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Unlearning: How marketing works

Unlearning: How marketing works
Jo Arden, Head of Strategy at 23red, looks forward to our Unlearning event to see how marketing has changed over the last 15 years.

Some time ago in the years between Oasis and Gorillaz, I did my Masters in marketing.

It involved lots of facts about how marketing works, how you do marketing, how consumers behave and the right combinations of sticks and carrots to make them change that behaviour.

It was pretty comprehensive, but it turns out that a lot of it was wrong.

That’s not a criticism. Turns out that most of what we have learnt since then might be wrong too.

Well, perhaps not wrong, but significantly more debatable than it was presented at the time of learning.

I think this is a good thing. The last few years have been a purple patch of challenges to what we take as read in marketing.

Fortunately, Daniel Kahneman has popularised the word heuristic and so we can use that to explain why we build strategies on beliefs which may not be that well founded.

Our ability to measure more through better models, and also through the accumulation of better and more immediate data, means that we can revisit the foundations of our discipline and understand more about how it does or does not work.

Contemporary marketing thinking is a brave world.

One where we are able to step back and consider a diversity of issues such as loyalty, data, decision-making, human response and effectiveness, and challenge what we have known before.

To do that, we must be prepared to accept that things have changed and that what has gone before perhaps was not always right.

We must unlearn.

That in itself is a tricky ask.

In a business like ours which is fast and getting ever faster, where answering a brief, responding to an opportunity or a challenge is time pressured, we draw on what we believe has worked before - our commonly held heuristics.

But we need to collectively stop, think and discuss. Our strength lies in sharing ideas and debating their merit, helping each other to understand where there is potential to be more effective, and deliver more value for our clients, and for society as a result.

Unlearning is about being open to the new. The upcoming Unlearning event at the IPA on September 2 is about just that.

Hearing from six inspirational, thought-provoking speakers in our field about what they have had to unlearn and why that matters to our wider community.

The beauty of Unlearning is that it is not about being sold a new idea or convinced that a new way is the only way, it’s about being open to possibilities and collectively asking "What if?".

I still have my books somewhere from the mid nineties and it will be interesting to compare the views of Byron Sharp, Claire Valoti, Mark Earls, Russell Davies, Paul Feldwick and John Kearon with what we definitely thought was gospel back then.

Perhaps we’ll find that new thinking is not so different from old in some regards, but the receptivity to the chance it might be is something with enduring value regardless.

Book your place on the IPA Unlearning Conference at The RSA, September 2!

Jo Arden is Head of Strategy at 23red.

Last updated 18/06/2015

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