Category Archives: Irrationality

Because we all make stupid decisions. Sometimes.

Why Advertising is The Dark Knight


Some of you may think I have an obsession for likening the advertising industry with Christopher Nolan movies. I wouldn’t blame you, I have done it in the past. But as any good planner will tell you: two instances, do not a trend make. (Besides, I’m thinking more Frank Miller than Nolan)

Having established that, here’s why I think advertising is like Batman.

For a very long time, I have held the belief that people are fundamentally irrational. And have tried presenting this point-of-view in several occasions – stretching from conversations with friends over beers (that invariably have me outnumbered) or in conversations with colleagues and clients and of course with the more engineering minded folk aiming to develop new products, interfaces or even services.  To little avail.

Perhaps this is something that more of you from adland can relate to. From conversations I’ve had – I believe that it is.

As an industry: irrationality is not only something we believe in but also a truth we work with. Many of us are irrational in our own ways, and certainly welcoming of it. Yet, our stand on irrationality outside our own industry often receives little or no heed.


I found the answer in The Anatomy Of Humbug, by Paul Feldwick:

“the need for clients, agencies, and the public alike to cling to their self-image as ‘rational’, autonomous decision makers.” 

Everyone wants to believe that they are in control. And nobody likes to be told otherwise.

Even if the truth that is spoken, is used everyday to create something that makes their lives better – yet eluding.

It is for this reason I believe we advertisers, are the dark knights of industry. For people will not understand our ways, and we certainly won’t receive much gratitude for them. If we speak of our ways we will be silenced but we act on them everyday to make things better. For it is what the world needs, it is what our client’s need and it is what our consumers need.

It is because we recognise, that rationality, like morality is not black-or-white.


See Your Own Blindness, First


I have seen many managers distance themselves from consumers by drawing a line between their own perceived rationality, and the irrationality of consumers.

However, we must recognise that we are fundamentally irrational beings, and as managers and business people too, we have our own irrationalities that we are not aware of. And that these irrationalities affect our view of the customers of our businesses, and of our own biases – which in turn affects the management decisions we make.

It then becomes of paramount importance that anyone in a role that has to do with customers or driving business growth through understanding and influencing customers (be it marketing, sales, advertising, business development, customer acquisition and so on) first recognise that they are a consumer too.

For the more we distance ourselves from those who are influenced by our decisions and actions, the less effective we can be in influencing them.

On reading ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman, I found this excerpt which I believe makes this point in the same vein. In the context of the experiment on inattentional blindness (watch before you read on, if you don’t know it already), it says:

“The authors note that the most remarkable observation of their study is that people find its results very surprising. Indeed, the viewers who fail to see the gorilla are initially sure that it was not there – they cannot imagine missing such a striking event. The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our own blindness.”

As managers, we are “blind to our own blindness”, too. We are people after all.

The Importance Of Experimentation


I was just leafing through the book ‘Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended on It’ by Chris Voss, and an excerpt from this book has an interesting learning for us all:

‘For more than three decades, Harvard had been the world epicenter of negotiating theory and practice. All I knew about the techniques we used at the FBI was that they worked. In the twenty years I spent at the Bureau we’d designed a system that had successfully resolved almost every kidnapping we applied it to. But we didn’t have grand theories.

Our techniques were the products of experiential learning; they were developed by agents in the field, negotiating through crisis and sharing stories of what succeeded and what failed. It was an iterative process, not an intellectual one, as we refined the tools we used day after day. And it was urgent. Our tools had to work, because if they didn’t someone died’

Needless to say, theoretical discussions come from a fear of getting actions wrong and having to face consequences – an irrationality that is a fundamentally human desire of minimising risk.

And while it is easy to highlight the importance of action and experimentation over theoretical discussions, I’d rather share with you my little system of how to get to it!

  1. Do, don’t discuss: Experiment. Instead of discussing what could work, just run with one of the plans.
  2. Take notes: Note down what you did, the results and your inferences.
  3. Find out what works: Best practices are more relevant and practical than theoretical discussions. Keep them handy.
  4. Change what’s working: This bit is hard when we usually have a ‘Don’t fix what’s not broken’ mentality. I think its easy to settle in a routine that is working. But there might be a better one, who knows? You might as well look for it.
  5. Repeat


Before that, Step 0: Get rid of fear

Happy experimenting!


Courage Trumps Content


We do not remember the greatest people in the world simply because of what they said, or what they stood for. We remember them for having the courage to stand for it.

For having the courage to have a view that was different. And having the courage to say it out loud. Having the courage to be branded by it.

If MLK Jr. had written about his dream in his personal journal, he would have touched nobody’s life.

If Muhammad Ali was more concerned with sounding smart than true, his poetry would remain unheard.

If Nike was worried about offending sensibilities, it would not become the landmark that it is today. Neither would the legendary Superbowl ad from Apple become what it is today, if they thought they might hurt a certain group of people.

