Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Marketing and the Tension Between Contrarianism and Traditionalism

I started and stopped this post four times as I tried to find the right way to open. Eventually I got tired of searching and figured it was easiest to just jump off the note I wrote to myself in Google Keep after the idea popped into my head:

That might not make so much sense (yet), but like any good note it captured enough of the concept that I remembered what I was thinking when I wrote it. I jotted it down as I was prepping for a webinar I did last week offering up some predictions for marketing in 2019. I was getting worked up (as I’m wont to do) about how much it bugs me when everyone in marketing talks about AI as if they have any idea what it really means or the implications.1 Someone asked why it bothered me so much and my answer, which kind of just poured out, was that once everyone starts agreeing about something (and saying it endlessly) it becomes less and less meaningful. This is not just some soft definition of the word meaning, though, it literally has less information.

Literally how?

A few months ago I wrote about Claude Shannon and information theory. Shannon wrote a seminal paper in 1948 called “A Mathematical Theory of Communication“. In it he defined the measure of information as, effectively, its unexpectedness (he called it entropy). The more random, the more information. This is precisely what bits measure (you can think of it as the number of yes/no questions it would take to get to the answer). What happens when you compress a photo? You take away the randomness. That’s why otherwise complex surfaces like sky or skin might come to look a bit pixelated: The compression algorithm is constraining the number of hues available in order to bring down the entropy (and therefore the file size) of the whole photo.

What does that mean for marketing buzzwords?

Well, as everyone starts to say the same thing and continue to offer little behind it, it becomes more and more expected and, therefore, starts to carry less and less information. When people layer on top of those buzzwords with real examples or alternative ideas, they return some randomness (and therefore information) to the concept. At their best, marketing contrarians are attempting to breathe some life into words and ideas that have otherwise lost their information content.

I don’t really like to think of myself as a contrarian because I think that often carries with it some notion of being different for the sake of being different (and trolling). Rather, I think if everyone is following one strategy or idea, the value of being the next person to jump on board is incrementally less (especially when that idea is poorly defined/understood). In a way it’s like an anti-network effect.

What can contrarians teach us?

That guy with the sad face is former Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Sam Hinkie. He is a contrarian. For the uninitiated, the brief history here is that Hinkie carried out one of the most radical transformation experiments in recent sports history.2 He put aside any notion that his team was trying to win and traded everything away for more ping pong balls in the NBA’s rookie lottery. In basketball, where only five guys from a team are on the floor at any one time, a superstar can have a massive impact on a team’s success. In a 2016 episode of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell called basketball a “strong link” sport because a team’s success is best predicted by the quality of its best player (as opposed to soccer where it’s based on the worst player on the field he explains). Hinkie figured this out. He also figured out the best way to get one of those superstars was to draft them and to do that you had to have an early first round pick. In the end, he took a lot of heat for his strategy (even though he was following all the rules) and was eventually pushed out by the league office (and replaced by someone whose wife kept secret Twitter accounts where she posted lots of critical comments about players on the Sixers as well as some private medical information … whoops).

Back to Hinkie’s letter. It was leaked and provided an amazing view into the psyche of someone who was willing to be a pariah. In it he paints an interesting picture of the connection between contrarianism and traditionalism.

Here he is on contrarianism:

To develop truly contrarian views will require a never-ending thirst for better, more diverse inputs. What player do you think is most undervalued? Get him for your team. What basketball axiom is most likely to be untrue? Take it on and do the opposite. What is the biggest, least valuable time sink for the organization? Stop doing it. Otherwise, it’s a big game of pitty pat, and you’re stuck just hoping for good things to happen, rather than developing a strategy for how to make them happen.

And on traditionalism:

While contrarian views are absolutely necessary to truly deliver, conventional wisdom is still wise. It is generally accepted as the conventional view because it is considered the best we have. Get back on defense. Share the ball. Box out. Run the lanes. Contest a shot. These things are real and have been measured, precisely or not, by thousands of men over decades of trial and error. Hank Iba. Dean Smith. Red Auerbach. Gregg Popovich. The single best place to start is often wherever they left off.

Let’s bring it back to buzzwords.

So basically Hinkie’s argument is that the most appropriate way to be a contrarian is to also be a traditionalist: To be a respectful student of the underlying principles while also constantly probing and questioning whether they still make sense. One of the things that surprises me about the marketing industry is how often people miss this tradeoff. In an attempt to play the contrarian they shun traditional wisdom, but at the same time they repeat empty phrases and approaches at every conference that will let them on stage.

I actually think one of the reasons Byron Sharp’s book How Brands Grow has picked up as much steam as it has is because it strikes a good balance between these things. It’s a contrarian take (loyalty shouldn’t be a goal because it’s an outcome) but at the same time it’s deeply rooted in some traditional marketing ideas (marketshare, reach, and creativity to name three). This is a tough balance to strike, but when someone hits the spot is has the opportunity to really resonate.

Unfortunately, most of the time the industry misses the market by a lot. What we end up with a bunch  of anti-historical/anti-intellectual slogans that get repeated ad-infinitum. It’s lots of words and  little information.

Footnotes:

  1. Here’s the notes I had for the question: “Let me start by saying that I predict in 2019 marketers will continue to talk about AI and ML interchangeably with no idea what the words mean. (I’m particularly salty about this.) I would broadly see we will continue to see ML become more available as different kinds of wrappers are made available that enables folks to use it in more of their everyday work. This seems to be some of what Microsoft and Google are doing with smart integrations into their work suites. In general, my take on AI/ML is it’s a classic case of Amara’s law, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” In the short term, these things aren’t going to be writing copy and, anyway, that’s not that big a deal. In the long term, the promise of ML is data modeling and coding written by computers, not people. That’s definitely not a 2019 prediction, but it’s the road we’re going down.”
  2. I recognize that the word/idea transformation belongs in the buzzword bucket, but if you read about Hinkie and what he did I think it’s a fair use of the word with real meaning. He was a heretic who questioned the most fundamental law of professional sports (“you play every game to win”) and rewrote the path to building a championship contender.

