Is Marketing Wicked?


Depending on who you are this question will probably mean something different to you.

A person who was born in the 1990s might think I was asking if marketing was a ‘good thing’, perhaps a cutting edge career, something to really aspire to. On the other hand someone who has doubts about the value of consumersim and the ethics of materialism might think I was asking about the moral basis of marketing thought and practice. The sort of concerns that can be found on websites such as Marketing Ethics and Criticism

Both are likely to disappointed. The question is really about how marketing is understood by marketing professionals and the notion of ‘wicked’ refers to the types of wicked, complex and ambiguous phenomena first characterised by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in their 1973 paper Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.

A crucial aspect of their idea is that ‘wickedness’ isn’t about how difficult something is per se. The opposite of wicked problems are tame problems. Tame problems are often hard to solve but they use familiar tried and tested problem solving methods to crack them. The example that is often given is the game of Chess. Chess presents ‘tame’ problems. The challenges presented might be difficult but how the pieces move, and how to solve the challenges is essentially the same time after time. This is the sort of thinking that people use when they’ve had alot of experience in a particular business sector and are often heard to claim that they know everything there is to know about the business. Wicked problems can’t be solved in the same way. They involve situations with multiple causes, they have multiple explanations provided by stakeholders with different opinions and values and according to Michael Pacanowsky in his article Team Tools for Wicked Problems they “involve us in dialogue that includes our definition of the problem, the algorithm we try to invent or employ, the information we consider relevant, the solution we find, and the outcomes we ultimately achieve. Wicked problems necessarily have an interative nature to them”

Classic Marketing Management schools us in the belief that the business environment whilst dynamic and changeable, can be tamed and controlled through the application of the principles of ‘scientific management’. The ideas of Rittel and Webber imply that the business environment isn’t ‘tame’ (routine and familiar problems and solutions). Marketing Executives are constantly faced with ‘wicked’ (supriseful, complex, unfamiliar situations requiring innovative and imaginative solutions) too. And they look like this…

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.(we can’t simply say it’s a sales problem, a pricing problem, a distribution problem etc)

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. (unlike tame problems where you clearly know when you’ve ‘cracked’ it, for e.g.we can’t say for certain that ‘we have sorted our Service Marketing strategy now’)

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse. (this implies power and politics have a role to play in decision making too)

4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.(obviously a worry for those who depend on the scientfic method of experimentation to test and control variables in order to inform their decision making)

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly. (So if we change our sales structure we have changed our business environment and we now have to deal with a new reality)

6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.(forget looking for a root cause, its impossible to find)

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.(what glasses are you wearing? the world through brass glasses is very different to the world through silver and gold glasses)

10. The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

With these things in mind, now think about the classic linear rational approach to Marketing Planning that is put forward in the majority of standard text books. The marketing plan is ‘sold’ as a solution for structuring complexity. A method that if correctly followed will reveal the best course of action. All you have to do is plug data into the planning algorthim and out pops the solution!

Business Schools are churning out marketing managers bred on this rational systematic problem solving methodolgy, but as Pacanowsky says “Linear problem-solving methods, with the attendant assumptions they make about problem definition, information, and solution, are often insufficient for the task” Might this be the reason that Marketing Plans are merely ‘shelf-ware’ once they have been written? They don’t actually solve the problems they were intended to solve!

To end on a contemporary note. Take a look at how marketeers are trying to understand and make sense of Social Media. There are multiple explanations, its not easy to pin down, some people are trying to ‘tame’ it by fitting into classic processes. Often people will tell you just ‘how complicated Social Media is and hard it is to explain to the CEO what it is all about’. Its difficult to test and measure. Its in a perpetual state of trial and error. No one really has the answer.

Marketing is wicked, isn’t it!

Links to articles (will need journal subscriptions):
Team Tools for Wicked Problems
Strategy As A Wicked Problem

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