Rumsfeld on the future of advertising

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Donald Rumsfeld at Princeton in the ’50s because I couldn’t bare to defile adliterate with an image of the man as we now know him.

I have started quoting Rumsfeld rather a lot.

Not the quote “I would not say that the future is necessarily less predictable than the past. I think the past was not predictable when it started” nor the outstanding “Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.” Neither of these are much use in charting the un-navigated waters of marketing communications.

But this one.

“There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

You may pour scorn on him mangling of our english language and scrambling our brains but its sheer genius.

Or at the very least it helps articulate the relationship between adveritsing and digital agencies and their practitioners.


Clearly both parties know what they know about the other discipline. This knowledge may be clouded by prejudice, inadequate understanding and half truths on both sides but of one thing I am certain, I know what I know about digital. And of course those people in the digital space that hail from advertising have a more complete knowledge or what we do – albeit frozen in the late ’90s.
And we are starting to figure out the stuff we know we don’t know and making up for this through an ongoing talent swap. Advertising agenices are falling over themselves to attract digital parctitioners into the fold. Partly in the belief that the whopping great salaries that are on offer are a damn sight better value than the multiples they will have to pay if they try to buy the agencies these luminaries work for. And of course we are also seeing digital agencies bringing in strategic and production talent (particularly in TV) from the ad agenices where these skills have been honed over decades.
What fascinates me, however, is stuff that we don’t know we don’t know.
The more people I meet with, talk to and argue with from the digital side of the divide the more I realise that the real issue is I don’t know what I don’t know – and I suspect neither do you.
What I mean is that if you work in an ad agency exploration of the digital world is like playing a computer game where the map or terrain only becomes visible as you visit it. Every day I gain a better understanding of digital, and often about things that I previously had no idea happened or were important.
Of course few people on either side of the fence will admit to their lack of understanding but for me its a rather liberating idea. Instead of starting the conversation on the basis of the stuff you think you don’t know about and need to have some help with, you start it in a spirit of complete openess. help me understnad the things I don’t know I don’t know.
And maybe it is a philosophy we should apply rather more often to the process of building strategy, particularly in pitch situations.
Thanks Donald. Shame about Iraq, but you have certainly helped to put my head straight.
I’m now off to wrestle with the stuff I don’t know I know.

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6 Replies to “Rumsfeld on the future of advertising”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I read today a comment from an old mentor of yours, that catastrophe theory is the old school version of the tipping point. It does feel that way with any media consumption predictions right now.
    Coincidentally I’ve been enjoying Yogi Berra(isms) in the last few days.
    “if you come to a fork in the road, take it” :)

  2. Speaking of stuff I don’t know anything about…
    Read your blog and then found myself conscious of reading a blog, if you know what I mean…
    And a question popped into my vacant brain..
    Is it my ignorance, or are there more male planners who blog than women?
    There are female planner bloggers, of course. But do MORE men bog?
    (Indeed are there more male bloggers in general than women? Anybody have the data?)
    Is the preponderance of male planning bloggers simply sympotmatic of the industry still being dominated by men?
    Or is there something more fundamental at work?
    Do men blog more than women because they lack the more developed, extensive and complex social (non-digital) networks that women naturally create for themselves?
    The comments in your blog, and that of say, Messrs. Grant and Davies seem (I haven’t actually counted) to be predominantly though not exclusively from men…
    Is the incidence of blogging amongst women less because they have real, face-to-face human relationships to draw upon if say, they want to try out a new idea – i.e. ‘coffee morning’-type interactions are not a radical digitally-advertised behaviour but simply what has always come naturally?
    Is the incidence of blogging amongst men greater because despite the pronouncements of community and collaboration, it is still a way of tooting one’s own horn – i.e. the digital sphere faciliates the male gender’s genetic inclination to posture, show off, and compete (“my idea is better than yours”) however nicely and politely done?
    Is blogging a gender issue?
    All a bit of a non sequitur really (apologies), but was just wondering…
    As I say, it’s all stuff I don’t know anything about.

  3. Hi,
    Actually Rumsfeld was contorting something that has been quite well established in the engineering industry. They phrase is “unks” and “unk unks”. I believe the phrase came into parlance back in the day when NASA was trying to land a man on the moon.
    Cheers. Just another lurking geek,
    Doug Turner
    skype: dduuggllaa

  4. The distinction is silly.
    If a so-called ‘digital’ person tells you they know all there is to know about digital, fire them immediately.
    They’ve stopped learning, they are obsolete.

  5. This reminds me of the HR/training ladder I was taught) :
    Unconscious incompetence (I’ve never heard of skiing)
    Conscious incompetence (I know I can’t ski)
    Conscious competence (plant the pole, bend the knees, stand up, let it run, find edge, face down valley, complete turn, and start again…gee this is hard work)
    Unconscious competence (swish, swish, swish, swish)
    Trying to engender love, peace and harmony all round, another problem is that great practitioners are completely “unconscious” of what they are doing. Its hard to teach in other words.
    Hence skiing instructors and great skiers are not exactly the same thing.
    ps i am also alarmed that all my favourite plannoggers are males. I put it down to our mutual mild male social autism myself.

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