We must embrace the non-binary world or be forever doomed to certainty

If you kill spectrums, you kill reality. If you kill reality, you kill trust.

Isabelle Bale, winner of the Chair’s Prize for Attitude and Inspiration for the 2023 IPA Excellence Diploma in Brands, argues her belief that thinking in a non-binary way, with shades of grey rather than in black and white, is crucial for our planning, audiences, relationships, creative work and results. But more importantly, it will benefit ourselves and our worlds.

It’s ironic that it was Alan Turing, a man whose very existence broke so many binaries from his sexuality to his neurodiversity, who birthed our binary world. Since then we have built our technology, economy, and society on digital binaries. If a computer cannot understand a problem, then the problem is forcibly simplified until the inputs and outputs are 1s and 0s. Black and white. Right and wrong. Complex concepts are lost and shades of grey are ignored.

As a non-binary trans woman, my very existence breaks binaries. I am on the front line against default binary thinking that causes horrific polarisation in society.

The UK was recently called out with Poland and Russia as a source of "extensive and often virulent attacks on the rights of LGBT+ people" by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The report went on to say that the UK was seeing a significant increase in anti-trans rhetoric from both politicians and the media and that the "baseless and concerning credibility" given to these views was "at the expense of both trans people’s civil liberties and women’s and children’s rights" (Anon 2022).

According to the latest YouGov polling, 39% of people think giving increased recognition and rights to transgender people poses a genuine risk to some women's rights. (Anon 2020) That’s 4 in 10 people who cannot imagine anything but a zero-sum game. No matter how you cut the data, the UK is getting less progressive when it comes to trans rights - to my human rights.

As creators of culture, and as communicators, you have a responsibility to stand up and protect trans and non-binary rights. In the 30-day period from 27/06/22, there were 1,004 trans-hostile articles published in the UK mainstream media. That’s 33 a day (Mimmymum 2022) – for a group that makes up less than 1% of the population. Buck this barrage of binaries, embrace the non-binary nature of the world. Do not stay in denial of the beautiful spectrum that you, me, and our shared world exist across.

Why is binary thinking so pervasive?

It “helps us feel a sense of certainty. In a complex world, binary thinking can feel comforting” (Drinko 2021). It’s no wonder that with pandemics, wars, global recession, and climate change we’re looking for something comforting to hold onto! There are also evolutionary benefits - seeing the world as ‘things that are not sabretooth tigers’ and ‘things that are’ tends to be of benefit even if you lose a huge amount of nuance in your understanding of your surroundings. The Sabretooth tigers may have died out, but the binary fight-or-flight response is still with us.

This simple survival mechanic blinds us to the reality of the universe. While you may not agree with me that gender is on a spectrum, even the most hardened binarists of you would, I’m sure, agree that light and colour are. Yet even here binaries pervasively impact our thinking.

A 2007 study showed that when given a task to identify matching shades of blue, Russian speakers (a language that has colour terms for light blue голубой and dark blue синий) were 10% faster than English speakers at identifying subtle differences (Winawar, J et al. 2007). This isn’t genetic - another study showed that Greek speakers (also two words: ghalazio and ble) who had lived in the UK for a long time began to lose their ability to tell the difference between shades as their English usage grew (Athanasopoulos 2010). English created a simplistic binary reality (blue/not blue) and took away their ability to see the spectrum.

As a trans or non-binary person, you constantly live with binary language that doesn’t fit. Uncomfortable boxes to try and squeeze into. We are those shades of blue that the English struggle to differentiate between. However it’s not about more boxes or more language - Facebook’s gender options provide me with 58 different boxes to be put in by a machine. I don’t want more boxes, I want box-less thinking!

Having the foundations of my identity challenged is an everyday occurrence. Knowing that body and mind don’t match but being forced to carry on as if they do. Having to live with a permanent social double-speak, a panic in being called out. Dysphoria is culturally reinforced cognitive dissonance.