So, do us all a favour please, if you have something good to say – then say it like you mean it. We might love you for it. You might change our world for the better. And you might be remembered for it.

But if you’re not going to go all guns blazing with what you believe. Or if you fear what you will be remembered for. Or fear that you shall be typecast. Or narrowed down. Or you would rather be loved just a little bit by everyone, rather than loved to bits by a few – then please, don’t say it at all.

Just  go home.

Your Customers Don’t Care

Another irrational behaviour of people is that we feel we are being noticed. In a sea of people, we feel conscious of our behaviours, because we have a feeling of “being watched”.  Truth is, nobody cares. Everyone is busy doing what they are doing, and unless you do something really interesting (or stupid), nobody takes notice.

The same is true for marketers, who believe that their customers are genuinely interested in their brands. The truth is, they’re really not. They’re thinking about their careers, families, pets, vacations and other more important things. Your brand, actually doesn’t feature in their lives.

Source: Tom Fishburne, Marketoonist

This really comes through a lot in how we approach brand management, as marketers who make this assumption always refer to “their consumers” as a group of people who are eagerly awaiting the brand’s next move. This is one; among other, sure shot ways to failure.

The key to truly understanding customers, and getting their attention must begin with the assumption that they are going to ignore you. Next up, ask yourself what is truly interesting and attention worthy: this is not just a matter of communication or brand messaging (Old Spice, for instance), but of remarkable product delivery too (Dyson, being a case in point)

Brands today, live in an economy of attention. We are each vying for a momentary attention of our consumers, divided between a plethora of brands and media. The only way to get their attention is to be truly note-worthy.

Questions Are Your Answers

Another irrational human behaviour that also plagues management: Jumping to solution, rather than perfecting the understanding of the problem.

From a human perspective, I think the problem here lies in the fact that people can be somewhat restless and want to quickly get down to doing something. Perhaps this is driven by a fear that if we don’t fix the problem right away, it will get worse. So, let’s do something about it right now!

But clearly, a weak understanding of the problem will only lead to compounding the problem further. Rather, understanding the true problem can give us clarity on what to do. So, how do we get to the heart of the problem:

1. Slow down: The first thing to do is calm down. The more you look at the problem, the more you are going to want to do something about fixing it. Though this is hard, at this point it is best to stop yourself from thinking about how to fix it. Or what to do.

2. Step away: Strategy requires an external perspective. And perspective doesn’t come from standing right next to the problem. If it did, the whole consulting industry would not exist. Stepping away from the problem can often give you an outsider’s view to help identify and rectify the problem. So get away from the data, the process, the manifestations. The laptop.

3. Look for clues: Very often, a complicated problem is actually a simple problem manifested differently. The very nature of scale in management (or any long term activity) results in a small problem being amplified differently in different areas of the activity (or organisation). Fixing each manifestation is not the way to go, and this is something we are guilty of too. Work inwards, by asking questions, finding where the problems are related, and looking for clues we can actually identify a common pattern through all the different manifestations. On most occasions, I have found that this common thread is the true problem.

4. Don’t fix it yet: Work outwards and understand how fixing this problem will address various manifestations in the process, activity or organisation. Get ready for change, warn those who are involved that somethings are gonna be different. Nobody likes change, so it’s better to warn them. Align the different activities so that the manifestations can be fixed as well.

Implement your solution, watch the ripple effects pan out and top it off with a presentation with some loaded words. You’re done.

Irrationality in management

There is a fundamental flaw with how we; as humans, behave: We think our rules don’t apply to ourselves. We think we are above the peculiarities that explain those around us, and somehow we are a unique snowflake and these don’t apply to us. I also noticed this idea in Dan Ariely’s ‘Predictably Irrational’ when he wrote (not quoting) that readers of his books must be aware of their own irrationalities, rather than just identifying irrationalities in others.

This issue is significantly compounded in management and marketing. A case in point: A fellow MBA classmate of mine was adamant that consumers of Louis Vuitton bought the brand for its quality and craftsmanship. She forgot to admit, that she was an LV loyalist herself. Would she then base her management decisions (if she were an LV brand manager, perhaps) on her own justifications?

Marketers and managers, those current and aspiring, I have found are guilty of this consistently. Though they cannot be singled out (as we all are guilty of this) this peculiarity greatly affects the decisions that managers and marketers take. I have seen marketers apply all sorts of irrationality in their own buying decisions, but when they talk about “their consumers”, they believe that they make rational choices.

I believe that there is a simple way to fixing this: Understand that you are a consumer too. When you remove yourself from “consumers”, you tend to view them through a different lens. But when you accept that you too are a consumer, and make your own irrational decisions and post-rationalised justifications, you can truly identify your own buying behaviour and not have your understanding of your consumers clouded by this perception.