As Bryan Cranston said when he played Howard Beale in the award-winning run of Network at London’s National Theatre, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore’.
Because I’m genuinely angry about seeing corporations cut the size of their insight team, slash their insight budgets, make decisions based on ‘gut instinct’ all in the name of ‘efficiency’. Last time I looked it up (10 seconds ago), ‘efficiency’ isn’t defined by making uninformed, or badly researched commercial decisions, it isn’t defined by launching products or comms on a whim. That’s not efficient, that’s just stupid.
The thing is we’re in an information paradox about people. We’ve never known more about people (like us), but we’ve also never understood less about people unlike us. The issue is when we make business (or personal for that matter, but that’s another post) decisions based on people like us only. That’s when mistakes start to happen.
Society and culture is making people believe that more people are more like them. Amazon’s ‘people who bought this also bought’ and Spotify’s ‘recommended songs’, all based on algorithms, combined with us following people we like and unfollowing people we don’t on our social media channels, mean we’re narrowing what we’re exposed to across both opinion and culture. And at the same time, assuming, because it is all we see, that everyone else is like us or agrees with us. The problem is, that’s bollocks.
As a result, we’ve become more empathy deficient.
We are quick to say how ‘out of touch’ politicians are, but have you taken a look in the mirror recently? It’s happening to everyone, not just them.
The thing is we’ve always been like this, but social media and technology has just enabled us to get better at it (better at not understanding people unlike us). The issue isn’t the technology, the issue is that we’re not trying to find out more about the rest of them out there, that companies are making decisions based on ‘people like us’ only.
The problem is deep and it starts early in our lives.
‘Like-minded people’ I believe is the phrase used by people not like me. Parents are told by other parents that they don’t want their children to fall in the with the ‘wrong’ crowd, that their kids will be naturally drawn to people like them so ‘not to worry’. How dull. Kids should be actively encouraged to talk to people not like them. University offers a brief respite (in some cases). Work doesn’t. Work often pulls you back into the same ‘people like me’ routine.
Look at estate agents, look at bankers, look at people in advertising - you can spot the uniform a mile off – a desire to fit in, to be accepted, to be one of them. Is it because they employ people who are like them or is it because they mould themselves into being one of those people that looks like everyone else. The problem is that raises the mentality that anyone else is ‘not one of us’. And so the problem grows.
This is society's fault, not theirs.
Let’s look at media consumption – most people that read the Guardian, don’t read the Times, most people that read the Sun, don’t read the Mirror. People select the media consumption that reflects their views, naturally. They’ll tut at other newspapers or media outlets (I tut a lot at the Daily Mail, in fact I tut at it all the time, maybe I shouldn’t, maybe I should read it until I feel like vomiting and try to understand it), and they’ll say ‘how can people read this shit’ but they do read it, so we all need to get over it.
Perhaps we should all read a newspaper we hate, rather than just castigating people for it?
Social media has just magnified the problem via the oft mentioned ‘echo chamber’. People love reading other people tweeting them back their own opinion, they love being agreed with. It justifies their own thinking. He/she says is, so it must be true. If someone disagrees, unfollow. Why not follow people you disagree with – at least you’ll understand them better?
Which brings us to these multibillion dollar companies. How do these executives begin to understand people not like them? Or rather, why is there a reticence to understand what else is happening out there, what other people are like. Please tell me they’re not falling into the classic error of ‘I’d buy it/use it’ etc. so why wouldn’t everyone else, or even worse, ‘gut instinct’.
The industry I’m in, the research industry, has to hold their hands up here and take some of the blame. If we’re still seeing CEOs trust their gut instinct over research, you have to question their belief in research, their prior experience where it may have burnt them. It’s a pretty dire place for my industry to be in if research is taking second place to gut instinct (which is nothing more than a partially informed guess). For too long they must have been presented with the wrong research, the wrong method, the wrong output, and bad insight. No wonder.
The risk of decision making purely on an in-house gut instinct is vast. No comedian would go and play Wembley with an untested act. They test and learn, they try new material and adapt it through understanding consumer reaction. The listen to their audience, they travel around the country learning. As one of our clients wrote, ‘consumers aren’t just mums from Surrey’ (or millennials from Soho for that matter).
Personally, I’m really enjoying living in this world where Hillary Clinton is doing a great job as President and working brilliantly with the UK in Europe, after the Leave vote lost so badly.
Hold on. Shit. But my social media said that they were all voting remain? But my newspaper said that everyone hated Trump.
So, to all your CEOs out there, I’m sorry my industry has messed up. It’s time to put a line in the sand though, to start again. Time to stop all this talking about getting closer to your consumer and how you put the consumer at the heart of everything you do (unless you’re spelling consumer, m o n e y) - it’s so incredibly dull and it isn’t true. But it can be. Actions speak louder than words.
Buck up your ideas, do the right research (it is out there), put the right insights front and centre of your organisation, demand your team really know the people they are selling to, and guess what, you might start selling more.
Meet your consumer. Or someone else will.
This piece was by CEO of Watch Me Think, Alistair Vince. Follow him @alistair_vince