(Picture courtesy Holly Perkin aged 3 years 8 months).
When children first draw pictures they are wonderfully unstructured and haphazard. Over time we encourage them to restrict this expression, we reward them for colouring in spaces and not going over the line, we congratulate them for accuracy of portrayal. Why do we do this? Is it our need for structure, to have a place for everything, to create an understanding of how things should be? In later life, we have to learn abstraction and expression all over again because we’ve often largely forgotten how to do it. Some never get it back.
The abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock appears to have been created out of a child-like randomness. A lot of people look at his work and think ‘I could do that’. Yet he always denied ‘the accident’. His paintings were instead about the mix of the controllable (the vision of how he wanted the piece to appear, the movement of his body over the canvass) with the uncontrollable (the small variations in how the paint fell or was absorbed by the canvass).
“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess, Otherwise there is pure harmony, and easy give and take, and the painting comes out well." (Jackson Pollock).
In marketing, we like predictability. The more we feel we know the likely consequences of what we do the more comfortable we feel with it. The accountability of online media helps us to believe that more than ever, the game of the future will be all about data and optimisation. Behavioural targeting offers us the opportunity to deliver and adapt our advertising based on how our recipient has acted in the past. With econometrics, we even go so far as to model likely outcomes based on what has happened in the past. We seek to apply science to what we do wherever we can. We like to get as close to certainty as possible.
In many ways this is just good business practice. But in a future shaped by a ruthless pursuit of efficiency and over-optimisation, will there be room for the kind of happy accidents that can be transformational? Will it all simply serve to make brands too predictable? Is randomness really such an enemy of good marketing?
It sometimes seems like the more we know, the more we want to cut chance from the equation, the less risks we take. Yet some of the most fundamental structures of life are based on random events. In the theory of evolution, the diversity of life is ascribed to random mutations of genetic code, some of which are retained in the gene pool due to the improved chance of survival these genes afford.
Surely this kind of randomness has its place in shaping marketing’s gene pool? In his forward to Jim Taylor’s Space Race (An Inside View of The Future of Communications Planning), Ken Sacharin (author of Attention) suggests that most industries have a dimension routed in engineering, and a dimension routed in the artistic. Whilst both add value in the communications and advertising process, it is the artistic dimension that has the true capability of delivering dramatic leaps in marketing performance because it is the ‘domain of ideas’.
And unpredictability and randomness clearly have a role in the generation of great ideas. The guys at ?Whatif! (‘the world’s largest independent innovation company’) have built their business on their concept of ‘Freshness’, defined as “finding surprising solutions to problems. The habit of always trying new things, of being comfortable with the unpredictable.” One of their four ‘R’ s of Freshness (the others being Re-expression, Related World, Revolution) is Random Links – "making connections and links between the issue and random items found in the world". One of my favourite quotes on this, from Albert Einstein, captures perfectly why this is so important:
“Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which they were created.”
Consumer attention is scarce and precious, right? We all know it. So why don’t we take more chances to get it? Rohit Bhargarva makes a good point about what makes ‘randomness’ such a powerful marketing tool:
“…most theories today focus on how attention can be driven by credibility, trust or brand authenticity. While I agree with these theories, there is another force that works outside of any of these. Curiousity. Randomness drives curiousity, and curiousity drives attention. “
Look at children. Children are inherently curious – and this curiosity is at the core of their acquisitiveness and interest. Think about the last time you had your ipod on shuffle. Difficult to turn it off shuffle isn’t it? You just have to know what that next song is. People love to be (pleasantly) surprised, to unearth new things they can use, pass on. It’s what magazine editors call ‘the power of discovery’.
Grant McCracken posted recently on how the internet has extinguished the need for accidental sociality. In The End of Accidental Networks he talks of how machines can craft the social world for us. I’m sure he’s right. How great it would be to be to be able to efficiently hook up with people who are most like you. But take this to its extreme and it’s a pretty depressing scenario. Our wives and husbands, our best friends, probably aren’t much like us in most respects. In a utopian world of automated sociality we probably never would have met them.
I have a 10 minute walk from Waterloo to my office. I usually take exactly the same route. But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, I feel like going a different route, and I do. Why do I do that? I’m not sure I can answer that fully, but I think it has something to do with wanting to exercise a degree of control over something which is quite routine and habitual.
My question is this – in a future, driven by automation, data, efficiency and optimisation will brands take enough risks? Will the brands of the future be adventurous, unexpected, surprising? Randomness is a very human need. A life built on constant surprise would of-course be unliveable, but a life without randomness is dull, repetitive, cold, uninteresting and monotonous. Who wants that? Perhaps Jackson Pollock had it about right. Finding the right mix of the controllable and the uncontrollable, the predictable and the unpredictable is what it’s all about.