What Do We Do When We Can No Longer Stand On The Shoulders Of Giants?


Saturday, 8.43pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants. – Isaac Newton

For many Saturdays now I have taken a walk, doing a round of the charity shops close to me, accompanied by a small person and we both look for books.

Today, I stood and gazed at a shelf of books and wondered what I thought about them.

There was a selection of marketing textbooks – like a student had just dropped off four year’s worth of material.

A year ago I would have convinced myself to get pretty much everything on the shelf but today I was unconvinced – turning more to the children’s sections and books on drawing and doodling.

The reason for this, I think, is that I’m finding that theories about marketing and management are actually of very little use in day to day marketing and management.

Let me explain.

Isaac Newton’s saying that starts this post is one we all know – and clearly we have to learn from the lessons of the past if we are to avoid repeating them and if we want to build on them.

This approach works very well in the physical sciences – you don’t want to be in a position where you never learn that the earth is not flat, or the things that now are the basis of modern medicine.

But the same approach seems to run into problems when we approach the world of human society.

Science is very good at breaking down things and understanding the parts.

In doing that we come up with theories of why things are the way they are – and we use those theories to predict what else might be.

And science is so good at that it now seems that that way of thinking should be the basis of everything we do.

In marketing an early application of this way of thinking was Claude Hopkin’s famous book which was called, after all, “Scientific advertising”.

Anyone who wants to claim that their method works tries to use science – even if the scientific method has to be tortured a bit to make it seem like its producing valid results.

So you have a science of surveys and response analysis and statistics – all of which are used to come up with insights and theories such as those in the best-selling “Influence: The psychology of persuasion” by Robert Cialdini.

So, if you’re creating a new product or trying to connect with a market or sell something to a prospect – it makes sense to go out and pick up some books – the kind of books that I was looking at on that shelf perhaps.

But I’m realising that actually the scientific method is not everything – and it’s not really appropriate for everything that we do.

And actually, if we go back to before the scientific method there are ways of working we should not forget.

The first has to do with technology.

Technology is something that actually predates science – it comes before it.

We made tools and pottery and hot baths well before there was anything like a science of metals or minerals or state transition.

Nowadays technology is often based on scientific discoveries – which is why it might seem like it’s something that comes after.

But technology is fundamentally about tools used by people – and tools like the Internet and online commerce are really only a decade or a couple of decades old for much of humanity.

For example, I had to try and fix a leaking tap today – and constructing a new kitchen wasn’t really something that was a feasible option – even if it will happen in the long-term.

The tap is old, however.

But Ebay had one of the valves that I needed – and it’s on its way to me now.

And a YouTube video told me how to take the tap apart and how to search Ebay in the right way to find what I needed.

That’s technology to the rescue, not science.

Now, when you’re creating marketing for technology it seems to me that science will just get in the way.

That whole standing on the shoulders of giants things keeps you a little too far away from what matters.

What matters is what’s happening on the ground.

The people who succeed in online commerce are the ones who best understand what value looks like from the point of view of the customer.

The people who created a video that explained what I needed to do and the people who created an Ebay page where I could measure and check that what I was buying was what I needed were able to create the conditions where they delivered value and I paid a price.

And I don’t think that stack of books would have helped any of the people in that transaction do things better.

It might have even gotten in the way.

The more I think about this the more I am convinced that starting from the reality on the ground is the way when you’re trying to improve the way in which you carry out management or do marketing.

It’s coming up with approaches and strategies and tactics that are rooted in a clear understanding of the people you’re trying to serve and what value looks like from their point of view.

It’s grounded theory.

Which means, you have to get off those shoulders and get on the ground if you want to succeed here.

Which brings us to the second method.

Talk to your customers, listen to them and give them what they need.

And it might just be as simple as that.


Karthik Suresh

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