Strategies for dealing with the increasing complexity of marketing

Today’s marketer not only has more channel choices than at any other time in history, but the number of channels is increasing every day. Plus they are often operating with effectively less budget, to deliver higher, more accountable performance, while a waterfall of data thunders down upon them.

No wonder we often feel overwhelmed.

No wonder many marketers are suffering decision paralysis as they wade through the mountains of options and data trying to decide the best strategy.

In response our reptilian mid-brain has us longing for a simpler time, as a way of protecting us from an ever-lurking fear of failure. Is it no wonder shows like Mad Men are so popular?

So lets bring some context to this complexity.

In 1999, the IBM Knowledge Management Team developed a Cynefin Framework, which provides new approaches to communication and decision-making in complex social environments.

Sounds like a good description of the marketing function – right?

The Cynefin framework has four main domains:

Simple in which the relationship between cause and effect are obvious to all.

Complicated in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or investigation.

Complex in which cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect.

And Chaotic in which there is no relationship between cause and effect at all.

In the context of marketing, the market systems we deal with are at best complicated, but are usually complex.

Yet often we find ourselves mistakenly thinking it is all so simple.

Here is a video we made on the topic.


I was invited to speak on this topic at a University of Sydney School of Business function earlier this year.

Subsequently I was asked by Mina D’Souza, a current Masters of Marketing student at the University of Sydney, to write a post on this subject for her blog called “Marketing Matters”.

I also spoke about this at a recent Stump The Strategist session in Sydney.

Understanding that marketing sits in the complex domain creates opportunities for dealing better with the challenges of complexity.

The first thing is that complexity means it is impossible to develop best practice, or even good practice.

Instead, the relationships between cause and effect are inclined to emerge over time.

This requires us to continually probe the market and sense the changes occurring and respond to them.

It means that marketing activities need to probe the system, observe the changes that occur and respond to these changes, both negative and positive.

And we are seeing this increasingly as marketing moves from a succession of individual campaigns to a process of constant engagement with the consumer and the market.

The second thing is that complex systems require us to develop truly collaborative approaches to market.

Not simply co-ordination and cooperation, but collaboration leading to creating mutual benefit and value with the many stakeholders in the system.

In media we are seeing this collaboration between many of the traditional and the newer media providers, like Google and Facebook and Foursquare and their corporate customers that lead to new intellectual property, new functionality and new utility for consumers.

So what does this mean for marketers?

At the core of our survival mechanism we crave simplicity.

The fact is that marketing has never been simple. And it is getting more complex.

Within the Cynefin framework, marketers need to embrace this complexity and evolve processes and strategies for dealing with complex systems. That means that many of the existing practices based on a belief of direct cause and effect will need to change too.