Flying Blind

James Dolittle was a decorated Army general and aviator who was the first pilot to take off, chart a course, and land a plane relying only on flight instruments. Dolittle pioneered the concept of “flying blind”: he not only helped to develop some of the novel instruments used in his groundbreaking zero-visibility flight, like the artificial horizon, but he also explored the psychological limitations of human sensory input. And on September 24th, 1929, at what is now called Mitchel Air Force Base on Long Island, NY, Dolittle completed the first successful zero-visibility flight: he engulfed his cockpit in a hood to block his view of the landscape and relied exclusively on his instruments to control the plane.

Prior to Dolittle’s flight, which proved that zero-visibility flight was possible using innovative new instruments, pilots were dependent on favorable weather conditions — eg. daytime, clear skies — to fly. The ability to “fly blind” using instruments for guidance relaxed those constraints; pilots could fly at night or in heavy fog, for instance. While most pilots would likely prefer to fly under conditions of high visibility, the ability to “fly blind” removes visibility as a necessary condition for flight.

I view Dolittle’s story as a metaphor for the imperative that marketers face under the constraints of the new and rapidly-evolving privacy landscape. But I also believe that Dolittle’s achievement reflects the opportunity presented by those constraints. The marketing equivalent of “visibility” is the concept of deterministic attribution: the idea that specific marketing outcomes can be precisely attributed to individuals using persistent, one-to-one identifiers.

The digital marketing ecosystem is very obviously moving into a permanent state of low visibility. Marketers must develop the capacity to “fly blind,” which requires the development of marketing technology that provides both insights into performance and guidance on efficient budget allocation in “low visibility” conditions — that is, without the transparency of deterministic identity.

Inherent in this project is the opportunity: if a marketer’s measurement tools are built to exclusively utilize deterministic attribution, then those tools can’t be used for channels where that form of attribution can’t exist, such as with out-of-home or television advertising. This may not have been problematic when the entirety of the digital advertising ecosystem provided for deterministic identity (which, not incidentally, it never really did). But now that it doesn’t, and with deterministic attribution increasingly unrealistic, then marketers should recognize the opportunity presented through flying blind: the ability to operate across new channels that couldn’t feasibly be used under the limitations of deterministic measurement.

I discuss some of the modern needs of marketers and marketing analytics tools in The emerging marketing economist. But the challenges of flying blind span beyond the development of measurement tools; these methodologies need to be adopted across different areas of an organization, such as Finance, which may have grown accustomed to the impression of precision, however deceptive, that deterministic attribution provides. From Reprogramming the Broken Marketing Brain:

Onboarding a company’s management team to a conceptually new method of evaluating the efficiency of marketing spend is no small feat. And it is for this reason that short term workarounds and loopholes have prevailed: companies want to retain their marketing reporting infrastructure because all decision-making takes place downstream from it. But this reporting was designed for a fundamentally different time, and privacy restrictions are only going to continue to proliferate with the DMA and DSA going into effect in Europe. Many companies are currently operating with a broken marketing brain.

But the benefits delivered through an ability to fly blind are immense: flying blind breaks the dependency on high-visibility weather conditions, meaning the perceived total availability of deterministic identity for attribution. The ability to fly blind allows marketing teams to broaden their reach to channels that were inaccessible under the burden of exclusively deterministic measurement.