What I learnt from Malcolm Gladwell


If you follow me on twitter (and of course you should as my life’s just so damn interesting) you’ll know that I went – along with many other Twitterers – to see that icon of the ipod generation Malcolm Gladwell speak at the beautiful Lyceum tonight (with a nod to those lovely people at The Guardian who invited me along – thank you very much indeed).

The man who brought the term ‘tipping point‘ into the popular vernacular, and who indirectly but almost single-handedly inspired the ad industry planning output from circa 2001-2004, was out to promote his new book – The Outliers – with a genius business model: get a load of people to talk about, blog about (and of course buy) the book, and make them pay for the privilege. We could clearly learn something from this.

After a thirty-odd minute delay thanks to ’seating problems’ (as the seats looked perfectly fine I can only assume that this is failspeak for crowd control issues – the boy Gladwell is a big draw and us Guardian readers don’t take too kindly to being forced to queue in the cold), during which we were incessantly bombarded with Beatles tracks, the man himself took to the stage, his depressed slouch not quite representative of his beaming image that had been smiling over us from the big screen for the preceding 30 minutes (the man’s clearly a fan of Paul, John and the gang).

What followed was an engaging ramble through a few stories that help illustrate his theory that cultural heritage has a profound impact on who we are, how we live and the everyday decisions that we make (I’m doing his thesis a gross disservice there but you get the picture), and to prove the point he talked a lot about Geert Hofstede’s ‘cultural dimensions‘ (fascinating in their own right, and quite weird when you’re used to not using mass cultural generalisations – AKA stereotypes). His main story revolved around one of these dimensions, the power distance index, and how the inability of aeroplane co-pilots from cultures with a high p/d index (in his example it was Colombia as he was using the Avianca 52 crash to make the point) to deal firmly with their superiors, due to over-deference and inherent fear of offense leading to mitigation, is more likely to cause a crash than mechanical errors or environmental factors.

Expect to see Hofstede featured in a planning presentation near you soon. (Open and honest dialogue is good for brands, anyone?).

Gladwell was utterly engaging as an orator, and refreshingly sans props and powerpoint, peppering his hour-long talk with moments of dark-ish comedy, which while invoking hearty chortles from sections of the crowd, seemed a little inappropriate (to me, at least) as the gags were largely at the expense of people who had contributed to the deaths of dozens of people via plane crashes (but maybe I’m just being sensitive).  On top of that, some may argue he laboured his points – but hey, you pay for Gladwell, you get Gladwell. And it’s pretty interesting labouring.

Ultimately I’m none the wiser really as to what else is going to be in the book on top of the reviews that I’ve read, but if it is anything like the talk it’ll be meandering, thorough, well-researched and just a little bit eccentric. So it’ll probably make my Christmas list – as with half of adland I expect.



4 Responses to “What I learnt from Malcolm Gladwell”

  1. faris Says:

    thanks dude – saw him speak on telly about it – had a look at the book in a store at MIT – don’t think this one is for me …

  2. nickfell Says:

    The ‘pay-to-generate-buzz-for-me’ approach is a definite winner.

    Reminds me of the BK video games…


  3. Charles Frith Says:

    I’m not a huge Gladwell fan although I do like listening to most of his talks on podcasts.

    I’m don’t accept Geert Hofsteder’s cultural dimensions because I believe the methodology is faulty. He used IBM during a period of time when it was considered a uniform and international culture but then subsequently went on to extend the research in China when it opened up and used students instead. Hofsteders assertions about expectancy and time value trade offs simply don’t hold up when thinking about the different lives of students and IBM workers from a different age. They have completely different priorities in life.

    I put it into a presentation I wrote when being asked about Asian preference for direct message or metaphor.


    Hope you’re doing well Graeme.

  4. doug Says:

    thanks Charles. yes all better now 🙂 – looking forward to ’09

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