Marketing as a science, but science is a creative endeavor

Let me state right up front: I am an advocate of scientific marketing. Just in case there’s any doubt as you read on.

Marketing ideas should be tested and one should apply the scientific method to those tests.

Most of marketing is now measurable, directly or indirectly. With digitally produced and distributed marketing — particularly channels such as search engine marketing, online advertising, email marketing, post-click marketing, and web site optimization — it’s often practical to test dozens or hundreds of ideas within a short time. So if you have more than one competing suggestion for “what will work best”, the solution is “test them and let’s find out”. The answer is quantifiable, not emotional.

One of the missions of marketing technology leadership should be to provide the tools and the processes for an organization to approach marketing scientifically.

This has inspired more and more people to declare “marketing is a science, not an art”.

However, that declaration always raises the hairs on the back of my neck — particularly when it is promoted by software vendors — because it is often used to imply that analytics dominates creative, that quantities are more valuable than qualities.

In my opinion, it’s the inverse: scientific marketing is at its best the other way around, when creative harnesses analytics. A subtle but important shift in priority. The right fuzzy qualities have far more value than the wrong precise quantities.

True scientists understand this because science is a creative endeavor.

To be sure, with the scientific method, testing must be rigorous. But the process of determining what to test and how to measure it and framing the right hypothesis in the first place takes imagination.

Science is about discovery, and it’s one of the most creative ventures in the universe.

In this way, the divide between science and art is largely artificial. Show a mathematician an elegant and original proof, and he is just as likely to find artistic beauty in it as any painting at a gallery. Vice versa, an artist who isn’t continually experimenting in their medium is labeled commercial or derivative. The geniuses of science have more in common with the geniuses of art than either have with the hacks in their respective disciplines. (Enter Leonardo DaVinci stage left.)

That’s why I love marketing as a science. It is both creative and analytic, and at the end of the day, it is about discovery. Just as the capacity to conduct more tests with more accuracy has been a boon in every scientific field, the new wave of marketing technologies is rocket fuel for proactive exploration of the marketing domain on an unprecedented scale.

What I don’t agree with is the warping of “marketing as a science” to mean “marketing as accounting”. This is what happens when the structure of tests and the categorization of customers — the underlying model — gets set in stone, and where all “testing” from that point forward is rigidly boxed into existing assumptions. When marketing becomes more about optimization than discovery, you end up with an organization on rails: streamlined perhaps, but it’s only going where the track has been laid.

If you don’t see the danger in this, read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Its examples are more from the financial industry, but the fallacies of “quants” in that domain are extremely relevant to the risks in analytical marketing that mistakes the map for the terrain.

A couple of years ago, I attended a lunch with the physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, who gave a talk on the power of bridging multiple disciplines. His main point was that the most important aspect of different fields and disciplines — chemistry, physics, biology, literature, sociology, architecture, etc. — wasn’t so much their different bodies of knowledge, but rather their different “ways of thinking”. Each brings a certain set of perspectives and approaches for solving problems.

The power of cross-pollination is unleashed by applying the perspectives of one to help solve a problem in another. In the scientific community, this has gained recognition as the genesis of many breakthrough solutions.

In the business world, it’s known as “thinking outside the box” or lateral thinking. (Or sometimes just “huh?”)

Lightman himself embodies such cross-discipline thinking. A theoretical physicist and a MIT professor, he made fundamental contributions to the theory of astrophysics under extreme temperatures and densities. (And I thought AdWords management was tricky.) Yet he also wrote the novel Einstein’s Dreams, an international bestseller, and has contributed essays and short fiction to The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, and The New York Times.

In his talk, Lightman made three points that every scientific marketer should take to heart:

1. The scientific method — start with a hypothesis, prepare an experiment to test a prediction of the hypothesis, measure the results, draw a conclusion, iterate — is based on the creative spark of the hypothesis. There is no cookbook recipe for robotically generating hypotheses. (Side note: the combinatorial probability of a room full of monkeys with typewriters eventually writing Hamlet may not be zero, but the span of time required exceeds the age of the universe.)

2. The process of discovery involves four stages: (a) mastering the craft of the domain, doing the homework to have a “prepared mind”; (b) getting stuck on a problem, what becomes the creative catalyst in your subconscious; (c) having a shift of perspective, a new viewpoint, which is where the power of different ways of thinking comes into play; and (d) finally having a breakthrough, a creative synthesis of disparate elements into a solution.

3. The irony of very sophisticated models is that they are almost always based on arbitrary assumptions. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as those assumptions aren’t mistaken for absolutes. Sometimes the most powerful tests are those that test the validity of the models one has been using for testing.

Marketing as a science is — or should be — a very creative endeavor. And that’s pretty inspiring.

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4 thoughts on “Marketing as a science, but science is a creative endeavor”

  1. Thanks for the interesting read. It is the qualitative marketing research that creates the metrics to be measured in the quantitative realm. They truly need to work together and qualitative is often over-looked. We are marketing to human beings, it cannot all be about cold quantitative metrics. It’s simply counter-intuitive. My 2c at least…

  2. @Dave — thanks for the kind comment! Good point about qualitative marketing research techniques. I like the article on your blog about this topic with relation to social media marketing.
    To me, the point of experimentation (and more broadly, inquiry in general) is to learn something. The moment an analytical marketing process is unable to answer the question “what are you trying to learn?”, I start to suspect a runaway train. I agree that continuous qualitative marketing research at the front-end of such quantitative locomotion helps tremendously. Social media has definitely made that more feasible on an ongoing basis for organizations of all size.
    A guy by the name of Matt Bailey spoke at Search Engine Strategies NY a few weeks back and drew a similar distinction between “reporting” and “analysis”. I thought it was one of the clearest and best insights from the show.

  3. Scott (and @Dave),
    Great post. In a way, this really hits upon the culture of a company, doesn’t it? If a company is pedal to the metal all day long, as more and more companies are, the odds they encourage taking the time for iterative creative discovery and brainstorming, then follow it up with methodical testing is fairly low.
    In many cases, it’s more a directive of 1) find out what “works” and 2) repeat it.
    I agree with you both that we owe it to our businesses to take the time to be curious and test our hypotheses, otherwise I agree we’ll find ourselves on the runaway train that’s most likely not on the right path.
    As to the cross-pollination of ideas, I’d recommend another great book that talks about all the ways one can infuse different ways of thinking into our normal daily routines – Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation by Frans Johansson.

  4. @Jim — I definitely agree that company culture is at the root of it. This movement towards marketing as a core competency that infuses the entire firm essentially rests on the equivalence of “marketing” and “culture”.
    But I do want to clarify that a scientific approach to marketing isn’t necessarily incompatible with a pedal-to-the-metal culture. Both can favor a “do something” versus “pontificate” approach. But to approach marketing as a science means that the “do something” of your step 1 (finding out what works) has some direction to its exploration. You want to maximize your extracted value from the process and minimize tail chasing.
    As for step 2 (repeat it), I also agree: exploit what you’ve learned from step 1 as much as possible. But (a) things change and (b) the status quo is never enough, and people are always looking for growth. These lead you back to step 1 on a lifetime cycle.
    Thanks for the comment — and the recommendation for the Medici Effect. I’ve heard good things about that book from several people, and you’ve nudged me over the edge to add it to my list.

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