December 17, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , ,

Remainders: From Maslow to Marshmallows

I’m a little late this week, but it’s time for another edition of Remainders, my chance to share all my favorite internet ephemera from the last seven days. In case you’re new to things, here’s last week and the week before. Before diving in, update on the book front is I finished off How to Think and quickly read the Ursula Le Guin short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (which is around 30 pages and definitely worth the time). I flipped back and forth on what to read next, but think I’ve settled on China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know by Arthur Kroeber (who I first ran into on this amazing podcast episode a few years ago about China and the book, “Arthur Kroeber vs. The Conventional Wisdom“). As always, if you want to get these in posts in your inbox you can subscribe by email. Okay, now for some links.

My talk from Percolate’s Transition Conference in SF is online now. It’s all about applying the theory of constraints from the book The Goal to marketing’s bottlenecks. We’re putting on Transition London in two weeks. If you’re interested in joining us there, please get in touch.

One more thing from me: I was interviewed on Paul McEnany’s excellent Real Famous podcast (iTunes, PocketCasts, Stitcher). I can’t listen to my own voice for that long, but people have told me they enjoy it.

It was a great week for longform. Here are my four favorite pieces:

You know Maslow’s Pyramid? Of course you do. Well, it turns out that the pyramid didn’t come from him at all and, in fact, it disagrees with a lot of what his theory had to say. This comes from a new paper “Who Built Maslow’s Pyramid? A History of the Creation of Management Studies’ Most Famous Symbol and Its Implications for Management Education” which Ed Batista highlighted on Twitter. Here’s quote from the paper:

We identity three specific negative effects in this regard: that the pyramid is a poor representation of Maslow’s [hierarchy of needs]; that the preoccupation with the pyramid obscures the context within which the theory was created and that by focusing exclusively on the pyramid, we miss the other contributions that Maslow’s thinking can make to management studies.

The paper’s authors even put together this handy video explainer.

Steve Kerr is back in the NBA Finals coaching the Golden State Warriors. Last week he had some strong comments about the NFL’s anthem decision. If you’re curious, the Times had a good profile of Kerr last year that tells the story of the assassination of his father in Beirut in the 1980s.

The iconic Ali/Liston photo turned 53 last week.

Favorite podcast episodes:

I ordered a copy of the Toyota Production System, which includes this great inside cover timeline:

Speaking of books, here’s every book Bill Gates has recommended over the last six years.

Twitter pointed out this photo of Rocket’s star James Harden looks like a scene from a renaissance painting and, of course, there’s a subreddit called AccidentalRenaissance.

The New York Times had a good op-ed on how segregation worked in the North. And here’s Jelani Cobb on “Starbucks and the Issue of White Space“.

Would you go to a republican doctor?

Some good stuff in this New Yorker book review of The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies (the author, Ben Fritz, was also on an excellent episode of Slate Money a few weeks ago), a book about the history and current state of the movie industry. This bit about the size of the rental market really surprised me:

Suddenly, there were video stores all over America that needed to purchase at least one copy of every major new Hollywood movie. In “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency” (Custom House), an oral history compiled by James Andrew Miller, Tom Hanks recalls the effect that this had on Hollywood in the eighties. “The industry used to be so flush with free money that it was almost impossible to do wrong even with a crappy movie, because here’s why: home video,” he says. By 1986, video sales and rentals were taking in more than four billion dollars. Income from home viewing had surpassed that of theatrical release.

TILs from this week:

My friend Tim Hwang launched the Trade Journal Cooperative, wherein you pay $60 a year to get random niche trade journals sent to you. I couldn’t be more in.

I was reminded of this great piece about Suck.com and its unique style of hyperlinking.

Mary Meeker presented her yearly state of the internet with lots of data.

From the China book I’m reading, thought this was an interesting nugget:

These are summed up in a motto frequently cited by one of China’s leading economists, Justin Lin, who attributes it to Premier Wen Jiabao: “When you multiply any problem by China’s population, it is a very big problem. But when you divide it by China’s population, it becomes very small.” The point is simple, though easy to miss: China’s size means that any challenge it faces—unemployment, environmental degradation, social unrest, you name it—exists on an almost unimaginably large scale. But it also means that the resources available to tackle the problem are gigantic. The difficulty lies in marshaling all those resources and deploying them effectively.

This question/answer from NYTimes/Gladwell about the kinds of stories that fascinate him fascinated me:

Are there certain ideas that you find yourself drawn to again and again? For example, you’ve used the threshold model of collective behavior to explain both school shootings and why basketball players don’t shoot free throws underhand. I like ideas that absolve people of blame. That’s the most consistent theme in all of my work. I don’t like blaming people’s nature or behavior for things. I like blaming systems and structures and environments for things.

On the subject on blaming systems not people, it looks like the famous marshmallow experiment missed the systemic nature of what allows certain kids to be better at delaying gratification:

Ultimately, the new study finds limited support for the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.

Finally, after failing to get a recommendation from Consumer Reports because of braking issues, Tesla was able to push out a software update that improved stopping significantly enough that CR upgraded to a recommend. Perfect example of how software is eating the world.

Ok, that’s it for this week. Thanks for bearing with me while I tried to get this out. If there’s anything I should definitely check out that I didn’t mention, please send it my way. Otherwise please share this with your friends and, if you haven’t already, subscribe to the email. Thanks and have a great week.

June 3, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,