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The Importance of Paying Attention

2010 January 10

While much business discourse focuses on high concepts and complicated theories, a lot can be accomplished simply by paying attention.  Unfortunately many people, even CEO’s, consultants and other “experts” often don’t even make a minimal effort to check their facts.

The reality is that a lot of  people who should know better, don’t.  Many well known “truths” are actually false.  The following is a guide to my favorite fallacies.

“We all know it’s true because everyone says so”

Just because something is repeated often, doesn’t make it true.  An amazing example is the widely held opinion among magazine publishers that magazine advertising is considerably more expensive than other media, particularly TV.

This is actually the official position of the industry.  A few years ago I attended a talk given by the president of the international magazine association (FIPP).  He declared that magazines could never compete with TV on price which is why magazines need to sell their superior value.

He suggested that publishers need to do their own calculation of “cost per qualified consumer” because magazine audiences are so special that they defy conventional measurement.

It would have been inspiring advice, were it not completely false.  The WARC, publishes a summary of cost comparisons in their Global Media Cost Comparisons.  Go to their site, pay a few hundred dollars and media cost comparisons for virtually every country in the world are at your fingertips.

Even a casual inspection would quickly discover that magazine advertising is in fact 1/3 the cost of TV on a CPP basis in  every demographic in major developed countries.  A more detailed analysis would reveal that magazines are cheaper in virtually every country with over $10,000 of GDP per capita.

In effect, a multi-billion dollar industry lives under a mistaken illusion because they fail to spend a few hundred dollars and check some facts.

One would think that this would be welcome news among publishers.  My experience has been the opposite.  When informed of the truth, magazine people are usually angry (yes, angry!) that anyone would defy the well established zeitgeist.

Rather than avoiding the price issue, magazine publishers could profit by using efficiency as a key selling point.  However, they don’t because somehow they all decided to agree that they are more expensive.

Not very smart.

“I know the facts so don’t confuse me with data”

Often, facts that were once true aren’t anymore.  Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop people from repeating data without checking whether it is still valid.

Some years ago, the Managing Director of a major media agency asked me to prepare briefing materials for a panel discussion on billboard advertising that he was invited to take part in.

At the time, the central issue was an upcoming ban on tobacco advertising which, at one time, accounted for 40% of spending in the medium.  As I prepared the briefing materials, I was careful to include a detailed analysis on the tobacco issue.

As the tobacco industry had begun to diversify its marketing efforts and the billboard industry expanded tobacco spending had sharply decreased as a share of the market.  By the time the ban would come into effect, tobacco share would be around 15%, significant, but hardly a death knell.

Of course, no one feels that they need to check facts that they already know. When the time for the panel discussion came, my friend repeated the erroneous 40% number and predicted the industry’s demise (he was wrong).

In a world that changes rapidly, no one can afford to rely on outdated information.

“I’m so smart that reading the summary is enough”

Research reports have summaries, and they can be a useful guide.  However, professionals should be able to go beyond the first few paragraphs summarizing data and actually be able to make their own conclusions.

A cousin of mine, now a successful management consultant, once did an internship at a big company that made soup.  There was expensive consumer research done and a big meeting was held to discuss the results and strategic implications.  After some high level discussion, they were kind enough to ask my cousin what he thought.

“Well,” he said, “it seems to me that we package our soup in family size containers, yet many people live alone and can’t finish it all.  Maybe we should market some individual sized packages.”  The executives were amazed at my cousin’s supernatural powers of insight.

Of course, in the survey the company had paid for, there was a question, “Do you finish the container?”  A large percentage of people responded that they didn’t and said specifically that it was too big for one person. This was no “eureka!” moment, one only had to read the report.

Years later, the company actually did launch individual servings and it was a big hit.

“I can point out various facts that prove the general principle”

This is my favorite, because the people who make this mistake are usually so self-righteous.  Anecdotal evidence is often put forward as clear evidence proving a universal rule.

