Unknown unknowns

I am pretty late with this, but figured I should put it here anyway. It’s the story behind my Creativity & Complexity deck. It starts with me saying that advertising creativity has always been a branding vehicle, and if we are talking about branding (my fav subject) we can’t avoid thinking about creativity. And now, as everythone’s trying to figure out what’s going to work online and why and how and all of that, it’s useful to backpedal for a sec and remember that evolution of creativity is the evolution of media. So here we are now, in 2011, stuck with digital media. What helps?

When talking about creativity, everyone thinks about creative talent, creative agencies, or creative deliverables. But my starting point was not the words of wisdom from Weiden or Goodby or any other famous ad creative. Oddly enough, here’s the quote that (I think) captures the best the snafu situation that we have today with creativity: “… because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” (the live version of this statement is here, for those who are into it).

What makes the unlikeliest of all quotes so relevant here is that the infamous “unknown unknowns” are in fact the core property of complex adaptive systems. (Worth noting: CAS is the term that showed up in biology and that has since been widely used in organizational and technology studies). CAS are the systems that are built around, and thrive, on unknown unknowns. That’s what makes them different from merely complicated systems: in the latter, there are a lot variables and the catch is that there’s just too many of them. But luckily, they are all known. Think airline cockpit for example. Here, it’s a shitshow, but if we simply follow a sequence, we are going to be just fine. The sequences don’t change and they can be broken down into a series of simple problems — so the learning curve is probably, possible, and likely. Experience and expertise count big time here: the more times someone has done some complicated thing (like preparing for a pitch or making a media plan or managing client relationship), the better they are going to become in it.

But complex systems are no such walk in the park. They are like organizing a kid’s birthday party: full of crazy towns, unexpected developments, left-field surprises (someone cries in the corner, someone doesn’t want to play, someone got too sugar-high and is off the rails). This situation can’t simply be broken down into its essential components and analyzed. And even if we could do that, complex situations are un-repeatable so the insight won’t help us much. If anything, experience almost becomes a liability. Expertise here can be valuable, but far from being sufficient: the next bday party, for example, may ask for a completely different approach than the one right now. Current successes are no guarantee — and much less a predictor — of future sucesses. Thus, what makes complex systems hard to deal with is a deadly mesh of unknowns and unpredictability. The main take-away is that complicated environments are rife with risks; complex ones with uncertainty. Risks are calculable, uncertainty is not. So there.

Advertising industry — as it seems right now — has always dealt with complicated environments. And it’s been incredibly good at this (think media buys, ad unit sizes, length of TV spots, and creative solutions that are meant to fit these formats). It’s been good because it operates as a simplification machine.Think simple has become a mantra and a signpost: we were thought to come up with a single killer insight, a compelling idea, one single business solution. Then we take it and multiply it throughout different touchpoints without paying attention to the complexity of each (no matter what transmedia planning claims).

Our solution to complexity has been simplification and multipliction. We have been fending off complexity through offering coherence. Even if we don’t want to admit it, we end up in the business of resizing: how does this solution fit on the billboard; ok now, how does this same solution fit on an iPhone?

This approach worked for a while, no doubt. It still largerly works. To see how and where it may fail, the best is to use quote from Apple’s CEO. No, not Jobs — the other one. The one that most of people would rather forget. When comparing Coke and Pepsi, John Scully said something along the lines, “Coke always focused on the drink. Pepsi focused on the person using it.” Now, the catch here is that contexts — and people — using products have become incredibly interactive, networked, info-rich, collaborative, and all of that. Think the activity of cooking for example: it used to be pretty known where we get out inspiration/advice/resources. Not so much these days: there’s always a new app, source, filter, community that become part of our cooking experimentation. People and their activities have become complex behavioral networks.

And our challenge is to align our thinking as an industry with the complexity of this environment.

The first step is not to try to simplify complexity. Instead, build things that can in this complexity thrive. Instead of awareness, acquisition, products, sales, media buys, prices, promotions, budget, and ownership, change deliverables (and language) into connections, generative relationships, interactions, new combinations, systems, renting, etc. The best online creativity is alive — it’s a medium for a ton of other things, not the end result. Sticking to thinking about creativity in terms of the creative talent, creative agencies, or creative deliverables is bound to make us seek results that are efficient and repeatable (and, in fact, it is this repeatability that accounts for efficiency) — which in turn is bound to disable us, organizationally, from solving complex problems.

In the world of unknown unknowns, the idea is “to be less wrong than yesterday.”This may mean focusing less on abstract goals (drive brand engagement/raise awareness) and more on concrete behaviors (how does this particular design solution lead to desired activity and business result). In this context, it will turn out that the best digital creative solutions are always about something else. Not everything is creativity. But creativity is everything.