Of penguins and killer whales

Posted by IAB Australia On November 24, 2014

There’s a story I heard once from a mate who had watched a David Attenborough documentary about killer whales. I have no idea if it’s true but it illustrates my point so I’m going to share it anyway.

Killer whales like to eat penguins. Penguins aren’t stupid and don’t like to be eaten and so they huddle by the edge of the water, looking for killer whales. Killer whales aren’t stupid either so they’ve learnt to come up for air at a distance and lurk near penguin colonies on the ice. Now none of the penguins want to risk being the first one to dive in, so the colonies have developed the strategy of kicking a random penguin into the water. If it gets eaten, they know there’s a killer whale and they don’t go in.

Now this is where the killer whales have got really smart. They’ve learnt to ignore the first penguin. If they let that one swim free, then there’ll be a penguin feast, so they wait. I don’t know if the first penguin tries to warn the rest of them, but I’m imagining that it’s pretty grumpy at being sacrificed so might not be too concerned.

My point in telling this story actually works if you’re a penguin or a killer whale.

If you’re a penguin

If this story is true, it is safer to lead than follow. You’re in a better position if you dive into unknown waters than if you jump in believing you understand what’s underneath.

Looking at the Australian media and marketing landscape, digital or otherwise, it’s not hard to see parallels where the analogy can create comfort for companies looking to innovate or lead their market.

I regularly have conversations where we talk about the idea of a “media first”. Unfortunately, the next discussion is so often around what the metrics will be – the expected return on investment. What we’re really talking about here is a “proven media first”. In my experience, proven media firsts tend to actually be market firsts: “Here’s an idea we saw on YouTube from people who took the leap, we want to replicate it …”

As marketing budgets shrink and the options for spending these diminishing dollars increase, I completely understand the temptation to go with what’s proven. But the big, bold bets are not proven, they’re genuine risks.

On those rare and special occasions where I do see true innovation or genuine media firsts, there are some unifying factors. Without a doubt they are all:

• Genuinely collaborative: A real partnership with the client, agency and media partner all working together in the same room.

• Bold: Innovation works when people are prepared to answer a question with the words “I don’t know”.

• About the idea: There are some campaigns where you know you’re all putting in more than you’re going to get out – whether it’s hours or dollars. But if the idea is good, and can get to your audience uncompromised, then it’s worth it.

If you’re a killer whale

The killer whale take away from the story might seem like the opposite, because it’s a lesson in patience. Whereas penguins need to leap, killer whales have learned to wait, to observe and act on new information. So the killer whale analogy is about acting with data.

My observation here is that it is easy to argue with opinions and almost impossible to argue with facts. The only way to know whether the thing you think to be true is an opinion or a fact is to observe. The only way to observe is to run the test and get out of the meeting room and in front of your audience as quickly as possible.

In this case you’re talking about running data-driven projects rather than innovation. Now is the time to run the analysis, set the KPIs and report the metrics. This is at the other end of the spectrum from our penguin moments. To run a data-driven test needs three essential factors:

• Metrics that matter: There is no point measuring app downloads if what you really need is people using the product. In this case app downloads are a “vanity metric” – impressive but irrelevant. What you really need to know are the daily unique visitors to show you are relevant to your audience.

• A set time: Trials are good, endlessly staying in beta is not. If you are going to wait and see, set a time limit on yourself – two weeks, for example, to see if you’ve shifted the dial. Part of the challenge here will always be making sure you don’t dive in to analyse too quickly. Twenty-four hours isn’t a trial, but neither is six months. Knowing when you have the data to act is part of the challenge.

• Agreement on the next action: As you’re sitting around debating the options that lead to the trial, make them part of your planning. “If the answer is X we eat the first penguin. If it’s Y we wait for the colony to dive in.” Setting this action up front means you can respond quickly to what you’ve learned instead of going into another round of meetings about what the data’s telling you. Killer whales don’t get analysis paralysis.

Should you be a killer whale or a penguin?

Both. I’m a firm believer that all teams – product, sales, marketing, publishers and builders of things or ideas – need to have times when they innovate without a spreadsheet full of metrics and times when they test.

For me, the key is to separate budgets so there’s a pool of money for leaping in and a pool for measured trials. As new ideas are considered – whether it’s a new channel or product or a change to the marketing mix – there needs to be an open discussion about what kind of experiment this will be to make the most of a potential opportunity.

Going into uncharted waters with a clear sense of the best way to get to your goal can save a lot of blood in the water later.

IAB Australia

IAB Australia is the peak trade association for online advertising in Australia. As one of over 43 IAB offices globally and with a rapidly growing membership, the role of the IAB is to support sustainable and diverse investment in digital advertising across all platforms in Australia.