John Tukey, one of the most famous statisticians, once said, "Better a poor answer to the right question than a good answer to the wrong question." Tukey is also known to have said (paraphrased), "I suspect that most failures occur because we attempt to solve the wrong problem in the first place, and not because we fail to get the right solutions to the right problems."
Failures in work and life occur because we perfect solutions to the wrong problems, then we fool ourselves into believing we have solved the right problems to begin with, and finally we stick to our guns until the bitter end. This human flaw, to solve the wrong problem precisely, has been labeled by Howard Raiffa as the Error of the Third Kind. Basically, we are trying to solve old and new problems with the assumptions, mindsets, and institutions of the past.
Due to many factors (Structure of Holding Companies, Data Obsession, client demands), the advertising industry is a perfect example for the Error of the Third Kind: Everything we do has become much more efficient but not very effective. Meaning: we're getting better at doing the wrong thing. Data Centers. Ad Exchanges. You name it. The whole industry is answering the wrong question precisely. But, as we know, efficiency is not our real problem. People's apathy towards advertising, their disinterest in disruptive messages, their view of advertising as a communication strategy is the problem.
Because the advertising business has problems connecting with people and delivering valuable results to companies, this problem is categorized as an "advertising" problem and thereby retained and not solved in the advertising department. I would argue, the best place to treat a problem is not necessarily where it appears. Advertising is just one part of the overall system and its challenges shouldn't be discussed by that discipline alone. Leaving it to the echo chamber won't lead to a solution. Advertising is a cultural pillar and its decline needs to be discussed with sociologists, technologists, futurists, psychologists, anthropologists – you name it.
There are many ways of looking at a problem, the most productive way of dealing with a problem is seldom obvious. For that reason, problems should be viewed from as many different perspectives as possible through collaboration of multiple points of view.
Our industry would be best served by inviting the brightest minds to a permanent discussion platform and collaborating around the real question: What is the point of advertising in this world of changed marketing reality, dramatic behavior changes and loss of trust in institutions? What problems can advertising solve? How can advertising advance society? While we're answering the wrong questions precisely, there are so many important questions we need to answer before we come to a point where advertising becomes completely pointless.
Uwe Hook is the CEO and Co-Founder of BatesHook, Inc. (www.bateshook.com) and a veteran of the advertising and marketing industry with the goal of building connections between people and brands. Uwe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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