Mark Earls is a Dunce

Do you know where the word Dunce comes from?  I do – because I come from the same place.  It’s the name of my home village in the Scottish Borders and was also the birthplace of a philosopher called John Dunse Scotus (John, the Scot, from Dunse).

JDS (not to be confused with those intellectual giants of our own era, JLS) was one of the leading thinkers of the medieval period.  However, his theories were completely at odds with the Church dogma of the time.  As a result, “Dunse” became adopted as a term of ridicule and abuse, to the extent that our village dropped the final letter of its name in Victorian times and became plain old Duns.  It was only recently that the genius of JDS was finally acknowledged, with the Vatican beatifying him in 1993 and Oxford University naming him one of its top 100 alumni of all time, in 2011.

I was reminded of all this the other day, when I noticed that it was the tenth anniversary of Mark Earls’ masterpiece, “Herd”.  If you haven’t read it, you must, because it’s one of the most brilliant, and influential, marketing texts around.  But like JDS’s treatises, it wasn’t always seen as such.

You see, Earls’ central thesis was that human beings are fundamentally herd animals, rather than lone individuals.  This simple premise was completely counter to classical economic theory.  It also went against the political mood of the day.  And most importantly, for our purposes, it was utterly out of step with the prevailing marketing thinking, whereby “the consumer” was increasingly seen as an atomistic entity, whose needs were to be understood and met on a one-to-one basis.  No wonder one critic apparently told the heretical Herdmeister that “We don’t believe that monkey shit around here!”

Fast-forward 10 years though, and while Earls might not have been beatified yet, his theories have been utterly vindicated.  Since the banking collapse of 2008, politicians have been falling over themselves to state that there is such a thing as a society (whether their actions live up to that mantra or not).  Likewise, since the rise of Facebook et al, businesses have been clamouring to “get social”.  And in marketing circles, the textbooks increasingly question the effectiveness of CRM, rather than praise it.

Of course, there are still pockets of resistance, with some organisations still vain enough to think they can understand an individual inside out (a notion to which Sir John Hegarty recently responded: “Fuck off!  Sometimes I don’t even understand myself!”).  But generally, the battle has been won.

And for that, we should thank our modern day Dunce.

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