Unstrengthened and unilluminated: How specialists are failing the rest of us

37050-1920x1200

In 1959, J. Robert Oppenheimer delivered a talk entitled “Tradition and Discovery” to the annual meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies.

In it, he spoke of what he saw as an imbalance in knowledge:

The imbalance between what is known to us as a community, what is common knowledge, what we take for granted with each other, and in each other, what is known by man; and on the other hand, all the rest, that is known only by small special groups, by the specialized communities, people who are interested and dedicated, who are involved in the work of increasing human knowledge and human understanding but are not able to put it into the common knowledge of man, not able to make it something of which we and our neighbors can be sure that we have been through together, not able to make of it something which, rich and beautiful, is the very basis of civilized life… We learn of learning as we learn of something remote, not concerning us, going on on a distant frontier; and things that are left to our common life are untouched, unstrengthened and unilluminated by this enormous wonder about the world which is everywhere about us, which could flood us with light, yet which is only faintly… perceived.”

There is much that is being explored and learnt by small special groups and specialized communities within our constellation of industries.

Network scientists are learning about social cascades. Marketing scientists are learning about the mechanics of categories and brand growth. Creative technologists are learning about what can be built. Researchers are exploring new ways of understanding people’s preferences, motivations, perceptions and choice. Data analysts are learning how to extract practical insight from ever bigger, ever more complex and varied data sets. The list goes on.

All of them are, to use Oppenheimer’s words, involved in the work of increasing human knowledge and human understanding. Or at least our industry’s knowledge and understanding.

But while the company and tribal solidarity of  immediate peers may be a source of identity, strength, and comfort, if we fail to put the knowledge acquired into the common knowledge and toolbox of all of us, then we will remain as an industry, unstrengthened and unilluminated. Until this knowledge escapes the specialized communities, platforms, forums, departments, and silos, then we – agencies, clients and our wider industry – will only ever evolve at a glacial pace.

So to the specialists everywhere, I say (and indeed plead): Talk to the unbelievers and unconverted. Talk to the naysayers. Find and address the points of greatest resistance. Engage with those you regard with suspicion. Invite in the ignorant. Make friends with the Luddites and reactionaries. Interact with those on the opposite side of whatever divide you think exists. And don’t expect them to come to you. Invite yourself as a specialist into the forums, platforms and conversations of the mainstream – however hard and frustrating that may be.

Increase the common knowledge of us all.

Bring the wonders of the distant frontier back home.

About these ads

3 comments

  1. Jonathan F.

    To speak candidly, marketing services firms aren’t failing advertising agencies, they just don’t see a need in giving away what are often just specialist methods and techniques, but which are at the heart of their business models, thereby – this is the important point – giving the upper-hand back to the ad agencies with their wealth of Creative experience. From the perspective of a marketing services firm, there’s no real “common knowledge,” there’s just a chain of different specialists, leading from cultural insights, to brand development, and then to creative advertising.

    For me, this was a very interesting post. I’m currently working in a marketing consultancy, having also worked in a management consultancy as something you’d recognise as a Data Planner, but I want to work agency-side. I’ve spoken to a lot of people and what’s struck me, apart from how, too often, each part of that chain sees the Strategy work of the others as arcane, unsubstantial, or just disingenuous, is an ignorance that blinkers them to the possibilities that can be brought to bear by the methods and techniques of one another on their own work. Although they’re easily-learned methods and techniques, the fact they’re from another specialist industry means it’s hard for people to re-contextualize them into their own world. The trick is to sell it pragmatically: ultimately, these things really could save ad agencies and their clients a lot of time and a lot of money.

    There’s a very interesting, relevant quote from Richard Sennett’s book, “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation”:

    “The division of labour helps us multiply our insufficient powers, but this division works best when it is supple, because the environment itself is in a constant process of change. Changes in the environment run ahead of genetically patterned behaviour; among social animals, no single institution [...] can guarantee stability. Given all this, how then are balances between cooperation’s and competition struck? The answer lies in the spectrum of exchanges [...] humans experience.”

    Until all organisations are forced to pool and consolidate their knowledge, I do sincerely think that ad agencies’ Strategists are the most rehearsed in understanding this “spectrum of exchanges,” and are the most “supple.” And, I think this is something which is recognised by the very best marketing services firms. Similarly, they do only hire the people who’ve spent time on discrepant projects, who’ve soaked up available data and stats as they have wider cultural knowledge, and who can put some well-reasoned substance into a deck beneath a five-or-less-words top-line.

    If you agree that in the last 30 years the marketing services firms have stripped ad agencies’ Strategists of their role as bona-fide market researchers, in a world where the fruits of research are more readily accessible, marketing services firms are going to do everything within their power to keep hidden the specialist methods and techniques with which they can customize their paid work.

  2. jonathanflockton

    To speak candidly, marketing services firms aren’t failing advertising agencies, they just don’t see a need in giving away what are often just specialist methods and techniques, but which are at the heart of their business models, thereby – this is the important point – giving the upper-hand back to the ad agencies with their wealth of Creative experience. From the perspective of a marketing services firm, there’s no real “common knowledge,” there’s just a chain of different specialists, leading from cultural insights, to brand development, and then to creative advertising.

    For me, this was a very interesting post. I’m currently working in a marketing consultancy, having also worked in a management consultancy as something you’d recognise as a Data Planner, but I want to work agency-side. I’ve spoken to a lot of people and what’s struck me, apart from how, too often, each part of that chain sees the Strategy work of the others as arcane, unsubstantial, or just disingenuous, is an ignorance that blinkers them to the possibilities that can be brought to bear by the methods and techniques of one another on their own work. Although they’re easily-learned methods and techniques, the fact they’re from another specialist industry means it’s hard for people to re-contextualize them into their own world. The trick is to sell it pragmatically: ultimately, these things really could save ad agencies and their clients a lot of time and a lot of money.

    There’s a very interesting, relevant quote from Richard Sennett’s book, “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation”:

    “The division of labour helps us multiply our insufficient powers, but this division works best when it is supple, because the environment itself is in a constant process of change. Changes in the environment run ahead of genetically patterned behaviour; among social animals, no single institution [...] can guarantee stability. Given all this, how then are balances between cooperation’s and competition struck? The answer lies in the spectrum of exchanges [...] humans experience.”

    Until all organisations are forced to pool and consolidate their knowledge, I do sincerely think that ad agencies’ Strategists are the most rehearsed in understanding this “spectrum of exchanges,” and are the most “supple.” And, I think this is something which is recognised by the very best marketing services firms. Similarly, they do only hire the people who’ve spent time on discrepant projects, who’ve soaked up available data and stats as they have wider cultural knowledge, and who can put some well-reasoned substance into a deck beneath a five-or-less-words top-line.

    If, in the last 30 years, you agree that the marketing services firms have stripped ad agencies’ Strategists of their role as bona-fide market researchers, in a world where the fruits of research are more readily accessible, marketing services firms are going to do everything within their power to keep hidden the specialist methods and techniques with which they can customize their paid work.

  3. Pingback: Au sujet de la créativité collective et de la malédiction du savoir | Notre Lien Quotidien

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s