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Why it’s never lupus

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” – Sherlock Holmes

You will not find a more agonized fan than the one who awaits Season 4 of the popular BBC show, “Sherlock”. Diehards have been waiting for more than two years for the next installment of Benedict Cumberbatch running around the streets of London and solving crimes with the likes of Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson. Adapted from the 1892 classic by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the storyline in its modernized form still captivates audiences today as much as it did back in 19th century Britain.

Why? Humans are natural problem-solvers – goal-oriented, adaptive, and curious. We are very good at assessing our surroundings and deducing information from our experience. We are always looking for that one conclusion we can draw from our observations. In fact, the scientific method was one of the earliest creations of human society, passed down from the Ancient Greeks through Aristotle.

Eliminating the Impossible

Fortunately for progress, the reach of the scientific method of deduction has not been limited to ancient Greek culture or the fictional parameters of 121B Baker Street. In the medical world, it’s veritable equivalent is known as Occam’s razor. Translated from the original Latin, it posits: “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Simply put, a simple explanation is preferred to a complex one.

This is also known as that moment in each episode of House, where Dr. Gregory House has that moment of clarity about the one obvious and perfect diagnosis that explains all the symptoms and solves the mysterious disease of his patient before (and sometimes after) they expire. Hint: it’s not lupus.

The theory of Occam’s razor was challenged centuries later by a man named John Hickam, MD. Hickam found the established process of eliminating causes and exhaustively speculating on rare diseases to explain all the strange symptoms in a patient ineffective. He thought it was far more likely for patients in these cases to have a set of common diseases, rather than a perfect cause that explained all symptoms. This led to the blunt conclusion: “Patients can have as many diseases as they damn well please”.

Double, Double Toil and Trouble

In the public affairs world, the world that Navigator maps out on a daily basis, the same theories take on similar applications. Clients run to the experts and expect there will be one, all-encompassing solution to the issue, or set of issues, they face. Most of the time, the solution may be simple. For the rest, a more layered approach is required.

In a 1973 treatise, two German design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber coined the term “wicked problem” to aptly describe problems of such scope that could not be solved like the more “tame” problems found in mathematics and puzzle games. “Wicked problems” were much more complex – social, political, environmental – and required strategies that included more collaborative, unconventional approaches and “outside-the-box” thinking.

We are living in a world where our collective problems are becoming increasingly “wicked” and difficult to solve in a narrow sense. Whether you’re talking about climate change, armed conflict and terrorism, or democratization, these are not problems that can be solved in isolation or independent from the efforts of other global players.

Smart, Honest Counsel

Wicked problems are not confined to the international sphere, but are increasingly entering the world of public affairs. Few experts have decided to abandon the approach of Occam’s razor and turn to the Hickum’s dictum equivalent of diagnosing these problems and propose collaborative strategies. What they fail to realize is that some of these challenges are simply too complex and unique, essentially uncharted territory for many clients, and clients themselves will need someone who understands this new environment.

Gone are the days when you can simply knock on government’s door, make your case, and get an answer. To increase your chances of success, you may need to work with third parties with aligned interests. You may need to mobilize your online and offline supporters. You may need to get public opinion among Canadians onside with your proposal before coming to the table.

At Navigator, the solution will not always be the simple one for your company. Whether you’re seeking social licence for a massive cross-country infrastructure project, or engaging a major financial transaction affecting national interests, or activating a public advocacy campaign – you will need the smart, honest counsel that will get your public affairs goals to the finish line.

The First Debate

‘I’d say [Trump] is very similar to Trudeau in that they focus on things that are cultural. He’s running a cultural campaign.’
— David Woolley

This week we’re talking about Canada-China relations, moving expenses (again), and — of course — the US presidential debate.

The unglamorous life of a Member of Parliament

Life on the Hill, particularly for rookie and backbench MPs, can be a lonely, tedious and thankless life away from family and home — but we owe these men and women gratitude for their commitment to Canada

This article appeared in the Toronto Star on September 25, 2016.