Trans and non-binary people are three times as likely as the general population to suffer with anxiety and 40% of us have attempted suicide (Bouman 2016). Similarly, 38.9% of marketers suffer from anxiety, a fact that The Drum called a “mental health crisis” (Glenday 2018). I believe marketers are suffering from the same culturally enforced cognitive dissonance.

Our product is trust. Yet advertisers are the least trusted profession in the UK. We are trusted by half as many people as professional footballers and rank even lower than government ministers (Clemence 2021). YouGov states that 45% of people don’t trust the adverts they see on TV (Anon 2020). Can the effectiveness impact of that be understated? Imagine looking at a media plan that told you 45% of your audience wasn’t just going to ignore your message, but openly and publicly believed you were lying. Imagine you are the social media manager for Shell. How does it feel to put out a tweet talking about positive environmental impact? Then receiving the replies? Enforced cognitive dissonance created by forcing spectrums into binaries; “It’s complicated” into black and white; good and bad; truth and lie. Kill spectrums, you kill reality. Kill reality, you kill trust.

Binary worlds are built on certainty

Certainty doesn’t need alternative viewpoints, it is right. Yet diversity of thought directly correlates to creative innovation and revenue. Companies with above-average diversity produced 19% more of their revenue through innovation and this directly translated into overall better financial performance (Holger 2019).

For your own mental health, for the financial future of our industry, for all of us - break away from blinding binaries.

What will tranisitioning into a non-binary world feel like? It will be frightening, dangerous, and risky, but a wonderful freedom sits on the other side. Ask yourself - what type of human being are you? One wrought with cognitive dissonance? Someone considered a professional liar? Someone that passively supports the victimisation of 1% of the population? Or someone that embraces the freedom of spectrums for yourself and for others? Here’s how you escape binary certainty.

Every area of our thinking must shift into spectrums. We must become non-binary in our planning, audience understanding, professional relationships, creative work and results.

Binary planning is best seen in Dave Trott’s “The Binary Brief” (2009) which he describes as “No subtleties, just powerful, simple clarity” but he’s wrong. His brief doesn’t provide clarity at all. It provides certainty. By forcing audiences, challenges, and objectives into binaries (and Dave Trott’s brief uses the phrase “to force” 3 times in a single paragraph) he is looking for some divine accuracy, a world where there is a single truth to be found when you clear away the mud of complexity. But as we saw earlier in colour terminology, just because you want things to be binary, does not change the reality of the world. As Bob Johansen says in Full Spectrum Thinking (2020), “Many people are certain, few things are clear”.

Non-binary planning looks for clarity in a messy world rather than certainty. Leave certainty to zealots, tabloids, and advertising legends. Certainty has an answer, what need does it have of curiosity? Clarity understands the need for endless curiosity.

Through a lack of curiosity, binary planning is often built upon personal or received experience rather than academic training. Only 25% of marketers have an undergraduate degree in marketing (Anon 2019), up until 2021 when the requirement from the Solicitor’s Regulatory Authority was dropped, law had 100%.

Those that do have academic training, find themselves in a conflict between experience and education, received certainty vs scientific curiosity.

When Deepak Subramanian, General Manager at Unilever proclaimed on LinkedIn that “Archetypes is one of the foundational concepts I learnt as a young brand manager”. His post (Subramanian 2022) saw replies from great and the good from marketing with Mark Ritson calling archetypes “number two in my definitive list of marketing bullshit” and Byron Sharp suggesting archetypes were “as valid as horoscopes”. This is akin to engineers and theoretical physicists disagreeing about the existence of gravity. The academic approach to marketing conflicts with the lived experience of senior people within the industry.

Keith Moor, the CMO of Camelot explained in Marketing Week that “the thing I hate the most when you get a new graduate in is somebody who thinks they know it all trying to tell people what to do because they’ve read it in a textbook.” (Moor, 2018) I am sure that both Deepak and Keith are incredibly talented marketers, but either the textbooks are wrong, or the experience is fraudulently based on false binaries – fix one!