A rule is only universal if there is a complete absence of contrary evidence. That’s actually very rare, which is why so few principles apply globally. Most concepts are situational.

A great example is that “old media is dead.”  Some new media gurus will point to a statistic showing digital growth and extrapolate the trend.  Or they will point out that an unsuccessful magazine or TV station closed, while ignoring the plethora of web sites that fail regularly.

New media evangelists then usually say something like “the proof is there for anybody who wants to see!” and adoring brethren nod there heads accordingly.  Of course, no contrary evidence is considered. Why spoil a good story with the facts.

Roughly 10% of global media expenditure goes to Digital Media.  A fairly simple calculation would reveal that 90% goes to the supposedly “irrelevant old media.”

In fact, most media have continued to grow since the birth of the internet and some are actually increasing their piece of the pie.  Outdoor, the oldest of the old media, has actually increased global market share over the past decade, and so have magazines in North America and some other regions.  Anybody who wants to check can buy ZenithOptimedia Global Expenditure Forecasts.

Most media continue to grow their revenues every year (except, of course, during recessions). Moreover, the great majority of media companies have digital initiatives, so at least part of the money comes back to them anyway.

The failure to take contrary evidence into account was a driving reason behind the first dotcom bust.  How many billions will be wasted this time around?

A Simple Solution

A lot of time, effort and money could be saved simply by paying attention.  If more people asked, “what do I think I know and why do I think I know it?” a lot of misconceptions can be avoided.

Checking facts isn’t always fun.  Alas, that’s why they’re called jobs and that’s why people get paid for them.

– Greg

21 Responses leave one →
  1. January 10, 2010


    Hard not to laugh when I was reading this. Sooooo familiar! And so true.

    In the age of the Internet, fact checking is probably worse than it has ever been. It’s so easy to get something online that is supposedly “fact” and not get corroboration. And that’s if you even bother with that!

    Truth be known – there is significantly more value to online information if it’s actually accurate instead of just omnipresent. Great post.


  2. January 10, 2010


    I’m glad you liked it. Have a great week!

    – Greg

  3. January 10, 2010

    Happy new Year, Greg.

    Nice article, and so real world. If I had a nickel for every time I saw lackluster campaigns based on outdated “facts,” I could retire already. Good luck in the coming year (szczęśliwego nowego roku).


  4. January 10, 2010


    Good to see you again!


    – Grzes

  5. January 11, 2010


    It is so nice to see someone put in print what many of us are thinking. Businesses are made up of people and people come in all different shapes and sizes, intelligence levels, levels of close-mindedness, various size egos, etc. John is so right in that the Internet perpetuates this false belief in so-called “facts”. Look at Wikipedia! Anyone can right anything and call it a “fact”. This is a bit scary as there are tons of total morons inside and outside company walls masquerading around as people with brains. The reality is that those who are truly intelligent and have common sense are few and far between which is one of the reasons I so enjoy reading your posts. The smartest people freely admit what they don’t know and truly want to learn so THEY will read all the data in a report, will not believe something because “everyone else does”, etc. Do those who don’t read past the summaries not do so because they think they are too smart and don’t need to or because they are lazy – probably a little of both.

    There is such an incredible amount of information on the Internet and so much of it is either bogus or downright incorrect, yet people believe it because it is there. So important to do your own research and check your facts!

    Thanks for telling it like it is!

  6. January 11, 2010


    Great pints. Have a nice week.

    – Greg

  7. January 11, 2010

    Hi Greg, Very nice article that boosts my week starting.

    It remembered me some of my past reading in french about “the society of emergency” and the “cult of emergency”. Our lives speed up during the past decades. We became addicted in our daily lives to Performance, Time to market, Real Time News and so on.

    We lost the habit to take time : to pay attention to everything we’re involving in, to pay attention to our fellows, to taste moments.

