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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Do You Have a Reductionist on Board?

A few weeks ago, I saw an interview on CNBC with shareholder activist and billionaire Carl Icahn. No matter what you think of him (I admire him), he is always worth listening to as he brings a different spin to many topics. At one point in the lengthy interview he said, “Among other things, I’m known to be a reductionist. In my line of work you must be good at pinpointing what to focus on--that is, the major underlying truth and problem in a situation.”

His comment caused many memories to come flooding back to me. He is right that in selecting a company to invest in one must be a reductionist and weigh the relative importance of all the issues surrounding the security--earnings power, management, current price, and the state of the economy among other factors. Yet, it hit me that the same thing is needed in the marketing world and at advertising agencies.

I once worked with a fellow who had, in my way of thinking, an almost uncanny knack at identifying issues around the launch of a brand. One day in my office he started listing concerns and it was almost like a machine gun going off. I grabbed a pencil and furiously tried to stay with him as he ticked off the pros and cons of both the brand, the competitive environment, the category growth, pricing, distribution, and the ad campaign and media plan that we were using. When he left my office, I was stunned. This guy struck me as the smartest guy that I had ever worked with anywhere.

A few weeks went by and the rollout of the brand began. Then something hit me like a freight train. My colleague had no peer in raising valid issues but he had zero ability in determining the relative weight of each variable. He had no way of separating “the wheat from the chaff." A few months later he was still ranting about issues that the rest of us felt were 1-2% of the marketing mix. He was definitely not an Icahn like “reductionist.”  The product did well but he kept saying a big shoe was going to drop on it any day. It did years later and not for the reason he forecast.

Conversely, I once worked with a man who reduced any problem to one variable. Sometimes he was right but when he was wrong it was a disaster.

Today, the marketing and, also the media world is a bit more complicated than it was 30 years ago. So, a talented reductionist is worth her weight in platinum these days.  This individual can look at many issues around a brand situation and weigh the relative importance of each with reasonable accuracy. Do you have one of these innate talents on staff? He or she could be very valuable.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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