Friday, September 14, 2007

Top down vs. bottom up: thinking in a digital age

There’s a lot of news out there about agency-like substances repositioning themselves to take advantage of digital marketing opportunities. Today, the WSJ reported on how is trying to get out of its low-margin businesses and position itself as an “idea” company for multiple platforms. And earlier this week, the trades (here and here) were buzzing with Organic’s announcement that it would be offering digital strategy services as a consultancy to marketers and other agencies.

You can hardly blame them. We can all see where the money is. And I’m inclined to agree with Organic’s Kingdon who recognizes lots of opportunity to add strategic value in the complex world of digital marketing. As Kingdon it:

“Historically, the weight was a lot more on execution not strategy. It’s a lot harder today. There’s a huge digital connection strategy that needs to be considered with lots of touch points that have been considered individually but not holistically.”

As this quote suggests and the WSJ article emphasized, it can be hard to incorporate this detail-rich mode of thinking into traditional agencies. And as anyone who has worked at traditional agencies know, it’s easy to see why.

People who work in agencies tend to be focused on inventing some version of a “big idea,” often as manifested in a high-impact execution. They are trained to create stuff that makes a big splash—and generally the same big splash—in as many places as possible. This kind of thinking—let’s call it top-down thinking—likes to apply big ideas across a broad landscape. it values originality, impact and consistency. Top-down thinkers get frustrated by too many details. They always want to "keep it simple" and saying we need “to get out of the weeds.”

Great digital marketing requires an attention to detail and ability to synthesize a complex array of perspectives from multiple sources. This kind of thinking—let’s call it bottom up thinking—is good for customizing messages across multiple touchpoints and optimizing communication through feedback loops. Bottom-up thinkers like data, they like observation. Bottom-up thinkers get frustrated by big ideas that suggest an over-simplified view of the situation. They are always saying things like, “Can we just look at the data?” or “That’s only true some of the time.”

I tend to be a bottom up thinker, more inductive than deductive, to use a more traditional opposition. I start with details and build up a hypothesis, challenging my thinking with new perspectives and data as I work. I’m the one always being told to get out the weeds.

Both styles of thinking are important and good creative organizations need a little bit of both. But they don’t always mix well, which may be one of the reasons traditional agencies are having such a hard time integrating their digital practices.


Brad Noble said...

I was recently in a meeting with a so-called big thinker (or, top-downer, in the context of this post) where our charge was to put real numbers against our big ideas, to help the client choose a direction. My partner in this endeavor suggested that we -- instead of fulfilling the client's reasonable request -- NOT do that.

Why? Well, my partner vehemently argued, technologies may emerge between now and launch that we may want to use, the costs of which we can't estimate. Putting costs together now may limit our idea!!!

Maybe you're wondering how someone with no obvious understanding of the inputs that adults in business use to make decisions could be promoted to a position of influence in a company that sells marketing value. If you are wondering about that, then let's -- you and me -- be friends.

(Just don't call me a bottom-up'er.)

nancy said...

Interesting post. In fact, having spent time in both "top down" and "bottom up" organizations, I have often pondered the strengths (and weaknesses) of each.

My theory is that both must co-exist in a more symbiotic fashion in order for the true breakthroughs to happen.

Bottom up thinking gets you gobs of juicy insight and detail that, as you mention, can truly resonate with individual segments or blow the socks off a digital or real world user experience. That said, my biggest frustration with pure "bottom up" is the leap from those marvelous details to something resembling an organizing thought or, better yet, a tried and true "Big Idea" is often gargantuan in scope for a room full of bottom up thinkers.

We have tried, at times, to run concurrent brainstorm sessions with bottom up and top down thinkers, or vice versa. When it truly works, and there is a sharp translator/facilitator in the room to help synapses fire with both types of thinkers - we realize magic in the pursuit of a plan. When it fails, we waste a good 30 minutes listening to queries and nay saying...

This clearly has implications across most types of organizations and will, I agree, be a core thread throughout much of the race for big money in the digital age. And thats before you even think about the language barrier between digital and "analog" thinkers be they top down, bottom up, or sideways....

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