In his latest column for WARC, Ian Murray, co-founder of Burst Your Bubble, insists that understanding ‘real people’s lives’ should not be treated like a special mission. Real life is all around, if marketers care to look.

The WARC Future of Strategy report is out. But are we moving in the right direction?

It is reassuring to see that, despite the increased focus on tech and widgets, foundational skills around understanding people remain top priorities for strategists. A stand out for me is Richard Huntington’s rallying cry for a “Marketing Reality Movement”. What, Richard asks, “is the point of marketing if it is not to represent the lives of real people and then work out how best to serve them?”

I’m bound to agree. From the lack of social mobility and diversity in the industry, via narcissism to the peculiar mix of aspirational values and cognitive dissonance that drives the marketing worldview, he offers a whistlestop tour of the themes that Andrew Tenzer and I have been exploring and evidencing in our whitepapers since 2016.

Chart: Which of the following skills do you see as the most important for strategists today?

At Burst Your Bubble we approach ‘getting real’ as a process of behaviour change. We apply frameworks from the behavioural and social sciences to confront marketers’ biases and explore how the industry can get better at perspective taking, as explored in last month’s column.

It’s clear that we need to think bigger.

Three watch-outs marketers need to consider before ‘getting out there’

Much has been made of the finding that 21% of strategists never do in person qualitative research. For many this is the reason why strategists are becoming ‘distant from culture’. The solution? ‘Get out there’ and experience real people’s lives first hand.

While qualitative research should be a key component of good research, there are some important watch-outs for marketers.

Chart: How often do you engage in the following research practices?

1. Let’s not fetishise qualitative research

We need to be clear that qualitative data is no panacea. In fact, fetishising qual often signals the lack of perspective that got us in this mess in the first place.

The ‘getting out there’ narrative is a ‘tell’ that exposes our industry’s penchant for othering the mainstream. It is an indictment of how unmoored we have become that experiencing ‘real people’s lives’ should be seen as a special mission or safari.

There is also a problem in the idea that ‘getting real’ depends on marketers personally feeling and experiencing an insight. I.e., that any given social phenomenon, attitude or behaviour needs to personally manifest through our direct experience and performed especially for us before it becomes worthy of our attention. Real life is all around wherever we work and play if we’d only care to look.

The story strategists tell themselves about ‘getting out there’ says more about industry biases than it does about our prospects of ‘getting real’.

2. Beware zero-sum thinking

“No more representative samples!” – Richard Huntington

Zero-sum thinking is “the belief that one party’s gains can only be obtained at the expense of another party’s losses.” The academic literature on zero-sum thinking continues to grow as polarized worldviews increasingly dominate all facets of our lives.

The science shows that everyone is susceptible to zero-sum thinking “when it benefits them to do so… conservatives exhibit zero-sum thinking when the status quo is challenged, liberals do so when the status quo is being upheld.”

I detect a fair amount of zero sum thinking in strategists’ zeal to challenge the status quo. Methodological exceptionalism leads to some astonishing claims about how we should move forward.

Stereotypical tropes about qual (e.g., real, emotional, deep) and quant research (abstract, rational, superficial) continue to bias our thinking and the future strategists say they want remains elusive.

Agencies and marketers agonise about gaining more credibility with the C-suite. How are we going to get there without robust quantitative evidence? How else does an industry that sees itself as a champion of a more equitable and fairer society scale the challenges we face and measure progress? We need deep understanding of diverse lived experiences. But you can’t have representation without quantification. You can’t transform the worldview and practices of an industry by subjectively ‘feeling an insight’. No matter how powerful and authentic those experiences feel, insights defined by our personal and often privileged frame of reference have little chance of moving the dial in the real world.

We also need to recognise how hard it is to get real.

3. Acknowledge biases

When the costs of acquiring knowledge outweigh the benefits of possessing it, ignorance is rational.

Rational ignorance is the academic term for a phenomenon we are all familiar with: “ignorance is bliss”, “what you don’t know can’t hurt you”.

The theory of rational ignorance argues that it makes sense for people to be ill informed (e.g., there is no point knowing about politics because our votes make little difference. It makes sense to bury your head in the sand about climate change because individual behaviour can’t make a dent).

As the world becomes an increasingly complicated and uncertain place social scientists are paying more attention to rational ignorance and its role in ‘socially harmful’ behaviour relating to issues like political instability and climate change.

Again, marketers are real people too. We should acknowledge that these biases play a role in our behaviour and, therefore, our narrative about industry transformation.

So, what if ‘getting out there’ is a form of what scientists call ‘active information avoidance’? For ignorance to be ‘active’, it needs to satisfy two conditions. 1. The individual is aware that the information is available, and 2. the individual has access to the information.

When all forms of human understanding are available to strategists and marketers via this thing called the internet, I think the conditions for active information avoidance are met.

The costs of dealing with all the messy reality that is at our fingertips is high. It benefits us (psychologically and commercially) to make ‘getting real’ difficult, time consuming and effortful. If it’s about ‘getting out there’ it all remains somehow just out of reach. And it’s much easier to let ourselves off the hook.

Where do we go from here?

‘Get out there’ by all means. But the answer to transforming our industry must be about adopting a more holistic and eclectic approach to understanding people’s lives. This encompasses all available methods, sources and touchpoints and looking deeper into our own motivations and biases. It’s all there if you want to find it.