Beware Those Tiny Daily Decisions: They Can Come Back to Bite You


Originally published in Ad Age Magazine on November 27, 2012

Seemingly Trivial Choices Can Prove Critical to a Brand’s Long-Run Success

In 1966, the American economist Alfred E. Kahn published an article describing situations in which a number of small decisions — each insignificant in nature when viewed in isolation — cumulatively result in an unintended and negative outcome.

In economic terms, this “tyranny of small decisions” is easily understood from the tragedy of the commons, in which a group of herders grazes their cows on a shared field. Each acting independently, and focusing on what he perceives to be his self-interest, the herders ultimately deplete the commons of its nutrients. As a result of focusing in a myopic and shortsighted manner, their commons is left barren. The result of their choices is devastating.

Which brings us to the myriad applications of this phenomenon in our own industry, where each day brings an increasing number of decisions. It behooves us to stop and consider the nature of small ones to which we may not give heavy scrutiny.

Exhibit A: The “small deviation” from an approved brand architecture, platform or marketing plan. The “tiny decision” for political reasons to create yet another brand or sub-brand. The “easier path” of creating a microsite versus the harder work of thoughtful integration. These are seemingly small choices which, when you pull the thread, can quickly unravel into consumer confusion, reduced impact and diluted brand equity.

Exhibit B: The “justing” of a creative concept. As in: “Can we just change the headline a bit?” Or “just change the copy a tad?” Onward the “justing” goes. Each change is a seemingly insignificant revision, but the predictable result is a once-brilliant idea laden with the fingerprints of the many who sought to “improve it” — in sum, a muddled communication-like object with low breakthrough, integrity and impact.

It is easy to understand how and why this happens: too much to do and not enough time to do it (or even to think about thinking about it). Over drinks with a client recently, I heard a clear and frank articulation of the pressures we face: “There’s just not enough time to be a good client any more.” It’s sad but true, and so true on our side of the fence as well. This only increases the importance of us working together to keep an eye on the long-term implications of our choices, small and large alike.

Just recommitting to the importance of discipline and rigor in our daily decisions can help us more effectively align the everyday with our ultimate vision. As any self-help book will tell you, acknowledging the problem is the first step toward a solution. In our case, this means shining a spotlight on areas in which we may be overly compliant, excessively obedient or just too quickly acquiescent in expediting an issue’s departure from our to-do list.

From a wider perspective, this commitment encourages us to institutionalize the best practices that we all value but seldom find time to properly execute. I’m talking about formalized feedback loops. Ongoing brand and marketing performance analysis. Sunset reviews. And so on.

Great clients and agencies both want the same things: big insights, breakthrough creative thoughtful allocation of risk and reward, maximized returns, ringing cash registers and growing brand equity. It’s is our duty to keep an eye on what matters most, and work to keep our efforts aligned.

“For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it,” said Aristotle. In psychological terms, this is referred to as the diffusion of responsibility. The more people at the table, the easier it is to shirk our obligation and move on to the next meeting, initiative, report… day, week, month.

Effective leadership has been described as putting first things first. As with anything, the devil is in the details. The “tyranny of small decisions” demands that clients and agencies alike thoughtfully consider the long-term implications of their choices, to make sure that our commons remain fertile and abundant.