas that come up with it. That’s a process. It was in James Webb Young’s ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas, it was exactly that process articulated almost half a century ago.

Adam:

Then before that process there’s a quite formulaic process in terms of solving business problems so we would always take the business problem, try and understand who we need to do what, versus who’s going to account for the most variance to solve that problem?

Once we understand that behaviour change required we would deep-dive into that context and then once we understand that, then start to generate ideas.

I feel pretty confident with that as a start point but it’s not necessarily right for everyone. I’d encourage people to develop their own and spend time developing that process.

Darren:

It’s a discipline and it requires discipline and I think it’s something that would be of benefit to the whole industry.

Adam:

Yeah, I think so. So, if I can just plug joining the Consumer Psychology Interest Group and also come along to the Marketing Science Ideas Exchange—it’s in its fourth year this year.

We have great keynote speakers. This year we’ve got an absolute ripper and there’s also the Marketing Science Ideas Awards (which are three years old), where we ask people to write papers according to the scientific method, which next to the Effies is the only award show that really takes effectiveness seriously, at least as seriously as the creative component.

Darren:

We’ll make sure it goes with the podcast—all the details from the website.

Adam:

Sorry, I didn’t mean this to be so crass.

Darren:

No, I think it’s a sign of good media training: take every opportunity to promote the interest. Adam, thanks for your time, thanks for dropping by and having a chat.

Adam:

Cool, no problem. Thank you for having me.

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Darren is considered a thought leader on all aspects of marketing management. A Problem Solver, Negotiator, Founder & Global CEO of TrinityP3 - Marketing Management Consultants, founding member of the Marketing FIRST Forum and Author. He is also a Past-Chair of the Australian Marketing Institute, Ex-Medical Scientist and Ex-Creative Director. And in his spare time he sleeps. Darren's Bio Here Email: darren@trinityp3.com

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