OPINION20 December 2019

Planning for opportunism

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Opinion UK

People instinctively understand opportunism which is why Fomo is so powerful, but businesses could learn from this writes Rory Sutherland.


How much of life is the product of simple luck rather than forward planning? That chance meeting; a misdialled telephone number; an encounter at a party you never planned to attend?

Answer honestly, and you’ll be surprised how much in life is down to random chance. You can’t really plan for luck. The best you can do is plan to be around when lucky happens. This halfway house between planning and randomness can best be called opportunism. “You have to go hunting every night. Maybe one night in 14 you’ll get lucky… And you don’t know what you’re looking for, but you know it when you see it.” Okay, that’s a quotation from serial killer Son of Sam, and so not the most attractive source material. But Mindhunter came on the TV at the very moment I began typing this article, and it seemed too perfect a description of opportunism to waste.

People instinctively understand opportunism; I’m not sure businesses do. Young people are often ridiculed for experiencing extreme ‘Fomo’ – the fear of missing out. If you are a parent of teenage children, this can be a very annoying phobia indeed. You must stay sober on Friday and Saturday nights so you can drive the spoiled buggers to every party or gathering to which they are tangentially invited. But Fomo – especially when you are young – is a very rational response to a very real truth about the world.

If you were to ask your teenagers why they wanted to go out for yet another Saturday night, rather than taking the middle-aged option of staying at home with a takeaway, they would probably say: ‘Well, I might get lucky.’ The form this luck may take – new friends, new romantic interests, new gossip, new invitations to yet more bloody parties – is not defined. All that’s certain is that none of these positive outcomes emerge if you stay at home. Over time, the process is highly non-linear: one opportunity breeds another. The fewer parties you attend, the fewer invitations you receive.

If you were a statistician, you might say that ‘going out enjoys positive asymmetries’. You don’t know in advance that a party is worthwhile, but you do know that nothing great is ever going to happen if you repeatedly stay indoors. Provided opportunity is net positive, maximising opportunity makes sense. Lots of things in life are like this. We do many things not because we have a specific objective in mind, but simply because they increase the chance of experiencing good fortune in some, as yet unspecified, way. In an uncertain world, you can’t always plan for success, but you can plan for opportunity. The process may be neither exact nor definable or quantifiable – but it is still valuable.

What percentage of marketing works in this way? I would contend rather a lot. In large part, marketing will always work in unforeseen ways, simply by increasing the likelihood of unanticipated positive events. One way it will do this is through an extreme form of social visibility called fame. Being famous has no value in and of itself: its value arises obliquely because noticeable businesses/brands/teenagers are vastly more likely to experience unexpected upsides. Moreover, fame clearly pays off in multiple ways. If you are famous, your press releases will be taken more seriously, your chief executive’s phone calls are more likely to be returned, and you attract better job applicants (and probably at a lower cost). People come to you first with good ideas, trust you more, and recommend you to others. Opportunity knocks, but only if it knows your address.

Yet what percentage of advertising and marketing is planned with an opportunistic intention in mind? I would say none. All business expenditure must be justified and evaluated instrumentally, not probabilistically. ‘The purpose of X is to achieve Y.’ Campaign X will be created, targeted and measured solely for its success at achieving predefined end Y. Anything it achieves, other than Y, does not count.

This means that advertising, as a whole, may be evaluated in completely the wrong way. The question to ask – the one teenagers understand unconsciously – is a Fomo question. Not ‘what is the value of doing advertising?’, but ‘what is the cost of not doing it?’

Hence, the whole focus on efficiency that characterises digital advertising may be misplaced. As your teenage kids (and Son of Sam) understand instinctively, you can only be efficient at achieving something if you can define in advance what it is you intend to do. In the real world, this only applies some of the time. Half the money you spend on advertising may be wasted, just as, in retrospect, half the parties my kids go to are a waste of time. But, if you never go to a party that’s a waste of time, you aren’t going to enough parties.