Survivorship bias and creative success: it’s a lot more mysterious than we care to admit

gangnamstyle(Originally published on The Drum)

In a beautifully told blog post, David McRaney, tells the story of survivorship bias.

“Simply put, survivorship bias is your tendency to focus on survivors instead of whatever you would call a non-survivor depending on the situation. Sometimes that means you tend to focus on the living instead of the dead, or on winners instead of losers, or on successes instead of failures…

“It is easy to do. After any process that leaves behind survivors, the non-survivors are often destroyed or muted or removed from your view. If failures become invisible, then naturally you will pay more attention to successes. Not only do you fail to recognise that what is missing might have held important information, you fail to recognise that there is missing information at all.”

Does the above strike a chord?

I would argue that marketing often suffers from survivorship bias. Our challenging task is achieving success and recreating it in a volatile environment filled with unknown parameters. So our outlook gets highly biased towards success stories.

This is most apparent in what is commonly referred to as ‘best practices’.

The well-meaning concept of best practices remains questionable in most instances. Fundamentally, best practices emerge from reverse engineering, which is nearly an impossible manoeuvre with creative and media output. It’s like trying to figure out a cake recipe by using a lab analysis of its ingredients. Most results are either too generalised (the cake works because it’s sweet), or too minute (this cake has 5g of protein) to offer pragmatic direction.

Survivorship bias compounds the issues with best practices. It might be the concept’s most acute structural flaw.

If you are trying to recreate success based on a best practice case, you will inadvertently try and define the factors that led to success. But as you try to identify said factors, all you’re looking at are the winners. You can’t help but ignore all the similar cases that failed on those same factors, because most of the time no one records them and they become invisible. No one tracks those cases, certainly not by factor. Such knowledge is not available publicly via desk research and not even on a more rigorous level.

Case studies, another central narrative device in recording marketing history, are also clearly biased towards stories of success. Especially the popular plot of problem –> solution –> result (or challenge-solution-outcome or ambition-action-outcome, or any other synonymous structure).

You can try and list the viral qualities of Gangnam Style all you want. You can point to anything from the tune to the choreography and wardrobe choices. But catchy tunes with quirky choreography and wardrobe choices are, of course, much more common than viral mega-hits. We don’t count them, because they’ve remained relatively unknown. Invisible failures.

Trying to define best practices is important, but chasing them is futile. The world’s most successful brands experiment a lot, they fail well and often (and obviously don’t brag about the latter), and you’re better off trying to head down that path and create your own success stories (and failure stories) than trying to imitate success.

So the next time you are trying to figure out things like what makes a video viral or what makes a certain social media success a success, when you think you have the answer, ask yourself: how many ‘losers’ are we eliminating from the picture?

You may discover that creative success is a lot more mysterious than we’d like it to be, or care to admit.

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