  8. Stuart Nicholson permalink
    January 11, 2010

    Thanks for the plug for our forecasts, Greg.I heartily agree with the points in todays post.It seems that like many other industries, experts behave like a herd and often obvious despite evidence of something different happening, what people SAY will happen is what everyone take notice of.

    Its a bit like what is happening in global stock markets right now. There are enough bearish economic indicators to make investors stop and think about whether the recovery is really happening, but markets are ignoring this and roaring on as if everything has suddenly returned to normal. People who stick their head over the parapet and take an opposite position are few and there is probably an inbuilt himan trait that prevents us from following our train of rational thought rather than what everyone else appears to be doing.

  9. January 11, 2010


    Good points, well written.


    – Greg

  10. January 11, 2010


    Thanks. I think you are right that we tend to be conditioned to go with a group. There is probably a lot of good evolutionary reasons why we tend to seek consensus, but there can be a big price to pay when the conventional wisdom is mistaken.

    – Greg

  11. January 11, 2010

    Great post Greg. This post is valuable on so many levels. I did a post (back in June) not quite the same but definitely in the neighborhood and reflects your theme of ‘paying attention’ . I almost feel that (and you speak a little bit to this), that if we yell long and loud enough then we can “make it” true, despite what the market is REALLY doing. I continue being a student in the new economy. Thanks again for posting.

  12. January 11, 2010

    Great article. The fact is our industry is so full of crap it’s killing itself. On the creative side, the ‘this is the way it’s done’ mentality solves yesterday’s problems, maybe. It does nothing to get us to where we need to go tomorrow. Instead of facts and research, our ‘gurus’ spend time and money repeating what they saw in someone’s Twitter feed. Hopefully, this lack in professionalism will be replaced with real smarts based on truth, not conjecture.

    My first article of yours and I will be back. Great stuff, Greg.

    All my best,
    Scott Brown
    Creative/Consumer Psychologist (master’s candidate 2010)

  13. January 12, 2010


    Thanks for the link to your post. I think it makes a also makes a larger point that I tried to make in Chaotic Social Networks: that the math that drives social networks is chaotic and much of what gets talked about is the turbulence. It’s like describing Kansas only by it’s tornadoes.

    “10% drives 90%” drives social networks, ecological systems, body chemistry and most other natural phenomena. Another interesting aspect is that the 90% also drives the 10% (which is why mass media is so effective).

    Thanks a lot for a very insightful comment and post.

    – Greg

  14. January 12, 2010


    Thanks for your input, although I’m afraid that the notion that the “lack of professionalism will be replaced with real smarts and truth” might be a bit optimistic. In the advertising industry, many practitioners still believe in the “big con.” Way too many take great joy in proclaiming that advertising affects the consumer, but not them because they’re too clever.

    Fortunately, in my experience, the people who actually are care not only more successful professionally, but enjoy their jobs more.

    – Greg

  15. January 12, 2010

    Greg, I like this. . . “trying to describe Kansas only by it’s tornadoes”. I thought about that for about 5 seconds and it made a boat load of sense. Keep the good stuff coming my friend.

  16. January 23, 2010

    Hi Greg,
    Interesting article. Do you remember when coke introduced there “New Flavor” and it was horrible. Nobody paid attention there!

  17. January 23, 2010

    That was pretty clueless:-)

    – Greg

  18. Carina Pueyo permalink
    February 8, 2010

    The simplest things are often forgotten. I have liked the part where you say: Just because something is repeated often, doesn’t make it true! I totally agree. Although something was retweeted thousand times it is not more true!

  19. February 8, 2010


    Thanks. I’m glad you liked it.

    – Greg

  20. February 23, 2010

    ” If more people asked, “what do I think I know and why do I think I know it?” a lot of misconceptions can be avoided.” – So true!

    that line reminded me of this post i read today morning –
    .-= Samudra´s last blog ..World domination =-.

  21. February 24, 2010


    Thanks for the link. Interesting.

    – Greg

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