• “All models are wrong, but some of them are useful.” – George E.P. Box

May Day, May Day! Traditionally a day of calling to arms for the struggles of the workers. And if the army of white collar working class needed a revolutionary subversive from the top of the parapets, Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland would fit the bill. His presentation “It’s a Science Just Not This Kind of Science” (thanks Matt) showcases his rabble-rousing style challenging all sorts of authorities from experts to executives. But he has a particularly sharp blade for that very particular patrician class of the business world – the marketeer.

Sutherland exaggerates colourfully to make his points and sometimes his hyperbole stretches a bit too far. While I applaud his core message of avoiding getting seduced by “science”, his lambastes into its shortcomings are a bit OTT in my view. The early part of his talk veers dangerously close to the classic plea for rampant unaccountability in the cult of the marketing witch doctors.

Oglivy bemoans spoiling all our fun with all of its predictability and repeatability. He points out high profile business successes like Branson who have fewer stakeholder burdens and do innovative (and fun) things. He does make some good points about be wary of disciplines masquerading science. Much of the so-called “science” applied to marketing isn’t really “science” at all, but really just a label to make studies like “social science” have more gravitas. He asserts, with reasonable grounds, that science isn’t applicable to the marketeer’s world of behavior change. But such ripostes are not really “anti-science”, just anti-faux –science.

Part of his argument hinges on the distinction between “perception” and “reality”. He articulately argues (as a marketer might) the power of perception over reality. “Mathematics” are more the useful tool for ‘reality’, but they have less reliable application in the area of ‘perception’ (citing a number of the perception biases studies by Kahnemann). In this context, Oglivy echoes many points I make in my “business is not a coin-operated spreadsheet” coining the colourful if ever so indelicate term for over-dependence on such mathematical analyses in business – “measurbation”.

Over the course of the talk he does temper his assertions a bit. He says that it is not so much the “mathematics” that are to blame for “insanity” as the “dependence” on them. One result of his perspective is that it embraces failure very thoroughly. It shuns the “right answer” rigour of science and maths for a more flexible and indefinite failure embracing approach of the arts…

  • Dare to be trivial. Ideas like the ‘choc-ice’ effect are hugely beneficial, but are not valued because they are not seen to be ‘strategic’Dependence on mathematics leads to kind of insanity

Hugh MacLeod riffs on this same topic (and same quote) in his assessment of business plan myopia…

  • “Your plan may look great, but the parts you are certain about may turn out to fail and the parts that you were not at all sure about, may be the most successful. The model for any business is undoubtedly imperfect. But there are certainly elements useful for figuring out next steps to grow and build something bigger and better. This one is a lesson in keeping your eyes open for what you can learn from other businesses – whether they are successes or failures.”

Gapingvoid - Every Model is Wrong