Are you a fox or a hedgehog? What would your client say you are?
This question has come to mind a couple of times after reading The Signal and The Noise by predictive science guru Nate Silver (here was my review of his book). According to Silver, there are two types of prognosticators. Hedgehogs believe “in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws.” Foxes “are scrappy creatures who believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem.”
It’s not a new idea. The Greek poet Archilochus wrote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Western Civilization kind of ran with the concept; it appears in literature a number of times over the centuries. Foxes: Aristotle, Shakespeare, Pushkin. Hedgehogs: Plato, Dante, Dostoevsky. If you ever read business books, James Collins, who wrote Good To Great, is clearly a hedgehog. Silver is a fox.
In fact, Silver believes it’s better to be a fox, at least when it comes to making predictions, because there are really no hedgehog-like governing principles that lead to a sure thing.
Fox, Hedgehog & Associates
What about when it comes to making advertising?
Hedgehogs like big, enduring ideas, governing principles they can cite time and again. Despite all the changes in advertising, some of these principles endure. For example, “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising” is doubly true in an era when word of mouth travels faster than ever. Plus, given all the uncertainty we all face, it’s kind of comforting to know some truths are constant.
But not all principles survive the test of time. For example, “Good advertising is written always from one person to another.” I thought this old Fairfax Cone idea would not only survive, but thrive in the digital era where marketers and consumers connect with each other directly. I had an epiphany at Hyper Island, however, leading me to realize that networks of people are the base unit of communication.
That’s where foxes come in. Foxes don’t just know “many things” but they are always open to learning new things. They embrace, not ignore, new information that conflicts with what they already believed. This doesn’t describe the so-called “open mind,” accepting everything as true, but a critical mind, willing to think through new information and see how it applies. That’s especially valuable in advertising.
Personalities are part of the profile, too. Silver’s discussion in the book started with pundits you see on U.S. political talk shows like The McLaughlin Group. In his view, they’re all hedgehogs, because big, bold, proclamations make fantastic television, even (especially?) when they turn out wrong. Foxes are boring because they analyze various probabilities.
Similarly, hedgehogs make meetings spectacular; bold and daring. They draw you in with simple messages. They sell. This is how Hollywood dramatizes our business and it has a grain of truth to it. Foxes – well, I won’t say they are a buzz kill, but their thoughtful approach is usually more restrained.
Clients Need Both
Advertising today – and it’s all advertising – needs both foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes help us get to the right answer; hedgehogs see it through.
It's possible for any one of us to be both a fox and a hedgehog. The fox in you should have good peripheral vision, seeking new ways to move business forward. Your inner hedgehog should compare these new inputs to larger principles, and act accordingly.
Clients, too, will want a fox to help them sort through the complexity of modern marketing – and a hedgehog to seek simplicity and propel things forward, fast.