Non-binary planning leaves received wisdom behind and looks toward the academic world. We must ensure that marketing education is evidence-based and that the level of rigor does not disappear when you need to impress your boss or win a pitch. Do not fall back on simple binaries when in fear of complexity.

We must overcome everyone’s desire for certainty, for simplicity, for binaries

Like scientists in disaster movies, we will get drowned out, quietly saying “it’s more complicated than that” until we are willing to kill received planning wisdom across the industry, top to bottom. If the science says X and your experience says Y, don’t just check your data, check your binary biases. Chances are you’re chasing certainty, not clarity. Binaries, not spectrums.

A binary world demands a hegemonic, singular “target audience” built on demographics and pen portraits. Both are unhelpful but the binary they create is outright dangerous.

BBH labs demonstrated that generational labels are often no better than random number generators when it comes to attitudinal cohesion, yet most audience definitions start with age and gender bracketing before anything else. As Harry Guild decried, “these ‘generations’ are simply random collections of people who share no special connection beyond being born within two decades of each other” (Guild 2020). Binary planning tells you to target them as a homogenous group - you’re either Gen Z or you’re not, you’re either target audience or not. There is no such thing as a brand that should target “Gen Z” and there is certainly not a “Gen Z insight”. Kill the binary!

Pen Portraits are magical mirrors that manage to make everyone from luxury fashionistas to suburban families look exactly like the junior planners that create them. Or as Bob Hoffman put it “advertising has become marketing by selfie stick” (Hoffman 2017). Less than 40% of 18-year-olds went to university last year (Anon 2021) - a record high, yet we continue to see “student” as the default for any brief that starts “18-24”.

Bryon Sharp would encourage us to even question the binary of “my audience” and “not my audience”. In How Brands Grow he states that “every customer is a customer of other brands that he buys occasionally” (2010) and encourages marketers to look as broad as they can, never falling silent. It is in this world that non-binary thinking comes into its’ own. Our job is to understand human behaviour and insert our brand, our product and our message into their world. We must do this by demonstrating a scientific understanding of a messy world, leave the cartoonish binaries of demographic targeting behind and focus on being a part of everyone’s world no matter who they are.

This is significantly easier than we think, provided we’re willing to let another binary die. That of “we are/we aren’t” - the universal, sacred and singular brand positioning. This is what we mean to people, go tell them. In “This is Not Propaganda” by Peter Pomerantsev (2019), the author describes an interview with Thomas Borwick, CTO for Vote Leave, where he discusses how there is no longer a need to bring people together under one banner. Animal rights activists voted leave because they thought the EU supported Spanish farmers raising bulls for the ring, free marketers voted leave to remove regulatory interference. They didn’t need to agree on everything “voting leave” stood for, only that whatever it was, it stood for them.

Merging Bryon Sharp’s light buyer focus and Borwick’s willingness to let the ‘brand’ be a thousand different things to different people delivers a freedom to understand your audience as both micro and macro, societal and sub-cultural. Don’t target ‘consumers’, target a multipolar society. Don’t create centralised brand meaning, create decentralised cultural understanding. Remember Jeremy Bullmore’s description of consumers building brands “as birds build nests: from the scraps and straws they chance upon” (2001).

45% of the UK population is in social grades C2DE (Anon 2016) yet it’s very rare to see an advertising brief that targets them. In fact, we rarely even mention them at all. Thedrum.co.uk has 114 search results for “ABC1” and only 4 for “C2DE”, campaignlive.co.uk has 1,260 results for “ABC1”, just 89 for “C2DE”. We don’t target them, we don’t talk about them. In advertising land, that 45% doesn’t exist unless its’ government health campaigns or gambling brands. When groups are ignored by culture-creating forces such as ours, they are quickly othered and dehumanised. As Meg-John Barker writes in ‘Life Isn’t Binary’, “When we divide the world into us/them, we do not only start to dehumanise the other, as we can see in every form of slavery and genocide, we begin to also dehumanise ourselves.” (2019) Ask yourself again – what type of human being do you want to be?

