My Black Swans

September 6, 2010

I recently read a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb called The Black Swan which argues that most highly influential events are not predictable because they come from outside the box.

He theorizes that Black Swan events are those that are totally unanticipated, have major effect and can be rationalized afterward by people who claim to have anticipated them.  But projecting from known data, these event cannot be anticipated.

I have been involved with a few such advertising events which I have written about in this blog, particularly the Jell-O Pudding case where no one saw a sea change coming and it was pretty much all due to the advertising.  Take a look at the actual sales curve on the right.  Who in their right mind would have predicted the change in the curve given the 20 years of prior data.  All the quantitative analysis in the world would have left predictions within that pink band.

The thing about great advertising ideas is that they are Black Swans.  They often come from out of the blue.  Everyone can see them coming from after the event, but no one can see them from before hand because they are “outside the box.”

Procurement departments and middle marketing managers are people looking to keep their jobs for the period they expect to be in them, usually a year or so.  From time to time, these folks stumble into a Black Swan event.  But they are rarely going to be looking for them.  Black Swans are too risky, too difficult to evaluate and value and too threatening for careers.

Sad that we often entrust advertising decisions to managers whose best interest is not to go hunting for the unknown and taking big risks at the peril of their careers.

We have made presentations with spectacular grand visions and ideas for folks whose questions were then about the colour choices for the POS.  Hardly searching for “outside the box” thinking.

Besides, even if a manager tries to initiate a radical program that produces “out of the box” results there are plenty of mediating effects within organizations that will modify, mollify and dilute the idea until it gets back into that pink band in the Jell-O case.

Managers goals are to keep their jobs not be bloody minded about ideas.  Sure they miss the big ideas, but they are really portfolio managers who balance risk and should be appreciated for that.

I worked on another Black Swan in South America.  It was for Camay bar soap.  We wanted to do a commercial with a woman in a bathtub whose husband was washing her back with Camay.  My American clients were uncomfortable with the intimacy of the spot.  They argued that few people had bathtubs, almost everyone used showers.

That was logical and based on solid information. That kind of thinking would have meant we continued in Camay’s pink band of sales consistent with past performance.

After we ran research to confirm the advertising was not offensive, the argument that won the day was that while few had bathtubs, almost all women wanted to take baths and have a man wash their back for them.  The psychological power of control and indulgence was highly motivating.

It took nine months to get the one commercial approved and it took Camay to a 35+ share of the toilet soap market, an unprecedented level, within a few reporting periods.  We were happy to achieve it; but honestly, we didn’t expect it to have that much impact.

As for the unanticipated success of Cosby, he lasted 25 years as the spokesman for Jell-O.

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