In the long run, we’re all dead

Image: Genista

That’s how John Maynard Keynes put it and although he wasn’t talking about marketing, his words certainly ring true to all of us working with marketing or advertising strategy. This became apparent to me after reading a post on Micco Grönholm’s “The Brand-Man” blog (Swedish only), where he discusses an experiment from behavioral economics dealing with the role of emotions in decision-making and why we don’t learn from our mistakes. Micco’s post was great in itself, but it also made me think of this clip where Daniel Kahneman makes a distgustingly excellent observation: “For a firm, in principle, there is a long horizon. People have a much shorter time-scale. They have to have three meals a day, a salary every month, a bonus every year…”

Bam! Right there, just like that, he blew strategy work right out of the water. Since strategy, in essence, deals with long-term planning and people concern themselves with the here and now, there isn’t much hope for the former. Sure, most marketing people like talking about strategy, workshopping their way through strategy processes and producing strategy documents. Maybe because it makes them (or should I say “us”) feel important. Maybe because it’s fun (it is).

But does it matter?

I’m thinking maybe not, because not only does adhering to strategy require people to be able to reason in abstract concepts, it also often means sacrificing small but concrete short-term gains for larger but long-term, and thereby more vague, ones. And as the Allais paradox shows, when faced with a situation of certainty vs uncertainty, people maximize utility over value, i.e. prefer the more certain outcome even if its value is smaller. Also, focusing on the long-term doesn’t seem to be very conducive to most marketing people’s careers.

However, I’m not prepared to throw my hands in the air and open a coffee shop on a small Greek island just yet. I haven’t given up on strategy, I have merely reached a couple of conclusions. For a strategy to even have the slightest chance of making a difference it has to be:

1. Dead simple (pun intended). If it doesn’t stick the first time, it never will. And nobody’s going to read the documentation.

2. Expressed as an idea. An idea that can actually inspire people. Not something that makes you nod your head going “yeah, that makes sense” but the kind of thing that makes you feel two inches taller.

I guess what I’m talking about is what is normally not labeled as strategy but as “vision”. Like Disney’s “We shall make people happy” or Nike’s “If you have a body, you’re an athlete”. The Romans called it casus belli, something to go into battle for. And possibly to die for. Perhaps that is the most realistic way forward for most companies – good tactics and good people combined with a clear casus belli that can energize them in the same direction.

Enough of this talk of death. To summarize, and to end on a somewhat more cheerful note, I’ll let Robin Williams express the essence of what I think any good strategy should be able to answer:


5 thoughts on “In the long run, we’re all dead

  1. Pingback: » Look Like Popcorn, that’s our vision. winged/wicked things

  2. Petter says:

    Intresting post. We have started our agency presentation with that Keynes quote for the last 3 years. And I think it realy summarize our way of working and our proposal. We have seen a good respons to it as well from the clients. And it had worked for them. There are many reasons to this but I think the two main reasons are:
    1. No one is evaluated on a long term nowadays. Neither the persons/functions at a company nor the company itself. “Quarterly capitalism” in effect.
    2. The times they are a changing. Everything changes so fast now that there is no use planning for the next 5 years when you can’t even predict the afternoon.

    Short term vision makes things happen. And TO do something always make a bigger difference than HOW.
    Personally I think working out short term tactics is almost as fun as strategics. And you see the result much faster = more kicks. 😉

  3. I really agree with you on this Dan. I wrote some semi-confused here a while ago. And I’ve come to the same conclusion as you have (I think). The vision – the over-all meaning of a brand, is indeed the only persistent enough strategy (and that is nothing some agency produced, it comes from the people who took the great step to realize a big friggin’ idea). Rest is ideas and tactics. And the thing is – THAT’S NOT SECOND BEST. Sometimes it feels like we put so much value on strategies. Oh, strategists – they come up with grand strategies, wow; massive. Well tactics and small ideas aren’t so bad. I think many of the “intermediary” strategies can be more hindering than enabling.

  4. Olle, so you’re saying I’m not the first person to have thought of this? I’m shocked! Shocked, I tell you!

    I think it’s important not to debunk “strategy” (or whatever you want to call it) altogether, though. A sense of direction and purpose is good for business, morale and makes it more fun to go to work in the morning.

    But that’s precisely what you’re saying yourself. So I’ll stop dithering and just go and pour myself another glass of red now, thank you very much. Cheers.

  5. Petter, nice input. TO being more important than HOW reminds me of how I usually think about what matters the most in communications:
    1. TO (actually do or say something)
    2. HOW (it is done or said)
    3. WHAT (is done or said)
    Anyone who’s ever given a speech at, say, a wedding should know what I’m talking about.

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