Look at the entire population, rather than ignoring certain sections. Mix group generalizations with individual nuance into something uncertain, but clear. Focus on the need your product solves and build from there, your brand isn’t binary.

To deliver this approach requires a review of the professional relationships in advertising. Agencies and clients; humans and technology; manager and subordinates. Our relationships must become interdependent not hierarchical.

A 2021 study showed that one-third of brands are considering a change in their advertising agency in any 6-month period, yet 90% claim that ‘chemistry’ is the most important factor in that decision (Anon 2021). A desire for a deep understanding in an environment of constant threat of replacement. It is no surprise that advertising has a serious “yes men” problem, disagree and you could find yourself one bad net promoter score away from a pitch.

Agencies should exist to make sense of the flood of information. An example of what Bob Johansen calls a “clarity filter”. This can only happen when agencies are seen as team members, not external services to be hired and fired. At all times we must ensure that all parties are able to disagree for the common good.

Non-binary relationships encourage creative friction. No idea can be untouchable, even if it came from the CEO themselves.

If you are in an organization where someone cannot be questioned, you are in an organization run by binary certainty.

One of the most obvious examples of this binary is in pitching, where agencies are so often compared, not for their ability to deliver the right answer, but for their ability to deliver certainty. The final idea, the final cost, all in 60 minutes.  “Treat it like a pitch” often being a proxy for “ignore the complexity, just make it look good”. Pitches must be reimagined - Karmarama no longer pitch ideas, we should all be joining them. The best partner is not the one most certain of their simplicity but rather the agency that can provide you with clarity to act within complexity, to work with you to generate creative friction. Complexity didn’t go away because you hired the people who pretended it did. If they’re 90% of your headache but 10% of your day, perhaps the headache isn’t them, but you.

The client/agency binary is not the only example of binaries breaking relationships. Rigid organisational hierarchies need to go as well. Embrace a non-binary world where we manage and are managed by each other depending on the task at hand. Where, perhaps in the future, we are managing/being managed by AI too.

Which brings us finally to the work. What kind of work do you want to make?

Binaries are the lifeblood of advertising. “Just do it” - you either do or you don’t. “I’m a PC, I’m a Mac”, “Marmite, you either love it or you hate it”, “It’s the real thing”. We can’t help ourselves - it’s in the line above the door at BBH: “When the world zigs, zag”. That’s a binary!

There is so much more creative space in embracing “both” and “neither” rather than binaries. Look at Bodyform Womb Stories (Stewart 2020). “The complexities in the life of most women are […] messy, and that should be acknowledged” said Nadja Lossgott, one half of the creative team on the campaign. Getting your period can be a moment of utter devastation or celebrated relief. The campaign embraces that spectrum and represents “the billions of complex experiences, from hysterectomies to postpartum trauma, artificial menopause, being a trans man, etc.”. This is complicated, but so is the experience of your audience. Be relevant, not rigid.

But embracing “Both/neither” doesn’t mean that we replace polarisation with homogenous agreement. It is about acknowledging the spectrum. Heineken Worlds Apart reinforces binaries at the same time as investigating the damage that they do. Telling us that we’re “worlds apart” but can come together, forces us to define ourselves as on ‘a side’ before we even begin the conversation around coming together, that’s built on binaries.

As one member of the cast says “I’ve been brought up in a world that’s black and white, but life isn’t black and white”. Yet Heineken intentionally brought together binaries and inferred that over a beer and some flat-pack furniture we can find middle ground on misogyny, trans rights and climate change. Not a single moment of disagreement is seen. Just a statement of position followed by, ‘well I guess we’re mates now’. That’s just as black and white as the polarised society they claim to stand against.

