Two thousand, five hundred years ago, Aesop taught us that the slow and steady tortoise always wins the race. Somewhere along the road to our always-on society, the tables turned and the hare has become the hero. Take pitching. We feel we have no time, so we go straight to the fastest tool we have – the internet – and straight into hare mode.
What would happen if we were forced to turn the tables and work at a slower tortoise pace? What if we took two planners and one was allowed to use the internet to answer a brief and the other wasn’t? Is the internet really the planner’s speedy friend or is the real world a slower and more revealing place?
To test our theory, we needed a topic to study. The challenge, set by Nick Daniel at Dogs Trust, was "What does a dog mean to their owner?" and could be tackled in both real and digital worlds.
Now we needed two planners. Step forward Adina and Jacob. One would use only the internet to find a consumer insight. They couldn’t read any physical books or newspaper articles, just the internet. The other was not allowed to use the internet. They couldn’t e-mail anyone about the project or conduct online research. They had just four days to complete the task.
Caroline Deput, strategy partner, Kitcatt Nohr
Adina: From my previous experience with online research, I know that the key words you use in your search are very important. It can make the difference between not finding anything and finding exactly what you need. So I try to vary the search terms until I get closer to what I need. First try: "What does your dog mean to you?" – 755 results. It looks like lots of people have been wondering this. I try "Problem with my dog", which reveals the flip side of the relationship and owners’ exasperation with their dog’s behaviour. I don’t have to be diplomatic with Google. I can ask difficult questions – unlike face-to-face.
Jacob: Initially, I was really concerned. Having lived in a world where mobile phones, Wi-Fi and Facebook are all I know, this will be a challenge. My first thoughts go to Google – where would I start? I then started fretting about not being able to contact people by e-mail or Facebook. So I would have to go out and meet people face-to-face – but how do I get around? I can’t navigate without Citymapper. And then, the nadir: I would have to use the phone to talk to people – something that I and everyone like me avoids at all cost.
Adina: I’m overwhelmed. Sucked into the multitude of posts and comments and views and search results, I completely lose track of what I’m doing. I don’t feel I’ve found out anything meaningful. Searching "dog owner classification" takes me to local council pages about registration fees and dog welfare policies. I’ve got 30 tabs open. I know there is a lot on the internet that could help me, but I’m just not searching for the right terms. I think this task is about getting to an answer fast, rather than doing watertight academic research. I’ve got some pretty robust hypotheses from the academic papers I’ve found and a draft discussion guide to test them out – but now I need to find some dog owners online. I need to get a wriggle on.
Jacob: I’m having to take things at a much more considered pace. If I’m going to phone people up, visit them and interact with them, I have to think through exactly what I want to find out. I don’t want to appear a complete idiot. I craft my discussion guide – carefully. I’m finding I have time to breathe, focus and think far more than if I was just ploughing straight into a Google search with very little consequence. A visit to the library is insightful: seeing the hordes of titles (fiction) about heroic dogs and caring canines compared with hardly anything about cats suggests every dog owner views their dog as a source of entertainment to a certain degree. A flick through shelves reveals the semantics of adoration – "love", "devoted" and "faithful" are consistently associated with dogs but sparingly with other animals.
Adina: I have no idea how to conduct the interviews. Petforums.co.uk doesn’t allow message communications for new users. I’m considering iMessages, Facebook or even e-mail. I try e-mailing my dog-owning friends but they are too responsible as dog owners and are skewing my results. I try contacting people who have posted on BorrowMyDoggy.com’s Facebook page. Most have their privacy settings set so strictly that few would see my message in their inbox. So, on Thursday night, I’m pasting the same message to as many BorrowMyDoggy users as possible in the hope one will notice that tiny tab in the Message box that says "Other (1)". I try Twitter. I e-mail three dog behaviourists. I’ve yet to find any older people to contact online. I feel like a stalker. I really want to talk to people face-to-face.
