Stop Counting Ladybugs: Creativity, Science and the New Marketing

If you follow marketing and startup people on Twitter, you’ve seen it before: the vague tweet about the importance of creativity in our ever-more-quantified, tested and optimized world. It can seem like a simple attempt to humanize the daily grind of acquiring customers and growing a business, but it’s a sentiment with much deeper roots, and exploring it can teach us a lot about modern marketing and related disciplines like growth hacking. I’m going to put a framework around something most of us feel intuitively and in it, we’ll find implications for how we approach our work, how we build our teams, and how we develop ourselves.

Meet Henri Poincaré

Photo of Henri Poincaré

Henri Poincaré

We’ll start with the assumption that marketing, while not pure science, is starting to look a lot like it. In the age of A/B/n testing, big data, marketing automation and the like, to me it’s beyond argument that marketing is at least part, and perhaps mostly, science.

And as long as there has been science, there have been people thinking about what it means to do science, including a Frenchman named Jules Henri Poincaré (1854-1912). Poincaré was the kind of polymath that 21st century lifehackers would give a limb to be: when he wasn’t working on advanced math and theoretical physics (including major contributions to the theory of relativity), he was publishing books and refining philosophical positions on various topics, including the nature of science.

Poincaré’s Science and Method, published in 1908 and translated as part of Foundations of Science (1913), addresses the question of “how does scientific discovery happen?” If you agree that marketing is an increasingly scientific discipline, Science and Method has quite a bit to say about how to approach marketing.

Note: For the rest of this post, I’ll be citing page numbers that refer to the version of Foundations of Science available for free from Google Books.

Choose Your Facts Wisely

Poincaré has a somewhat controversial philosophy of science, in that he assigns intuition and chance a central role in the scientific process. This is in contrast to philosophies of science that emphasize logical analysis as the foundation for all knowledge. Poincaré writes:

We can not know all  facts, since their number is practically infinite. It is necessary to choose; then we may let this choice depend on the pure caprice of our curiosity; would it not be better to let ourselves be guided by utility, by our practical and above all by our moral needs; have we nothing better to do than to count the number of ladybugs on our planet? (362)

In other words, scientific method gives us the power to learn such a vast quantity of information that the first challenge for a scientist is determining what is worth being learned (making a “choice of facts”). Think for a moment about the number of experiments that could be run in a single, specific environment, like A/B tests on a web site. Where do you start?

For Poincaré, curiosity isn’t the best guide (it’s “capric[ious]”), so we need to look for usefulness. He writes:

This shows us how we should choose: the most interesting facts are those which serve many times; these are the facts which have a chance of coming up again. (363)

If those types of facts don’t exist, then there’s no point in doing science. Imagine for a moment that there are no patterns in the characteristics and behaviors of your customers or users. What could you possibly learn from collecting data on them? You might pick up individual characteristics that would be useful in 1:1 interactions (e.g. Rapportive), but what would it tell you about how to design a web site that speaks to the greatest number possible? How would you run your business?

Poincaré identifies a “hierarchy of facts” that can be a bit unclear at times. Drawing from several sections of Science and Method, here’s how I look at it:

  • Facts of Great Outcome (those which lead to laws)
    • Simple facts: minimal dependence on circumstances, perhaps just a few well-defined circumstances
    • Facts that appear simple: depend on a large number of circumstances, but those circumstances obey the laws of chance (are of known probability)
  • Facts of Slight Outcome
    • Circumstantial facts: facts which may lead us to laws, but the complexity of the circumstances makes inductive reasoning all but impossible for our minds
    • Facts without reach: don’t lead to any kind of law, never begin again (counting ladybugs)

Beauty and the (sub)conscious

But how are we supposed to identify the “facts of great outcome”? Poincaré brings an aesthetics into it:

The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful…I mean that profounder beauty which comes from the harmonious order of the parts and which a pure intelligence can grasp.

It is therefore the quest of this especial beauty, the sense of the harmony of the cosmos, which makes us choose the facts most fitting to contribute to this harmony, just as the artist chooses from among the features of his model those which perfect the picture and give it character and life. (366-367)

For Poincaré, to understand this beauty is profoundly human. Foreseeing the rise of mechanical computation, he said:

The machine gnaws on the crude fact. The soul of the fact will always escape it. (374)

It brings to mind web analytics evangelist Avinash Kaushik, who frequently reminds his readers to invest more money in analysts than analytics software, and also the growing use of qualitative customer surveys (e.g. Qualaroo) when making marketing decisions.

Later (p. 388), Poincaré makes one of his most controversial arguments: that the process of choosing facts and understanding how they fit into a harmonious order is at least partially subconscious.  A period of intense work on a problem proves fruitless and the scientist turns his attention to another matter. Later, when he is not expecting it, inspiration: the solution (or at least a path forward) pops into his head, and he then embarks on another period of intense, but straightforward work to test, validate, refine and commit it all to paper.

