Letting a little chaos in: Could understanding unpredictability make us better planners?

(featured image Source)

so as a bit of a Chrimbo pressie I took up a year’s subscription to the BBC’s iPlayer offering on iPad.  one of the first things that I got my teeth into was a documentary from a couple of years ago on BBC4 about the mathematics of chaos. a particular passage in the above clip, struck me as of particular interest to those of us attending to an ongoing mission of negotiating – of mediating – the future of media and communications.

jump to 3m50s and you’ll hear the following passage:

“the turbulence of the 1970’s convinced the economists, as well as the environmentalists, that their faith in large scale prediction and control was just wrong.  they came to accept that they would no more be able to control the economy than the weather.  the era of command and control was over.  but there was a second more controversial part of the mathematics upon which they fundamentally disagreed.

Ruelle and others had found that even very simple systems … could give rise to highly complex chaotic behaviour; and now as they used these simple systems to explore further, they began to discover the rules of this chaotic world.  they found that the more connected and interlinked systems became, the more likely they were to become chaotic and turbulent, and that the more you pumped the system – the faster you ran it – the more chaotic it would become.”

source: High Anxieties – The Mathematics of Chaos, David Malone, last broadcast BBC4 in 2008

anyone currently planning media and communications can’t fail to observe the parallel: the more connected and interlinked systems become, the more likely they are to become chaotic and turbulent – and the faster you run a system, the more chaotic is becomes…

we enter a new year with a media and comms planning landscape that is arguably less certain than it was last (and I would suggest that this has been the case for at least the last several years). we have fewer certainties, fewer guarantees of success, fewer empirical rules of behaviour that can predict what our investments and strategies will achieve.

it is not for the want of trying.  Ehrenberg et al at the institute that bears his name – for example – have made huge strides in identifying marketing ‘laws’ … for example the double jeopardy law which states that “brands with less marketing share have far fewer buyers, and these buyers are slightly less loyal (in the buying and attitudes)” … or the duplication of purchase law which states that “a brand’s customer base overlaps with rival brands in line with its market share” (source: How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp)

but these rules have more to do with buying behaviour than they have to do with how and to what extent media and communications planning influences that buying behaviour. for every one of Ehrenberg’s laws there are multiple exceptions that – depending on you point of view – prove or disprove the immutability of those laws.

multiple disciplines indicate that we are habitual creatures, more sensitive to (for example) loss aversion than that of advertising. and yet we know that communications which are disproportionately awarded / rewarded have a similarly disproportionate return for the brands that invest in them. communications work, and generally speaking the better the communications the better they work.

generally speaking.

which is of course fine, generally.

but the fact remains that while we can all of us mitigate uncertainty (thorough research and exploration; an aligned strategy; integrated thinking; proportionate and focused investment; identification, tracking and measurement of KPI ecosystems … to name but a few), what we do sometimes seems to be far from an exact science (which is of course part of the attraction)…

but perhaps chaos has not just a key but an increasingly significant role to play. what if we accept that we are no more able to control how media and comms planning affects businesses that we are able to control the weather? … and what if we accept that an increasingly networked and interconnected media landscape increasingly makes this more not less true?

would such acceptance make us better or worse planners? would it compromise planning or make it stronger? could accepting that there is inevitable chaos in the system provide more realistic and reliable margins and predictions of success? if the only thing we can confidently predict is a degree of unpredictability, perhaps confidently facing up to this reality is the only thing that will truly allow us to move on…

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