Charles Wigley
Jan 5, 2018

The dangers of binary thinking

BBH's APAC chairman explores the siren song of the false dichotomy.

The dangers of binary thinking

I was at a conference recently and listened to a media speaker bemoan his inability to get clients to forgo their relentless focus on reach and instead switch to driving relevance with consumers.

It was a very fashionable argument, with lots of mention of engagement, brand advocacy and so on. But two things immediately struck me:

  1. It didn't seem he had read anything by Byron Sharp, who shows that in any forced choice between the two, you should privilege reach.
  2. If I was a client surely I would want both.

In fact, I would be banging everyone's heads together to damn well make sure I got both, in equal and maximum possible measure.

Perhaps our speaker was looking at the world in too black and white a fashion?

After all binary thinking—you can have this or that, but not both—has a lot of appeal in a tough, let's make some decisions kind of a way. And isn't strategy ultimately about choices? About taking things out?

Well, often, yes (I'm a big fan of Dave Trott's 'Binary Brief' to clarify fundamental thinking). 

But also, no.

The world isn't black and white. It's mainly shades of grey: gradations and degrees that need to be carefully navigated.

When the internet came along, TV didn't immediately die, as every new-age media guru proclaimed it would. In fact, most media plans now feature a strong combination of the two. Just as even earlier, video recorders didn't destroy the appeal of going to the cinema with friends. Nor did the arrival of McDonalds in Asia signify that societies here had suddenly become Westernised.

All too often, binary thinking can be fashionable at the time—but dangerously simplistic in hindsight.

It serves us well to remember there is a tyranny in 'or' and a power in 'and'. After all aren't we constantly being told that customers (including our own) want it all now?

Charles Wigley is chairman of BBH Asia Pacific.


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