Is Your Marketing Suffering From The McNamara Fallacy?
I’m finally catching up with something that’s occupied about 30% of my DVR space for months — THE VIETNAM WAR, a 17.25-hour film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
It’s tragic to watch as the leaders of our country make so many bad decisions. I watch sorrowfully because I know their pigheaded mistakes were paid with the lives of 58,220 brave Americans.
And those who came home from fighting that awful war did not receive a hero’s welcome. They still haven’t, and many are afflicted with PTSD as souvenirs.
A major factor in the long-running Vietnam catastrophe was the bad decision making and advice given by Robert McNamara, the United States Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968. At the root of his bogus thinking was numbers.
McNamara was driven by enemy body counts. In his mind, the war was a game of attrition — whichever side had the fewer number of dead bodies would win.
He came from the business world (The Ford Motor Company) and was a master of systems analysis, so he treated war as if planning operational efficiency.
But car parts can’t think, and they don’t have emotions.
McNamara was a slave to metrics and made his decisions solely on quantitative observations, ignoring other factors like the attitudes of the native people, and their unconventional approach to engaging battles.
He held fast to his numbers, and McNamara had Lyndon Johnson believing in his bulletproof thinking.
The Secretary of Defense’s belief in only what can be measured has been named The McNamara Fallacy.
Not to minimize the tragic sorrow of war, but today I see many marketers applying McNamara thinking to their initiatives and campaigns. They let metrics and analytics rule all their decision making.
If it cannot be measured, it doesn’t matter.
Are there big ideas out there, ones designed to win hearts and minds?
Instead, we are exposed to an assault of tactics designed to trigger response. Marketers believe if they string together enough battle victories, they’ll win the war.
Maybe, but at what cost?
If your marketing is strictly transactional, I doubt you’ll build much of a brand. You’ll occupy your turf until someone wages a better battle.
Price wars are the quintessential example of this.
Great brands are built with an empathetic understanding of human wants and needs, and an engaging, compelling presentation of why the brand exists and what it can do –– as filtered through the prism of humanity.
These ideas and brands become movements. They capture imaginations, and if the products perform, they instill loyalty and pride in ownership and use.
Weak brands exist in tactical warfare and decisions made solely by the numbers.The spreadsheets are analyzed, and new tactics loaded and deployed.
As Daniel Yankelovich wrote in “Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands of business” in 1972:
“The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.”
What type of marketing campaigns are you engaging?
Are you bringing your humanity to your job, or are you making decisions by the numbers?
Are you taking any chances, following your instincts, and trusting your gut?
Are you being ruled by rational thought only? Remember, most people buy emotionally and rationalize their purchase later.
When you review creative ideas, do you palms ever sweat? Don’t look for palm antiperspirant — sweating palms are good!
If an idea doesn’t make you nervous, chances are it does not have the potential for greatness.
Be human. Be vulnerable. Be brave.
And if you haven’t seen it, watch THE VIETNAM WAR.
Patrick Scullin is an empathetic adman and founder of ASO Advertising.