Friday, August 10, 2007

AAAAftermath II: Practice without Theory

"It is a mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits."

One of the more common complaints about the AAAA's planning conference is that it's too theoretical, too blue-sky, with not enough real-world practical applications. This position--or at least question--was raised on the official AAAA's planning blog and expressed--with much sharper criticism--on a post on Gareth Kay's popular blog.

Since I was on the AAAA's comittee I can say with some conviction that we deliberately tried to balance the two. The mainstage speakes were supposed to bring more inspiring thinking from outside the industry while the breakouts were supposed to offer more practical ideas that one could immediately apply to their work. Based on the feedback I've received, it seems like we got the mix substantially more than half-right. It wasn't perfect, but for anyone who has helped planned an event like this, you know just how many variables are involved (last-minute cancellations, people that end up presenting different material than they propose, etc., etc.)

But I wanted to address a bigger issue here, which continually comes up whenever I discuss planning: which is the balance of theory and practice in our discipline. From my perspective (that is, a long education in literary history and theory), there is no question that planning is first and last a practical discipline. There is very little useful room for theory without practice in marketing and advertising. And I'm as bored as anyone by branding books which are built around imported metaphors that merely restate the same truisms with some new language (borrowed from science or politics or history or sports.)

But that doesn't mean theory or theoretical approaches: that is, using new conceptual frameworks and approaches to challenge our assumptions don't have a place in a discipline that is explicitly designed to question traditional approaches to problems.

I'd go further and ask: it's pretty hard to get a fresh perspective on an old problem without some new frameworks (of the kind Gareth and Mark discussed at the conference) whether you want to call it theory or not.

Nor is this about being overly clever, to use another formulation from the conference. I can, in fact, be really fun. Beginning with random bullshit sessions, tossing ideas around.

If don't believe me, check out the introduction to a collection of foundational essays on the discipline of Behavioral Economics Choices, Values and Frames by Nobel Prize winners Kahneman and Tversky:

Our method in those early days was pure fun. We would meet every afternoon for several hours, which we spent inventing interesting pairs of gambles and observing our own intuitive preferences. If we agreed on the same choice, we provisionally assume that it was characteristic of humankind and went on to investigate its theoretical implications, leaving serious verification for later. This unusual mode of empirical research enabled us to move quickly. In a few giddy months we raced through more than twenty diverse theoretical formulations.

Now, just in case you might dismiss this as "pure" theory, remember that this thinking had a revolutionary impact on all the social sciences (from sociology to political science) provided the foundation for Stephen Levitt's (of Freakonomics fame) experiments as well directly influencing enormous changes in policy and business. I worked for one insurance company that applied these "theories" to how they managed their retirement services accounts and doubled the amount of people who enrolled in their 401k plans.

What ultimately made their theories so useful were the ingenious experiments they then created to validate to their intuitions (asking people how much would they might pay for a beer from a local convenience store vs. a luxury hotel) but without those fun theoretical conversations in Jerusalem cafes, none of this would have ever happened, and we'd still be banging our heads against the false assumption that our economic choices are rational.

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