*Or, why the holistic approach works better in digital.
It doesn't reduce the complex situation to a causal, simple explanation. Instead, it's looking for intuitive solutions that seamlessly fit into people's behaviors. All well-designed products, services, and games are intuitive. Again, they are not simple - they intuitive.
The popular belief is that the contrast to complexity is simplicity. It's not. It's making things intuitive.
It helps that holistic approach inspires thinking through associations, both in their literal and metaphorical meaning. Literally, associations-as-in-connections are everywhere and exist between everything (people, information, tools, ideas). Metaphorically, associative thinking inspires us to make unexpected connections between things; and to recognize the innovative opportunities in the process.
Since it forces us to look beyond the obvious, holistic approach encourages "what if," rather than "why" and "how." It's non-linear and allows for the unexpected - both of which are in stark opposition to reductionist agency thinking a.k.a. "find the best strategy for solving a problem, discover one key dimension of consumers' behavior, define one thing that this advertising message is about." Instead, it's pushing for imagination and creativity: both in concepting and in execution.
Embracing the complexity of the whole situation is in fact a necessity in digital space. What we are dealing with are unexpected, ever-evolving movements and unpredictable connections. They generate micro-tensions and antagonisms that are ripe with cultural potential that has a direct consequence for brands. We are grappling with a networked social influence, and detecting "accidental influentials" in a given situation is as critical for campaigns as it is unpredictable. Irrationality of human behavior doesn't help matters, either: people's sensitivity to the design of information environments and activities of others is a powerful engine for behavioral change and needs to be utilized more in digital marketing campaigns. Then, there is data about individual and collective patterns of activities, and their aggregates act as a shared communication object with powerful storytelling potential. These sorts of stories disrupt the traditional model of authorship over advertising narratives. And finally, collaborative consumption and redistribution markets are constantly showing us where consumers' behaviors and needs are going: they represent a compelling lab for finding new sources of value that brands can deliver outside of their usual production/consumption value chains..
There are all challenges that resist obvious solutions and cannot be reduced to a single-cause explanation. So what to do? If complexity of the environment prevents one way of responding to the client task and if it prevents predicting the success of a single creative solution, then the best is to put all this complexity right at the center of the strategic problem-solving process.
This is hard. The need for strategy comes from our, human, anxiety in the face of uncertainty. Strategies are "anticipation machines" designed to help us know what the future will be before it happens. Complexity prevents this - but at the same time the problem is not unsolvable. If we can't have foresight, we can have hindsight. And a lot of those. The hindsight comes from standing close to the edge, which in plain language means merging strategy with its execution.
The good news here is that yes, while complexity creates a lot of challenges, it at the same time gives us tools to solve them. All one needs to be is crafty. (Big ups to the most brilliant Julian Cole for sharing some of his ideas about all of this).
In practical terms, this means that methodology for dealing with complexity needs to revolve around complexity's own tools. And, believe it or not, these tools are everywhere. Forget about eMarketer, and Forrester, Sysomos, and all that stuff. They won't solve the problem of originality of your campaign or of a real behavioral challenge that you want to create with your target audience.
What will solve the problem is a little game called digging for clues. I often use Wordle to run customers' reviews of the product/service/brand through it. It lets me uncover the common themes and the possible sources of tension or cognitive dissonance that are useful as insights for a campaign. GoodReads and apps like WANT! uncover what people identify with, how they define themselves, what is important to them, and what captures their collective imagination - all of which provides context in which a campaign is going to be received and what can make it resonate well with its target. Sites like 43Goals on 43Things and Daytum give us insights in human motivation, in different roles people are playing, what are their strivings, how they make choices and what are their frustrations. This helps come up with the ideas for inspiring and facilitating behavioral change for our target.
Our understanding of the wider context of our audience's lives allows us to recognize cultural micro-tension, sources of influence, data that we can use for marketing, or needs that allow us to create an exchange market around.
It lets us capture the new territories for our brands and to come up with the "what if." A new way of looking at things, perhaps, but that's exactly the point.