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The Warc Blog

What's the difference between a puzzle and a mystery?
Judie Lannon, Editor, Market Leader
Judie Lannon

Some years ago, idly flipping through the New Yorker on the train from Bath, I came across a seductive title: 'The talent myth: are smart people over rated?' And a gripping read it was too. So much so that I wanted to see if I could publish it in Market Leader. A couple of phone calls and several emails later, Malcolm Gladwell, whose 'Tipping Point' was just beginning to make him a reputation outside of the New Yorker, agreed to an edited version (which I was to make) for the princely sum of $100. (Market Leader Autumn 2002).

The full version of this article which is about the role McKinsey played in the kinds of people Enron hired and why this policy contributed to the culture that eventually collapsed so spectacularly, can be found in his new book: 'What the Dog Saw' - a collection of his favourite pieces. Like every one else, Gladwell was fascinated by Enron but in a far more interesting way than most people who were just keen to nail Lay and Skilling.

A second piece about Enron contains a profound insight for marketers. Called, 'Enron, Intelligence and the Perils of Too Much Information', the piece looks at the prosecution's case against Enron: that the company had withheld significant information from shareholders. Gladwell, characteristically, examines this case closely and ends by turning it upside down. The problem, he explains, is that far from being insufficient information, there was too much: nothing was really withheld. It was all there (i.e. that the company was bankrupt) in the mountains of financial disclosure.

In the course of trying to understand what happened here, he makes a fascinating distinction between 'puzzles' and 'mysteries'. Puzzles are when there is genuinely missing data which, once found, reveals all (like where Osama Bin Laden is hiding). Mysteries, on the other hand, are a failure of analysis of existing data. It's all there, it just hasn't been looked at properly (why the CIA missed the Pants Bomber).

Sound familiar? Our business problems these days drown in data. We have more data than anyone has ever had or, in most cases, ever needs. The point Gladwell makes, is that when faced with a problem, it's necessary to determine exactly what kind of a problem it is. If it's a puzzle, yes, by all means, more research is needed. If, on the other hand it's a mystery, the solution calls for better analysis: shrewder observers to plow through existing material, re-analyse it, ask different questions, turn it upside down and 'interrogate it until it confesses' (as someone said).

Many of the other pieces in the book reveal what a brilliantly intuitive marketer Gladwell is. (He said he applied for 18 jobs in advertising and was turned down by them all. Somebody was asleep at the switch.) The best marketers need a lot of different skills but curiosity about human behaviour comes high up on the list. A fascinating piece that people in the condiment business may have wondered about is why, when there are many different varieties of mustard, is there only one ketchup. (There is an intriguing answer to this.) The passion of the inventer/marketer gets a masterful telling and the analysis of the famous Clairol 'Does she or doesn't she' campaign goes back to the copywriters, agencies and state of feminism at the time. Would that more of us had Gladwell's insatiable curiosity.

Subjects: Marketing

21 January 2010 15:56

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