August 21, 2014
The Problem Of Truthfulness
After spending 40 years in the agency business, I have spent the past 16 months away from it.
It has given me the opportunity to think about it differently -- not as someone preoccupied with meetings, deadlines, and crises, but as someone with the benefit of a little disinterested perspective.
One of the issues I have been thinking about is truthfulness. We are often accused of not being truthful with consumers. This may or may not be true, but it's not the subject of today's sermon.
Today's sermon is about the "to thine own self be true" kind of truthfulness. It is about the lies we tell ourselves. These lies don't come from a desire to deceive, they come from a desire to be right.
One of the honorable aspects of our work should be the impartial way we go about learning what is effective for our clients.
We should have creditable answers when our clients ask questions about the effectiveness of this technique or that tactic.
Mostly we don't. We have cute anecdotes and semi-relevant case histories and the assertions and opinions of "experts." We spend way more time justifying our beliefs than trying to learn basic truths about what we do.
Many of us have become specialists and don't have access to the larger picture. Consequently, we have become advocates for our particular specialty without really knowing how effective it is.
We are interested in reading about and hearing about the cases that support our point of view. We skim over the ones that belie our thinking. I think sociologists call this confirmation bias.
The truthfulness I'm concerned about is the truthfulness of the conversations we have with ourselves.
Bad scientists start an experiment with a result in mind. When they get results that don't match their expectations they either ignore them, call them anomalies, or find a way to discard them as irrelevant.
Good scientists learn more from what they didn't expect than from what they did.
Of course, this requires a different frame of mind from what most of us carry around. There are some very large unanswered questions about the comparative effectiveness of the ocean of new advertising possibilities.
What we should be doing is trying to find the truth. What we are actually doing is trying to confirm our beliefs.