New Forms and Designs

It’s all pretty fuzzy for science, isn’t it? The idea that beauty, elegance and the subconscious are at the very heart (or, as Poincaré might say, the soul) of scientific research can be counterintuitive–it almost positions science as a creative field. Perhaps that’s because it should be: Richard Florida includes scientists not only in his definition of the “Creative Class,” but also in its “Super Creative Core” of people who “produce new forms or designs that are readily transferable and widely useful”.

If you’re worried that I’m arguing for a liberal arts takeover of the sciences, fear not. Poincaré said it best himself:

In mathematics [and science], rigor is not everything, but without it there is nothing…I think no one will contest this truth. (374)

He also made a point to distinguish between scientists and “practicians,” noting that the practician “concerns himself only with immediate utility,” as opposed to a scientists who are concerned with the loftier goal of finding useful truths, regardless of what specific method they use.

So, the new marketing leans heavily toward science, which means that it’s inherently creative. Like rigor, creativity is not everything, but without it there is nothing. What does that tell us about how to develop ourselves and build great teams? I think Poincaré would say:

  • Hire for creative thinking first – look for it in work and in life
  • Require analytical and technical rigor from everyone
  • Give the subconscious room to work (avoid short deadlines)
  • Don’t put all your faith in machines

Marketers: Scientists or Practicians?

Thunderstruck Cover ImagePoincaré’s distinction between scientists and practicians reminds me of the competition to develop wireless telegraphy in the early 20th century, dramatized in Erik Larson’s ThunderstruckThe man who gets the most credit for developing wireless technology is Guglielmo Marconi, who fell firmly into the practician camp. His chief rival, Oliver Lodge, considered himself a theoretical scientist and looked down on Marconi, whose methods could be described as trial and error.

What Marconi lacked in formal scientific training, he made up in unabashed commercial ambition. It took Lodge some time to realize that long-range wireless telegraphy was not only possible, but a world-changing invention. Marconi was convinced of the latter and let that conviction drive him in endless attempts to push the limits of the technology, even if he didn’t always know exactly why something worked or didn’t work.

So, Marconi goes down in history as the inventor of wireless. In a sense, the practician won. But, if you dig deeper, you can make a case that the record books should have an asterisk. For while Marconi fumbled through the science of wireless and indeed made some key discoveries, he ultimately had to license patents from Lodge and others to make his equipment work reliably. The scientists had discovered “that which begins again,” while Marconi focused on “what works here and now” and on selling the promise of wireless to the public.

For marketing-as-a-science, there’s are a lesson here:

  • Commercial ambition can be your guide, even if it comes at the expense of science in the short term (Marconi did make the most money and get the most credit, after all). How you choose your facts is your business.Example: You have a tanking landing page and test new copy. It works, and conversion increases. Great, but what will you do next time a page starts to underperform?
  • Long-term success requires repeatable, scalable processes (“that which begins again”), which can only be understood via rigorous science.Example: You have a tanking landing page, so you run a multivariate test with four pieces of copy, each crafted around a specific theme, and four web forms of varying lengths. You have a winner and conversion increases, plus you see patterns in your users’ behavior and preferences that you can apply elsewhere.
  • In a competitive marketplace, you have to find a balance. Sometimes, you need short-term success to get enough breathing room to go back and do the science that will become your long-term foundation.Example: If a landing page isn’t working well, it’s sometimes better to do a full redesign and then go back and test the individual elements once the threat to revenue has been addressed–solve the problem, then ask “why?” (This works especially well if you have good information to help with the speculative “choice of facts” that you have to make when you plan your redesign, such as a case study from a similar industry).

While practicians may have issues with scale, they’re rarely short on creativity, and you’ll never find them counting ladybugs. They’re more valuable in the world of business than they are in pure science, because commercial goals can help guide their choice of facts into useful territory.

Marketing Is More Creative Than Ever

It sounds like a paradox, but if you buy Poincaré’s argument, then as marketing becomes more scientific, it requires more creativity than ever. And, as the Marconi-Lodge rivalry teaches us, business is rarely pure science, so there’s more room for practicians as well.  In the modern science of marketing, and particularly in startups and other nimble organizations, I think there’s a hierarchy of roles that looks something like this:

  • Scientists at heart, practicians as needed – the best of all worlds, creative, rigorous, scalable
  • Pure practicians – creative, lots of hustle, less rigor, less scalable
  • Machines – useful for automating collection and analysis of ‘crude facts’
  • Scientists for its own sake – capricious ladybug counters

While marketing-as-a-science is not a search for universal truths, it is a search for specific truths about the best way to connect with and delight the people who matter to us. To find the “that which begins again” for our own customers and tribes, we have to be devoted to method but not bound by it, and always, always creative.

I’ll leave you with one final quote from Poincaré, my personal favorite:

Facts would be sterile were there not minds capable of choosing among them, discerning those behind which something was hidden, and of recognizing what is hiding, minds which under the crude fact perceive the soul of the fact. (371)

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