Three weeks ago, students across Canada begrudgingly woke up, dusted off their backpacks and headed to school, ending their summer vacations.

This week, our federal members of Parliament did the same.

As Parliament returns, there is no shortage of issues on its agenda. These include setting targets on carbon emissions, agreeing to potentially dangerous peacekeeping roles in Africa, changing Canada’s approach to marijuana, decisions on the building of pipelines and on ratification of new free trade agreements, and the fundamental altering of the way Canadians vote in elections.

Amid these important debates, it is often lost on us that we will be represented by 338 members of Parliament, each with a unique point of view, and each with his or her own careers, family and lived experience.

On Oct. 19 of last year, a record number of rookie MPs were elected — 197 out of 338 — and they were thrown immediately into their roles. They opened offices and hired staff, got to know the media on the Hill, boned up on the issues and got down to the nation’s business.

For new MPs, the first year is an utter whirlwind. They are idealistic and enthusiastic, and the change they can affect and the opportunities in front of them seem limitless.

But soon, just as the freshness of any new government begins to wear off, new MPs face the reality that their scope and influence might not be quite what they had envisioned.

It was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father who remarked, some decades ago, that backbench MPs were ‘nobodies 50 yards off the Hill.’ Harsh, perhaps, and despite efforts by Pierre Trudeau’s son to change that reality, the unfortunate truth that many MPs come to discover is that real influence and power is invested in just a few of the 338 MPs in the House of Commons.

For many, their high hopes of joining the Privy Council as a cabinet minister are dashed. Others find themselves on Opposition benches they had hoped never to occupy. Nearly all face day after gruelling day filled with meetings on issues they had never cared or thought about, or in committee meetings filled with hours of testimony on policy minutiae.

On top of that, after five days a week attending to hours and hours of parliamentary business, MPs are expected to return to their ridings every weekend to spend time with constituents, attending festivals, local meetings, and what seems like an endless march of parades and charity runs.

It’s all glamorous, until the MP finds themselves attending their seventh church strawberry social instead of watching their child’s T-ball game.

And so, just as MPs adjust to their new jobs as parliamentarians, they and their families also adjust to new and very different lives as well. When MPs move to Ottawa, they leave behind family — and often the bonds of social restraint — in the spirit of public service and personal ambition.

In Ottawa, MPs once again live like students who have just moved out of residence and into their first apartments. In middle age, they often live with roommates, eat off mismatched dinnerware, leave pictures unhung.

Their commitments, understandably, are to their own communities, not to Ottawa. And so with no families to come home to, every day becomes the same. After work, receptions and dinners fuel the makings of a toxic brew of power, exhaustion and a feeling that ‘no one else understands our world.’

The grim, but too often unspoken, reality is that many politicians end up struggling. Marriages end. Relationships fray. Families suffer. Substance abuse issues emerge.

Some MPs’ struggles make it to the front page but dozens more struggle in the loneliness of the shadows.

As Parliament returns this week, we all should remember that these 338 people are not nobodies at all. Rather, they are wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, friends and colleagues of us all.

What’s more, they are the ones we have chosen to represent us in the people’s house, the House of Commons. And agree with them or not, it is only decent of us to honour the sacrifice that they make every day to do their best for our country.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

Understand your users: lessons from Adblock Plus

Last week, Adblock Plus announced it would begin selling ads. That is not a misprint. The company literally named ‘adblock’ ( as in stop or prevent advertisements) and ‘plus’ (to tell users that they do that very well) is doing the exact opposite of the thing it promises to do.

For those unfamiliar, Adblock Plus was one of, if not the, leading adblocker. As a plugin or browser extension, users could install it to prevent advertisements from appearing in the websites they visited. The program is generally credited with popularizing online adblocking, which has had a major impact on how information travels on the Internet. Selling ads after selling the ability to block them is a complete 180. In fact, it looks like the company built on preventing ads from being served never really understood how users and advertisers interact with the ads they do see in the first place.

