The dangers of dogma: why marketing planners must be open to rethinking their strategy

One of the best planning books I’ve read in recent years has been Paul Feldwick’s masterful Anatomy of Humbug. If you haven’t read it, then stop what you’re doing immediately and go and buy it.

It’s a book that sets out an objective view on the different ways in which advertising works, from the early days of salesmanship theory – "the more you tell, the more you sell" – through to building mental availability, as made famous by Byron Sharp, and the undeniable "laws of growth".

It isn’t the conclusions Feldwick makes about each theory that makes this book so compelling, but instead it's the way he challenges industry dogma, and invites readers to draw their own conclusions, that make it so refreshingly honest.

Dogma can be dangerous in any walk of life. I think most us accept this. What’s interesting within the industry is how many of us seem happy to subscribe to it without question when looking at strategy.

We are seemingly obsessed with compartmentalising theories into the binary ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments.

The latest APG Noisy Thinking event invited some of the greatest minds in our industry to debate the question: does brand purpose have a point? Marie Maurer, author of the IPA award-winning Dove paper, argued the case for brand purpose among a panel of other industry thinkers who were for the most part arguing against it. While I’m all for healthy debate, if brand purpose has been proven to be a successful strategy for an enormous number of brands, then why is the debate to kill or not to kill said purpose?

Strategy has long been a means to an end, and the discovery of it around a brand’s purpose may work for some brands, but prove to be completely unsuitable for others. It’s one strategic weapon in an armoury to choose from.

This dogmatic view constantly raises its head in media commentary. How many times have we read articles proclaiming “the death of…”? You can suffix anything here from TV to advertising itself. Yet more often than not, this proclamation is only ever really asserted by someone looking to sell you 'the next big thing'. Shelly Palmer recently argued “TV may die soon”, the kind of sentiment echoed by Alexis Ng similarly proclaiming that “the death of traditional advertising is real".

Yet people are still watching TV – 60% of all AV content consumption in 2016 was through live TV. And advertisers are spending more on “traditional media” year-on-year with TV adspend growing 12% in 2016 and “traditional” stalwarts like Radio and Cinema growing 5% and 8% respectively year-on-year (source: AA WARC Expenditure Report 2016).

We seem obsessed with joining a side and pitting 'us' against 'them' in the hope we witness a fatal outcome not unlike that in a blood sport. Perhaps this lurch to a binary culture in the industry is simply reflective of the world we’re living in now. Brexit and Trump are symptomatic of a binary narrative being played out in mass media. Them vs us. The right way vs the wrong way.

Author Anais Nin sums up the dangers of dogma perfectly: "When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons. We cease to grow."

Dogma halts progress. In a rapidly changing industry, we surely need progressive thinking now more than ever. So how can avoid falling into the trap of dogma and binary thinking in our industry?

By doing the unthinkable as a planner.

Admitting that you may be wrong.

Whatever happens as planners, we must continue to have the clarity of vision to know where a brand needs to be and we need to continue to have the conviction to know how to get there.

But here’s the difference: we need to have the humility to take on alternative views on our own strategies and our thinking. Again, strategy is a means to an end. It is not the end.

This is easier said than done, as being open to rethinking your strategy goes against the traditional view of what it means to be a planner. That's the notion of spending days at the top of a mountain pondering a client brief, strategising a knotty problem and then coming down the mountainside with the precious answer etched into stone and handing it over to the eagerly waiting creatives and account people who rejoice at being given the inarguable truth.

It's no wonder why, for some planners, taking on a different point of view or changing your mind is seen as a sign of weakness.

But it’s far from that. It’s a strength.

If we are to avoid falling into the trap of strategic dogma and the binary reductionism it brings with it then strategy needs conviction of thought combined with the humility to listen to other people’s opinions .

Or as Richard Huntington once wrote, the guiding philosophy of any planner worth their salt should be: “strong opinions, lightly held”.

Gen Kobayashi is head of strategy at O&M London. You can follow him on Twitter @mrkobayashi