The Case for Curiosity
There’s a phrase going around the internet, and it’s become a catch-all for the way that young people feel about their parents’ generation. “OK, Boomer” has become a common reply to people who appear to be out of touch, and especially if those people are trying to impose their often biased perspective in the form of advice. One common conversation that’s sure to spark an Ok, Boomer is when the older generation tries to tell young professionals that they just need to lay off the avocado toast and work harder in order to be able to afford a home.
My favorite yet #okboomer pic.twitter.com/zbQmXTls9b
— Amanda S (@mandy999s) November 7, 2019
The phrase has come to describe an entire generation’s feelings about being talked down to by those in charge, and last week it was as if the phrase magically came to life in one MSNBC spot that, if it were an SNL skit, would have been too over the top to be believable.
To give you a bit of context, Taylor Lorenz is one of the leading oracles of Internet culture. She’s appeared in just about every news publication that matters, and right now she writes a column for the New York Times. So, when Michael Bloomberg started advertising on social media in a way that was unfamiliar to the mainstream audience, her phone started ringing from news shows looking to get an informed view on what his team is up to. Taylor is the perfect person for the job – she’s just the right mix of professional journalist and technology-lover to provide a hard-hitting analysis of the $50 million budget that Bloomberg has spent on digital and the progressive tactics that he used. So how did they take advantage of this golden opportunity that they had sitting in their studio? Watch for yourself.
Now, few of us are as guilty of the level of condescension that these hosts achieved, but the interview (if we can even call it that) struck a chord because it is such a perfect caricature of the friction that exists within many organizations. On one side there are the established business practices: the methods, tactics, and trades that have been honed over time to create a professional company. On the other: popular culture. It demands newness and freshness. Culture craves things that look different and challenge norms – that’s what makes them interesting. The same things that make culture interesting require marketers to break from old processes, build new skills, and discard last year’s strategies. Naturally, the people who came up proving themselves one way are going to push back against that sort of threat. To them, it can feel like a challenge not only to the way that they’ve been successful in the past, but it questions their expertise and makes them vulnerable so it’s no surprise that they’d take a dismissive position. It’s just self-defense.
Contrary to popular belief, that natural inclination to dismiss the things that challenge us is not directly related to age. What builds up our intolerance is actually success. Whether it accumulates over a decades-long career or a quick startup win, success gives us something to lose and it creates a status that we now have to defend. So, when someone like Taylor comes along and implies that the methods that made us successful are no longer valuable, it chips away at the facade that we’ve created and it’s more difficult to be open and curious about this fresh new idea.
That is, unless our success has been built with curiosity.
Most businesses build their strategies by starting with a big idea and building on it. They layer in departments, budgets, channels, tactics, and KPIs. Once that strategy is set they start executing, doubling down on winning tactics and cutting losers. They harvest data from their customers, using that information to expand on what’s been working, allocating resources and building processes that make them difficult to compete against. Flexibility is sacrificed from efficiency and, in areas like procurement, manufacturing, fulfillment, and real estate, that solid foundation of efficiency will cause your business to pull away from the pack.
Culture, however, does not follow the rules of business. Where people pay attention and how they communicate is entirely fluid. It may take decades to change, or one week. There is nothing limiting its pace but people’s personal preferences, and those choices are inherently unpredictable.
Rigidly successful people hate unpredictability. Curious people love it – they thrive off of change and see it as an opportunity. Those lucky few have allowed themselves to be the person in the room who asks the silly question, and they’ve been comfortable making mistakes. When they succeeded, they understood the first principles of why those tactics worked. Rather than chalking up an ad campaign’s results to their own genius, they examined how the market was growing at the time, who the people are who chose to act on their ads, and the environmental reasons that they made those choices. The next time that it was their turn to build another campaign, they were able to return back to those roots, rather than assuming that a similar flash of creative brilliance would cause similar results.
In today’s market, to the curious go the spoils. The past decade has been one of incredible growth and success. Companies have made Billions off of what are now well-honed digital practices like:
- Create a beautiful online shop
- Get some influencers to talk about you
- Create a retargeting audience of their followers
- Shove Facebook product ads at them until they give in and Buy Now
The people who built their careers off of models like those are now screaming at the platforms because algorithms, ad rates, and consumer behaviour are all making their lives more difficult, and expensive.
The curious few, however, have moved on long ago. When they saw that what worked in 2016 was losing its sparkle, they opened up their notes and asked themselves: Why were those tactics successful in the first place? It’s not because of their mastery of the Facebook Ads platform or their genius copywriting. It was because the most effective marketing tactics are always novel. The very fact that no one else is doing it makes the tactic effective. Remember WestJet’s Christmas Miracle? Or Tourism Queensland’s Greatest Job in the World? Either of those same tactics, launched today, would have a fraction of the effectiveness that they did back when they were the first of their kind.
To the curious, cultural revelations like TikTok, meme accounts, and Snapchat Lenses look like a gift of novelty. They’re fresh, they’re new, and they’re an opportunity to create something that’s never been done before. To the rigid, they are a threat, and so they bring curious people like Taylor Lorenz onto their shows just to mock the hard work that they’ve been doing.
A word of advice to those of you who are curious enough to receive it: Keep the receipts. Whether it was the birth of e-commerce, the social media revolution, the shift to mobile, or the cultural moment that we’re experiencing right now, there will come a time when what seems absurd just becomes good business. You’ll want to remember that you were willing to be vulnerable enough to take a chance on something that’s still unpredictable and unproven.