How to navigate the oversupply of brand advice

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Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, “The monk is our teacher.” But when you yourselves know: “These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,” enter on and abide in them.”

Source: Siddhartha Gautama (aka Buddha), Kālāma Sutta 

Bullshit

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One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted… Why is there so much bullshit? Of course it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times. There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before, but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased. Without assuming that the incidence of bullshit is actually greater now, I will mention a few considerations that help to account for the fact that it is currently so great. Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These ‘anti-realist’ doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.”

Harry Frankfurt, ‘On Bullshit‘ (2005)

Also:

 

A planner’s guide to reading

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“You adapt yourself to the contents of the paintbox.”

Paul Klee

“What should I read to inform and inspire myself?” I was asked by a planner recently. It’s proven a perennial question, and one I have dodged more often than answered. But I’ve finally given some thought to the kinds of reading we should be doing. For it struck me that if what we read has the capacity to expand our emotional and intellectual resources, then this is a good, necessary, and important question.

The great American writer Annie Dillard was good on the subject of our internal resources. Citing the painter Klee when he said You adapt yourself to the contents of the paintbox” Dillard observes that:

The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.

We can choose how varied our literal or metaphorical paintbox is. The more we invest in it, the more possibilities we have at our disposal. Mastering the technique and craft of our chosen domain is an important first step in developing our paintbox, as is embracing, understanding and appreciating its achievements. But of course we can and must go further. The more we cultivate an interest in what lies outside our domain, the more we open ourselves us to new possibilities, to new and exciting combinations. As the choreographer Twyla Tharp has put it: “Everything is raw material. Everything is valuable.”

So with that in mind, I’d want to suggest that there are seven kinds of reading we (planners) benefit from:

1. That which expands our capacity for empathy

2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy

3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built

4. That which illuminates the present state of things

5. That which lets us peer into the near-future

6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft

7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression

I’ve provided below some humble, and largely subjective serving suggestions, based on reading that’s stayed with me, reading I keep returning to, and more recent reading.

Some observations and caveats:

My point is to provide a point of view on the kinds of reading we benefit from, NOT, heaven forbid, to provide a comprehensive reading list.

Non-fiction does not hold the monopoly on truth and wisdom. The absence of fiction (which arguably contains more truth than any non-fiction) from recommended reading lists for planners is utterly baffling.

The fiction titles included are necessarily very personal and subjective choices – we must each work out our own tastes and preferences.

For the most part I have eschewed those breezily written books usually located in the psychology, business, or marketing sections of bookshops. More often than not they are of dubious methodological integrity. And everybody else has read them.

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1. That which expands our capacity for empathy

Because without that we fail.

Ali Smith, How to be Both

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins

Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday

James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District

Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk

Fiction teaches us empathy like no other art form.

(These are just some personal and recent favourites).

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2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy

Because there are basics to be learnt.

Stephen Bungay, The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results

Lawrence Friedman, Strategy: A History

Judie Lannon and Merry Baskin’s (ed.) A Master Class In Brand Planning: The Timeless Works Of Stephen King.

Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference And Why It Matters

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3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built

Because there are basics to be learnt.

ed., Advertising Works: Cases from the Advertising Effectiveness Awards

Les Binet & Peter Field, The Long and The Short of it: Balancing Short- and Long-Term Marketing Strategies

Paul Feldwick, The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know

Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising

This is the canon. There’s little else to bother with. The rest is just noise.

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4. That which shines a light on the present state of things

Because insight.

Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology

John Brockman, ed., What Should We Be Worried About? Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up At Night

Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Terminal Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity

Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

Atticus Lish, Preparation For The Next Life

Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems that Don’t Exist

Zia Haider Rahman, In The Light Of What We Know

Laurence Scott, The Four Dimensional Human: Ways Of Being In The Digital World

Duncan Watts, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age

etc.

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5. That which lets us peer into the near-future

Because our task is creating new futures for our clients’ businesses.

David Brin, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

Don DeLillo, Zero K

David Eggers, The Circle

William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story

Jaron Lanier, Who Owns The Future?

John Markoff, Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground

John Tomlinson, The Culture Of Speed: The Coming Of Immediacy

***

6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft

Obviously.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Harold McGee, McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History, and Culture

Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962-1993

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull, Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas

Sophie Lovell, Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible

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7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression

Because forward progress depends on convincing others.

All great writing.

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As I said, my point is to provide a point of view on the kinds of reading we can benefit from, NOT to provide a comprehensive reading list. And when it comes to kinds of reading, I suggest we that range across seven kinds:

1. That which expands our capacity for empathy

2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy

3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built

4. That which illuminates the present state of things

5. That which lets us peer into into the near-future

6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft

7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression

In 2006 the chefs Ferran Adria , Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, and the writer Harold McGee put forward what they termed ‘the international agenda for great cooking’, and while its focus was food, it could well serve as the agenda and manifesto for anyone in the business of ideas and creativity who wishes to nurture and expand their intellectual resources:

We believe that today and in the future, a commitment to excellence requires openness to all resources that can help us give pleasure and meaning to people through the medium of food. In the past, cooks and their dishes were constrained by many factors: the limited availability of ingredients and ways of transforming them, limited understanding of cooking processes, and the necessarily narrow definitions and expectations embodied in local tradition. Today there are many fewer constraints, and tremendous potential for the progress of our craft. We can choose from the entire planet’s ingredients, cooking methods, and traditions, and draw on all of human knowledge, to explore what it is possible to do with food and the experience of eating.”

Happy reading.

Are we making progress?

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I came across a conversation recently between Phil Torres at Salon and Dr. Sean Carroll, a cosmologist and physics professor specializing in dark energy and general relativity at the California Institute of Technology.

This particular exchange caught my eye:

You also talk about “planets of belief,” a metaphor that one could have guessed came from a cosmologist! What do you mean by this term, and what makes a planet of belief “stable”?

Ever since René Descartes and his famous Cogito, Ergo Sum, people have sought out an absolutely firm and unshakable foundation for their beliefs. An honest poetic naturalist admits that such a foundation just doesn’t exist. We could, however unlikely it may seem, be brains living in vats, or be misled by a mischievous demon.

What happens, instead, is that we assemble together a variety of different beliefs about the world. To the extent that these beliefs are compatible with each other, we can think of them as mutually reinforcing, as if they exert a gravitational field that pulls together a “planet of belief.” A stable planet is one where the different pieces truly are compatible – we’re not just fooling ourselves about the consistency of different parts of our belief systems. If they’re not stable, beliefs that we simultaneously hold can come into conflict, forcing us to reject one of them (or just live with the burden of cognitive dissonance). Alternatively, new information can cause us to change our beliefs, as if a giant asteroid barrels into a planet and causes disruption.

As we get older, we tend to grow quite fond of the planets of belief we have constructed for ourselves. We build elaborate defense mechanisms to ward off attacks from competing ideas or new data. The system makes us comfortable, but resistant to change, no matter how much change might be called for.

It prompted all manner of parochial questions, for which I had no answers:

Is marketing one big, fat planet of belief?

Have we done enough to critique its beliefs with fact-based arguments and assaults?

Are we in the process of building the next generation of big, fat planets of belief?

Are we indeed, making any progress?

etc.

Perhaps somebody out there does.

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Source: Salon, 08.05.16