What We Know Is Not Nearly as Important as What We Don’t Know – Yet.

August 22nd, 2016

Reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb has set me to thinking that it is not enough to be able to predict Black Swans when you are in the business of creating them.

An advertising agency (for lack of a better term – but trust me, I’m working on it), at its most basic level, serves a single purpose:

To reflect the consumer back to the companies who are producing the goods they hope will be consumed.

(This idea in and of itself causes much consternation, as conventional thinking might jump to the conclusion that it is the other way around.)

As a mirror of the very society we serve, we are most successful when we produce work which reflects what is going on around us in culture and society. Work which simultaneously defines and is defined by the times.

It is therefore one of the most valuable assets in an agency partner to be irrepressibly curious and observant, seeking out that which we don’t know, and don’t even know we don’t know. To see not only the nuances of daily life which are, for most of us, hidden from view, but also to see those occurrences which are so obviously and plainly in site as to be easily missed.

Few things in life surprise us as a society. That is, most trends and events are easy to understand in hindsight, if you stop to reflect on the circumstances out of which they occurred. Ah, but what if you had the tools and resources to think about those things the day before they happened instead of the day after? It is this very talent that alludes most of us, because we are trained to find comfort in knowledge compiled from inductive learning (that which we gain solely from events which happened predictably in the past) instead of from the uncertainty of deductive learning (understanding that which might happen in the future). In fact, our tendency is to accept as valuable only that which confirms our knowledge, not our ignorance, so we are pre-programmed to miss out on exactly what we are seeking.

It takes a great deal of courage to endure the judgment rendered upon a new idea, largely because the world knows what is wrong with considerably more confidence than it knows what is right. So how is one to create truly original events (and any idea worth its salt is surely an event)? To start with, walk over to that shelf in your office and get rid of all your awards books. Then do the same with your own book. Ignore everything you know, because that will inevitably lead you down the path of repeating that which has already happened, and instead reconcile yourself with accepting the importance of that which you haven’t even conceived yet as possible. In other words, resist the temptation to proffer answers to every question and instead devote that time to questioning every answer.

Learning from history is for historians. All it really does for the rest of us is to confirm what we think we already know, and keep the blinders on from everything else out there that does not fit into that particular narrative. In order to create the Black Swan, or at least to create the possibility of one, the creator has to have no attachment to the outcome. This is an idea I learned from William Goldman, famed screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid among others. He often said that what distinguishes an original writer is his ability to create original characters and let them create their own unpredictable stories. In this way, Goldman has succeeded in using the veil of fiction to free his characters, and their futures, from the shackles of inductive learning, the error of confirmation, and the narrative fallacy.

And yet, does it not seem that agencies are trapped in the same dilemma as a writer who already knows the end of his story before he writes it? Are we not, as writers of ideas, more attached to the plot at the expense of the characters? Do our outcomes write themselves, as original solutions to stated problems, or do they come to us pre-determined by the devices of these plot options that are laid out for us, devices such as media plans, agency billing structures and the paths well worn by previously-awarded advertising? If you’re not sure, then I would suggest this as a way to find out:

Think back to a recent campaign you produced – pick a good one, not a straw dog. Next,  go back in your mind to the original business problem, the core need that was being addressed by the creation of this campaign, and write that problem down on a blank sheet of paper. This problem should be expressed as free of expected outcome as possible (i.e. – in these recessionary times no one dares think of buying a new car, as opposed to we need a new ad campaign to sell cars.) Now, taking all restrictions off the table, and mentally creating a universe in which all options are on the table and anything is possible, ask yourself what would you do to solve the problem.

If what you come up with resembles the ad campaign you produced, congratulations – you have confirmed your belief in what you have already done. If, however it doesn’t resemble that campaign, or anything you even recognize as being an ad campaign, then give us a call.

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One Response to “What We Know Is Not Nearly as Important as What We Don’t Know – Yet.”

  1. I really like the idea of thinking as free of the expected outcome as possible. Why bog yourself down before you even get started?