Tracey Follows: Why Simon Sinek is wrong

10 Apr 2018  |  Tracey Follows 
Tracey Follows: Why Simon Sinek is wrong

The obsession with the academic's 'brand purpose' mantra has led agencies and marketers astray

Back in 2009 the advertising industry went crazy for a TED talk delivered by Simon Sinek. No doubt everyone is now familiar with his thesis that within the Golden Circle of the what, how and why, why is the most important question you can ask of your brand or your business. It is still one of the twenty most popular TED talks of all time.

I liked it at the time, but I didn’t fetishise it and attempt to apply it to every project or problem as the marketing industry sometimes has a tendency to do. There can be more than one theory, more than one strategy, more than one model of how and why something works, as Paul Feldwick’s book, Anatomy of Humbug, makes abundantly clear.

However, at the time, it was the only theory in town. Every brand, every agency, every company was eager to show that they understood that the reason why they did what they did, was the most important thing to convey.

Except it isn’t.

Not everywhere, all the time.

Such was the obsession with his mantra that agencies and marketers embarked on the journey towards ‘purpose’ that has taken many brands away from the tangible and understandable to the overly conceptual and aloof.

For many brands of course, having a clearly defined and culture-shaping purpose is important and it has successfully differentiated them from the more mundane competition in their market. The problem is that in thinking about ‘why’ to such a degree they’ve ignored the importance of ‘how’.

My contention is that any media company or indeed agency (whether media agency or creative agency or any other flavour of agency) should have been obsessing about the ‘how’ much more than the 'why'. The role of an ‘agency’ is to provide a service on behalf of another business. They are active, intervening and in modern parlance can be seen as ‘interfaces’ themselves. They mediate and move others along. Behaviour is everything. A code of conduct. Their behaviour is the only way of demonstrating what they believe in, I mean really believe in.

Agencies themselves do not need a purpose. They need principles. Remember BBH’s principles, one of which was that they refused to pitch?

Principles of behaviour are what builds trust in media and agency businesses. That’s why when agencies are pitching, most clients are not thinking about the solution that the agency is proposing but rather what it would be like to work with these guys day in day out.

If you want to embed accountability into your offer to clients or customers, you can only do so through principles, not purpose."

But agency principles got crushed in the stampede towards purpose. The recent Facebook debacle demonstrates just how this can happen. Facebook is an impressive brand and business. Many very talented people, each of them with integrity, work for the social media behemoth. Most people know that the purpose of Facebook is to make the world more connected, or ‘connect everyone in the world’ if we’re talking about their plans to bring internet access to all.

Nothing wrong with that, and it’s been a laudable and ambitious purpose to have. But there comes a time when the purpose becomes the entire focus. A time when any means will do to achieve the end. And the end in itself transforms into an ideology.

The means by which one strives for the purpose becomes increasingly separated from the expected behaviours that have come to be known of the company. Is that what happened with Facebook - did they overreach towards the purpose and in doing so, sacrifice their principles?

Probably not, because beyond ‘move fast and break things’ there really aren’t that many publicly articulated principles by which to judge Facebook. Their focus was always on purpose. In Sinek language, it was all about the ‘why’ and not about the ‘how'.

The problem being that all the devilish detail is usually in the ‘how’ - the tone, the behaviour, the etiquette, the spirit, the code, the conduct - that’s usually how a person judges how trustworthy another person is, rather than by their mission statement on life. And that is how brands are judged, especially if those brands happen to be media brands or agency brands.

Having and abiding by one’s principles is getting more important not less. As the advertising industry blends increasingly with tech, and artificial intelligence becomes embedded into everyday practice, the only way to judge the trustworthiness or truthfulness of an agency is by those principles. And when things go awry, it is those principles that will help everyone else judge whether anyone, and if so whom, is to blame.

My point is that accountability relies on principles not purpose.

If you want to embed accountability into your offer to clients or customers, you can only do so through principles. As Dr Joanna Bryson makes clear in her talks on AI and ethics, tech companies, computer programmers and AI programmers should want to show that they have done the right thing.