Predictably, initial reaction to the announcement was harsh. This could very well be the beginning of the end for the company. Technically, Adblock Plus is expanding its Acceptable Ads initiative with ‘a fully functional ad-tech platform that will make whitelisting faster and easier’ that promises to ‘turn the model on its head.’ According to Adblock Plus, the new program offers advertisers auction-based or real-time bidding (RTB), just like Google or Facebook. The difference is that all of the ads are, theoretically, vetted by Adblock Plus’ users. This is supposed to act as a kind of guarantee that they will not detract from any website’s browsing experience. If you ask the company, Adblock Plus is offering an alternative to RTB — instead of targeting options offered by every other RTB platform, user experience determines which ads are ultimately served.

Basically, Adblock Plus is hoping to enter the supply side of the digital advertising market. The new service will allow publishers and bloggers to buy ads vetted by Adblock Plus or users of Acceptable Ads because these ads are not disruptive to the browsing experience. Yes that was supposed to sound weird. There are lots of problems with this strategy. First is the problem of perception: Adblock Plus, a celebrated Adblocker is selling advertisements to online publishers. IAB UK CEO Guy Phillapson alluded to some of the other strategic issues in a statement, comparing the company’s new direction to a protection racket:

‘We see the cynical move from Adblock Plus as a new string in their racket. Now they’re saying to publishers we took away some of your customers who didn’t want ads, and now we are selling them back to you on commission. The fact is, in the UK ad blocking has stalled. It’s been stuck at 21% throughout 2016 because the premium publishers who own great content, and provide a good ad experience, hold all the cards. More and more of them are offering ad blocking consumers a clear choice: turn off your ad blocking software or no access to our content. And their strategy is working, with 25% to 40% turning off their blockers. So with their original business model running out of steam, Adblock Plus have gone full circle to get into the ad sales business.’

Adblock Plus’s decision, and the initial reaction to it, prove the company misunderstood its old customer base and the publishers or advertisers it is hoping to turn into customers. First, Adblock assumed its current users, people who downloaded something that, again, is named Adblock Plus, want to filter ads instead of blocking them. They also misjudged how appealing RTB is in its current form for advertisers, and like Phillapson said, that users are actually willing to put up with highly targeted ads from the content suppliers they enjoy. Most importantly, as a brand or someone paying for an ad, why switch to a system with less control when there is no substantial opposition to the current RTB model?

Besides Adblock Plus, there are other similar adblocking programs that provide practically ad-free browsing experiences. Many of them have capitalized on the negative reaction to Adblock Plus’s announcement by doubling down on their stated promise of actually blocking ads. Most of these programs use a process similar to the ‘whitelisting’ service Adblock is offering, allowing users to view ads from the sites they deem safe. This gives users the sense of control Adblock Plus is convinced it just invented.

Adblock Plus’ new take on whitelisting ignores the dynamic its previous version helped establish between users, publishers, ads, and advertisers. In the original model, training users to whitelist sites instead of individual ad units placed credit or blame for ads appearing with the publishers who accept revenue from them. Once a publisher or website was whitelisted, they remained whitelisted until the Adblock Plus user manually reversed their decision. Giving the ‘pass’ to publishers, instead of individual ads, made a ton of sense: ads change much more frequently on a random site than on a site someone frequently visits, and publishers generally adhere to the same standards when deciding which ads they’ll allow on their site.

This system was successful because it was simple. It also let advertisers actually advertise, which is by nature intrusive. Crucially, by placing agency on the sites, ads were presented as a necessary evil to support the content that users enjoyed. The new model abandons that simplicity by asking users to vote on the ads themselves and it changes the criteria for whitelisting. No advertiser in their right mind would choose an ad unit that is sanctioned for its inability to draw attention when alternatives advertising models exist. Adblock Plus seems to have forgotten that publishers need ads, and ads need to be somewhat disruptive in order to be effective, which is why there was a desire to block them in the first place. Also the RTB marketplace Adblock Plus envisions would require a staggering amount of sanctioned ads in order to provide enough variety to publishers to compensate for the (likely) reduced appeal among actual advertisers. Adblock Plus probably doesn’t have the user base necessary to vett that many ad units, especially after losing so many customers in the wake of its announcement. In fact, RTB, or the auction model Adblock Plus is attempting to adopt, is dependant on the relationship between site owners or publishers and users. Before, the company played a part in emphasizing this relationship, but now it’s neglecting it at its own peril.