Confusing? That’s ok! Non-binary creative output is fine with not understanding. “If a problem is complex, you probably can’t optimise for it” (Schoemaker 2012) so just trying something, is a great strategy. I spoke to Marty Davies at Outvertising who stated wonderfully: “Non-binary is about the possibility, that’s what creative ideation is about. When you embrace it, what you did yesterday you don't have to do tomorrow.”

That’s the possibility inherent in non-binary worlds. I’ll ask again, what type of work do you want to make? Enforcing binaries, or embracing freedom?

Alongside creative possibility, another inherent element of a non-binary world is the struggle and failure on the journey towards understanding.

Across all of our results - post-campaign analysis, awards, and qual/quant research we need to kill the binary of “it worked/it didn’t”.

PCAs must be driven by a desire to learn and improve, not as is often encouraged, to demonstrate success. This is not to say that they should cease being a new business tool, but that ‘reason to repeat’ should be through improved understanding, not certainty of success. This shift to a more learning-based approach is, according to a study in the National Library of Medicine “crucial for innovation.” (Ferreira 2020)

Every industry celebrates their success with awards, yet advertising treats them as a strange mix of personal validation, professional success and creative summit. At the heart of marketing awards is a binary - you either won or you didn’t. That could not be more different from the academic world. Peer-reviewed publishing does not see competition and collaboration as a binary. Of course, there is ‘the name on the discovery’, but there are three non-binary elements of academic publishing that we could benefit from embracing.

Firstly, in every peer-reviewed paper there is a section, after the conclusion that states: “Further research should” and recommends opportunities for other researchers to go further, to stand on the authors’ shoulders and move our combined knowledge forward. This is such a simple addition to award papers, where next should FMCG purpose-driven metaverse activations go? You’ve just completed an award-winning example, share your knowledge!

Secondly, we should be putting up our results - in full, publicly. Marketing success should not be about who writes the best award paper, or creates something that excites the judges, but about results that can be validated. Did you move the industry forward? Did you deliver results for your client? Or did you just make 5 judges in a room feel intelligent and culturally relevant?

Replace awards with open, peer-reviewed analysis of properly measured data with a focus on clarity, not certainty. Learnings, not successes. Awards might feel good and attract talent, but so would journal citations.

Finally, we must reevaluate the role of research

Non-binary quantitative research understands that statistical significance isn’t binary, it’s a blurry graph of probabilities. Results can and will be ‘both’, ‘neither’, and ‘maybe’ (Grenville 2019).

Non-binary qualitative acknowledges our innate desire to backfill through confirmation bias and is delivered through a double-blind approach. With focus group questions written and asked by a different team to those interested in the results. No more quote mining to reverse engineer a strategy.

Planning, audiences, relationships, creative work, results. Each of these areas will benefit from embracing non-binary thinking as set out above, but more importantly so will you and your world. We come back to the 3 questions I’ve asked you throughout this essay. Firstly - what type of work do you want to make? Do you want to produce simplistic, binary work with results that provide false certainty? Or do you want to bring the full spectrum into culture? Secondly, what type of world do you want to live in? A world that enforces painful cognitive dissonance and openly attacks minorities? Or one that celebrates the freedom and clarity of a non-binary reality?

Finally, the most important question. What type of human being are you?

In answering that, I encourage you to reclaim words Alan Turing wrote in despair after his horrific government-enforced chemical castration in 1952. Turn his words into a personal rallying cry against certainty: “No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who, I've not found out".

If you chose to be blinded by binaries and to ignore complex grey areas in the hope that you will find the simplicity you seek, know only this: the spectrum will not vanish, the grey areas will remain. No matter how brutally binaries are enforced, I will still exist. What type of human being are you? Come out of the binary closet and find out. There’s a glorious spectrum waiting for you.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the author and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 07 December 2023