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Think like a CSO (with Phil Adams)

I gave a room full of strategists two minutes each to arrive at a definition of “content”. This was an experiment not a workshop exercise. I wasn’t seeking the definitive definition. I was testing a hypothesis.

For people who work with content for a living this should have been a straightforward exercise. But I had my doubts. I expected it to be quite a challenge.

At the end of the exercise I asked everyone to record the type of company they worked for and to score out of five how difficult they had found it, according to these criteria.

A score of zero equated to no thought required. Anyone scoring between one and three had arrived at what they thought was a satisfactory definition - one they’d be happy to defend - but with varying degrees of effort. Those scoring four or five got nowhere and didn’t enjoy themselves very much.

At face value the results seem to support my hypothesis.

Forty-three people wrote a definition of content. Forty of these also recorded a degree of difficulty score. Twenty-four people, 60% of the sample, found this to be a very tough exercise and were unhappy with their definition. And there was no discernible correlation between the type of organisation that people worked for and their difficulty score. Creative, media, digital, PR, market research, sport marketing and client-side folk all struggled to similar degrees.

I chose to ask for a definition of content. But I expect the result would have been similar had I asked for a definition of strategy or brand positioning or some other fundamental building block of planning. The method and the sample size were not robust enough to conclude, but I will go as far as to infer that, for a thinking profession, there is a lot of unthinking going on. We are unthinkingly using words and concepts without a fundamental appreciation of their meaning or implications.

As a thank you for being my lab rats, all of the definitions generated will be shared back to the group by the APG.

For what it’s worth my favoured definition of content is very prosaic but also very practical:

Substantive information or creative material viewed in contrast to its manner of presentation.

A song is content. Its manner of presentation can vary from sheet music to live performance, to radio broadcast, to vinyl record to digital streaming. I work in a digital agency, where content is as likely to be the serial number of a spare part for a discontinued product as it is a highly produced piece of film. If a person can’t find it, or if it is difficult to change, you have a content strategy problem.

This experiment took place half way through a talk called Planning From First Principles.

Working from first principles is an important component of the scientific method, which I learned as an engineering student. A first principle is a basic, foundational, self-evident proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. For instance, in mathematics, the whole of geometry can be deduced from a few first principles such as the fact that the angle of a straight line is 180°.

Planning from first principles is an antidote to lazy logic and wishful thinking. And it encourages the kind of naïve questioning that takes strategy to places other approaches cannot reach.

A first principles approach doesn’t take anything for granted. It is highly suspicious of concepts such as ecosystems and engagement, communities and conversations. It works from solid, practical definitions for things like strategy and content. It provides the analytical discipline that is the foundation for the imagination and creative thinking that is so important to strategy.

Encouraging and enforcing first principles discipline is one of the ways in which this generalist CSO seeks to improve standards in a specialist environment.

The first twenty years of my career were in traditional advertising. I grew up to be a generalist planner. But for the last decade I have been Strategy Director of a digital agency. I look after a department of specialists – UX, SEO, Media Technology, Content Strategy, Social Media. Everyone who reports into me knows more about what they do than me.

Nonetheless I can often help these specialists with a wider context for their work. I can work on strategic narrative. I can help them ask better questions and arrive at better definitions of purpose. And, over time, I have developed a toolbox of deceptively simple models and frameworks for first principles thinking, some of which I shared during this talk.

Whilst preparing for the talk I found to my delight that there is such as thing as extreme dot to dot – complex pictures which emerge only when thousands of dots have been joined in sequence.

Planning is a form of extreme dot to dot, but our dots are not numbered. We are not given the sequence. We are given all sorts of data and information from numerous sources. We are given qualitative and quantitative research, media plans, brand plans, sales figures, competitor analyses, sector reports and so on. But not all of these dots will join to create an elegant strategic picture. We choose which dots in which order. This requires both logical rigour and intuitive flair, which is what makes planning a rewarding job. First principles thinking acts as a good bridge between the two. So thinks this CSO.

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