Real time bidding is practically the only way to advertise on social media and search engines. First popularized by Google, versions of this bidding can be found on practically every other search engine, the largest social networks –like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn –as well as leading content marketing services like OutBrain and Taboola. These platforms employ continuous streams of content, and the auction model was the only way to account for how they disseminate information in real-time based. The auction system accounts for the practically infinite variations of a given user’s news feed or search results. Instead of paying for a predetermined placement, advertisers bid to appear in the most relevant possible placements as they become available. The innumerable choices in social or search platforms that determine where ads could be shown mean users are subject to an incalculable number of ad units. This only works if the users trust the website or publishers to choose ‘acceptable’ ad units. Going through each ad individually would take forever. Even in content marketing, random units appearing in a given site’s ad spaces are subject to browsing data that essentially creates the same degree of randomness as social media. It is more practical to establish trust between sites and the people who visit them, instead of users and ads. One could argue any RTB system needs to be based on demographics instead of user experience, because targeting needs to be grounded in something that correlates to the person actually seeing the ad to account for the endless contexts in which it can appear.

Demographic information was key to popularizing RTB because advertisers love getting this info. They gain access to unprecedented amounts of users in a single ad buy, and a targeting system that is infinitely more specific than any other format. Social and search advertising use demographic categories based on static information (as well as in-platform decisions, but that’s for another column), like registration data, as static endpoints in a given user’s ever-evolving data set. Essentially, this allows advertisers to bid on who sees an ad, unlike older models where they paid for placement. RTB took out a lot of the guesswork in terms of ‘is the type of person I want to see my ad guaranteed to see my ad?’ Though users may complain about advertisers using their private information to build RTB campaigns, the information advertisers actually get to work with cannot identify individual users. There are certainly issues with privacy and RTB, though they are not close to significant enough to overthrow the system.

Right now, it looks like although Adblock Plus understood the trends in online advertising, they failed to contextualize their role in a changing digital landscape. People care generally if ads are on their screen, but the vast majority do not worry about how they were targeted. Though users are growing more tolerant of ads, and perhaps concerned over how they are delivered, high quality content keeps them coming back to sites using granular tracking options in their RTB units. People understand that websites need to pay the bills and, for the most part, they are willing to let them serve targeted ads in exchange for the services they provide. Up until recently, users who were unwilling to make that trade relied on Adblock Plus. Since, until last week, its entire business was blocking ads, the company is still considered toxic by many groups it now hopes to count as customers. Any chance of building up the user base quickly is slim, having lost a considerable portion of existing customers, and they do not seem to have the quality content needed to attract new ones. The promise of an ‘acceptable’ advertising experience is nice, but it’s a job for a plugin, not a content publisher or even an ad broker, which is what Adblock Plus is trying to morph into. Perhaps slowly rolling out a different plugin, branded with something connected to its acceptable ads initiative, working to accelerate the whitelisting process, maybe by gathering information about which ads users find acceptable to later sell to publishers, while still maintaining their initial service or line of business, would be a better strategy. Anything to avoid having to say ‘Hi we are called Adblock Plus, though we will no longer be blocking ads, as much as asking sites to pay us to show ads to users they attracted without any real help from us.’ Adblock Plus already alienated online publishers. Trying to quickly pivot and turn those people into customers may have cost them the ones they did have for their original service. Unless content providers, advertisers, and users radically change how they interact with ads online, Adblock Plus’ may end up using their new RTB platform to sell their office space instead of actual ad units.