"We need to be able to tell who is at fault if data goes to the wrong place," she says in what is a hugely prescient comment given the Facebook situation.

Being able to show that the AI did the right thing, or that we did the right thing but there was an unforeseeable consequence, is going to be paramount in a connected, coded world. Once again, it is principles and behaviours that become more important than purpose in this future scenario.

Sinek is not wrong. But when Sinek’s theory is applied ubiquitously, it ends up being wrong. And if we are heading anywhere in the future, it is into a world in which the ‘how’ will prove to be of more value than the ‘why’.

Tracey Follows is the founder of Futuremade and writes on the subject of strategic foresight each month for Mediatel



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MarkEarls, Herdmeister, hERD on 11 Apr 2018
“Good counterblast to the the excesses of purposedome. Undoubtedly no one thing is the answer to all a business’s ills (hence why critiques of the approach are often sounder in principle than spirit - it’s going to depend on a number of things). B. Sinek is very much a follower in the purpose thing (people like myself, Phil Teer and Gapingvoid were all exploring the role of purpose (as opposed/in addition to the very lumpen and reductionist ideas around positioning. To be fair to Sinek, it’s maybe unsurprising he’d would go too far and make a over simplistic model - he didn’t have to face problems where other things mattered more ????”
DerekTaunton, Career Coach, Tallapoosa County Schools on 11 Apr 2018
“I just recently found "Start With Why" and I am not through reading it, but it appears to me that you have completely missed the point. Sure, we can't focus solely on the"why" to the exclusion of the "how" and "what." Obviously the "what" is what we do. The "how" is how we do it. If we do those things better than anyone else, do we necessarily sell more product? You mention service and keep harping on that through your article. I submit that services are the same. I believe Mercedes builds better vehicles than other companies, but I have yet to buy a Mercedes. Why? Their ads don't move me. Their ads don't inspire me. The last Mercedes ad I saw had the tagline of "it's the best or nothing." I fail to see what that even means. Does that mean the if I don't buy a Mercedes I should buy nothing?
Perhaps I have missed Sinek's point, but what I understand of it so far seems to indicate that your "why" "how" and "what" need to be in alignment. I don't believe that he has suggested that we should exclude any of them. Perhaps you should read the book, or read it again.”
DirkWolbers, Enthusiast, Founder on 11 Apr 2018
“I agree with your perspective, but it feels like you're repeating Simon Sinek (which is not a bad thing btw).
The HOW is focused on tangible actions/ execution, your USPs. The WHY is focused on mission and vision and therefore not directly tangible. Obviously, you will never generate real results when you're only focussed on the WHY.
But many companies are too much focussed on creating HOW's (USP's) which come from a reactive attitude towards the market environment. "We should do A, because the market is doing B."
When the HOW is established on this basis, then the credibility and sustainability of these USPs (and therefore real results) are often a long way off.”
TraceyFollows, Founder, Futuremade on 10 Apr 2018
“Hi Nick, yes that is one conclusion that someone could come to and your challenge is valid of course. But my conclusion is as it is mainly because of where we get to towards the end of this article, that accountability can only be applied to behaviours (actual and evidenced) not intentions. And I think this will be borne out as we start to properly infuse marketing with tech i.e. AI. Perhaps I cloud say that my argument is not a semantic one as much as a temporal one. We are entering a new era, one in which principles will become more important than purpose for all the reasons I suggest.”
NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 10 Apr 2018
“As someone who raced through Start With Why to learn the secrets of how to define a brand, I feel this counterpoint is overdue. If nothing else, there's really not much to the concept: "don't start with what, start with why! Here are some examples of companies that did!" seems to be as far as it goes, squeezed into 200 pages.
The challenge is that while your comments are spot on, you risk being drawn into a battle of semantics. A fan of 'Why' would suggest that if you're doing the how wrong, you haven't properly understood the way why should define and infuse everything the brand does. And they might argue that Facebook's recent screw-ups are illustration of how it lost sight of its why. So another conclusion might be that while Start with Why is a nice mantra, that's really it all it is - it's necessary, but it's by no means sufficient in defining brand strategy and day to day execution.”



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