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Opinion and Insight
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Sensemaking is Retrospective

Khanna \ Reidinga, 1 month, 2 weeks ago

Khanna \ Reidinga's Praveen Vaidyanathan argues that post-rationalisation is an essential skill and not something to be ashamed of

Sensemaking is Retrospective

In advertising, to reach a conclusion as a result of a logical thought process in which one thing led to another is seen to be highly responsible – whereas to acknowledge that you had the inspiration first and then test it only afterwards is to risk being accused of post-rationalisation.

But why shy away from post-rationalisation when it is a fundamental skill of our game – the art of applying understanding and coherence to an intuitive leap?

Sure, ours is an industry that’s suspicious of science. This is because science is used to dismiss many of our promising ideas. There is a name for this kind of science – ‘bad science’.

Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy describes bad science as the urge to apply the same kind of mathematical certainties found in physics and engineering to solve complex mechanisms like the psychology of consumer behaviour – a practice we also call marketing.

But real scientists are dismissive of this kind of bad scientific thinking. Those who embrace it are the non-scientists, whose backgrounds include management, finance, economics and so on. Such people suffer from a trait which real scientists refer to as ‘physics envy’ – the need to appear more mathematically linear than their disciplines require.

Hence, business schools are rife with this kind of bad scientific thinking. And so are businesses themselves, from corporations, consultancies to adtech, whose managers become ‘psychologically blind’ in their obsessive pursuit of logic and certainty.

Bad science makes them absorb all the methodology and linearity of science whilst rendering them incapable of appreciating the quality of anything that cannot be expressed in numerical terms. It produces the kind that attempts to codify creativity and judge advertising purely on metrics.

Jeremy Bullmore of WPP finds that a crucial problem with bad science is that it churns out people who are made to believe that "the scientific method used in the act of discovery eliminates luck, guesswork, wild hypotheses, human prejudice and naturally, post-rationalisation." Which leads them to devalue the role of creativity – the very force that has driven the biggest leaps within our industry.

By contrast, JWT’s Stephen King observes that the smartest thinkers apply a different kind of science which Sir Karl Popper refers to as ‘good science’ – driven the spirit of adventure, imagination and enquiry. Popper recognises that science is a process of elimination – it cannot prove anything but only falsify ideas that are thought to be true.

It took nearly three thousand unsuccessful attempts before Thomas Edison created a bulb that would actually light up. First came inspiration; then came experimentation and a process of elimination; last came logic, which was applied to explain why the light bulb worked. Edison recognised that in thinking by intuition, logic comes last.

Similarly, asked about his amazing ability to consistently identify the best moves, Magnus Carlsen, who became the world’s chess champion at 19, said that he usually knows immediately what move to make next, not having to figure things out in the way the rest of us do. On being reminded of the number of times he had taken up to an hour between moves, Carlsen replied, ‘…well, because I have to, you know, verify my opinion; see that I haven’t missed anything.’

Cedric Villani is the equivalent of Magnus Carlsen in the world of mathematics. He has won the Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize for mathematics, awarded to the best in the world once every four years. Villani, who insists mathematics isn’t about numbers but concepts, explains how the highest form of mathematics is performed. He says, like detectives, mathematicians use intuition to guess the solution and then logic to prove it.

Edison, Carlsen and Villani remind us that there are two parts to any creative process, which Bullmore identifies as ‘discovery’ and ‘proof of justification’ – and both need to be kept apart.

For instance, although penicillin may have been discovered accidentally, ‘a lot of retrospective digging had to be done before it was released onto a trusting public.’ Nobody said, ‘Here, take these tablets. I invented them yesterday. Trust me, I’m a scientist.’ Similarly, ‘This is a very good idea because I thought of it’ will almost always fail to win budget approval. Therefore, while discovery can be undisciplined, the act of discovery can never be its own justification.

Unfortunately, post-rationalisation causes the wrong belief that progress arrived at thorough tinkering or imaginative leaps is somehow cheating. When in reality, it is how most significant ideas, from light bulb, penicillin, DNA, plastic, X-ray, microwave oven, airplane, Viagra, Post-it Notes to the Internet, were created.

So just as scientists have skilfully led us to believe that almost all discoveries were arrived at through a sequential process, in ad agencies we have to post-rationalise our best ideas before we can sell them. This is because, in reality, the truly unconventional, behaviour-shifting ideas are often products of our unconscious – and this is simply too random and frightening for our physics-envious audience to accept.

Good agencies understand what Bill Bernbach meant when he said that "persuasion is an art, not a science." You simply will not arrive at great advertising through the rigorous application of logic. But good science, as Sutherland puts, will help you understand and explain what is good about your idea – after you’ve had it.

Bullmore reflects Edward de Bono’s philosophy that it is sometimes necessary to get to the top of the mountain in order to discover the shortest way up. The point is, no matter how you look at it, post-rationalisation is true, and nobody gains by pretending it isn’t.

Therefore, post-rationalisation isn’t just essential, but a fundamental skill of our game. And it absolutely deserves respect for applying understanding and coherence to intuitive leaps.

(Image courtesy: Matt Stuart)

Praveen Vaidyanathan is Associate Planning Director at Khanna \ Reidinga Amsterdam