Jacob: Most of my time is now spent trying to find a broad range of people to observe, talk and listen to. I’m learning to take rejection. Many dog owners refuse point blank to talk to me. I’m ignored by vets and escorted from pet shops (apparently, I look like a trading standards officer). In the library, I use a Blackpool telephone directory to cold-call people. I’m in Morrisons in Norfolk, standing by the dog-food donation bin hoping someone will donate and identify themselves as a charitable dog lover. If only I had a dog. Dog owners talk to other dog owners.
Adina: I’ve figured out I can use Skype as it’s internet-based (who uses that any more?). Double lucky, Skype has a free trial and I manage to persuade many of my potential respondents to sign up. Now I can talk to people. Skype has a free trial for unlimited calling to landlines. A bit cheeky of me, but it means that I can now talk to anyone, including technophobes. Everything suddenly gets richer. I now understand the feeling bubbling behind the words used by respondents in my original survey.
It seems that we love our dogs but they mystify us. Every owner recognises that there is a strong bond between them and their dog, but they seem to struggle when it comes to articulating it.
I identified three groups: those who see the dog as a dog with dog-specific needs that must be addressed; those who think of dogs as "people with fur on"; and a third who stress that dogs are dogs yet they behave like children, so the owners treat them as such. But certain life events – such as having a baby – force people to re-evaluate their relationship with the dog and this is especially true for the third group.
There were some interesting insights that came out of this process, such as the fact that 99 per cent of people keep their dog indoors and can’t imagine doing otherwise. The one lady who did keep her dog in a kennel was aged 18-25, which was unexpected. What really threw me was that this lady took the dog everywhere with her, cooked for him and even called him "one of the family". At the same time, I was surprised to find more mature ladies who live in a rural setting share their bed with their dog. Some would also get them Christmas gifts and one was even thinking about creating a social media profile for her pooch.
All in all, the internet helped me get to a really detailed answer, but I wasn’t sure what all this meant.
Jacob: I now appreciate the insights that can come from observing and talking to people – from housewives to hipsters. Talking to a homeless gentleman in Southwark Park was particularly poignant. His two dogs (Balfour and Betty) give him constant love. As he said, dogs "never leave, never judge and always love".
I have discovered that people have different motivations for owning a dog. They get a dog to satisfy something: a need, a desire or a concern – but what unites them is that they soon grow to love their dog.
Owners without kids often refer to themselves as the dog’s mummy/daddy. But those who have children never do. In couples, where one partner has children and the other does not, the rule still often applies.
There is a rich community of dog owners in the UK who share certain anticipated benefits of dog ownership – as well as some unexpected benefits. One such benefit was a sense of delight and wonderment in discovering that their dog had, in their eyes, an acute sixth sense. Many felt their dog "just knew" when something was wrong and the owner found this very comforting.
People don’t just think that dogs look like their owners and vice versa: they believe the type of dog is a reflection of the owner’s personality, attitudes and outlook on life. What I didn’t expect to find is that this varies between rural and urban dog owners. Country folk view the pairing of a springer spaniel and his owner very differently from how townies view this pairing.
So is the internet the planner’s friend or foe?
Deput: The glib answer is "a bit of both". But it’s deeper than that. This exercise reinforces Guy Claxton’s thesis, Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind. He argues: "Ours is an accelerated age and thought – we presume – must keep up with the rush. Thinking fast has become our default mode. The fast Hare Brain is expected to win against the Tortoise Mind – one which uses patience and confusion, rather than speed, clarity and business-like crispness."
I think the internet forces us to be "Hare Brain" planners, giving us a misplaced confidence that we will find the right answer – fast. In pitch mode, we operate with a sense of urgency and impatience. Technology such as the internet channels this need and exacerbates it. It gives the illusion we are making progress, busy whirring away industriously – 30 tabs open, 744 "results found". But, like the hare, we get distracted and disappear down blind alleys.
The real world is actually slower, as Adina found out when she waited for people to get back to her. They had gone off to do things in the real world – feed the kids, watch TV or walk the dog – while she was waiting for instant online responses to her questions.
As Jacob discovered, being forced to switch off fast thinking (the default mode) and embrace the slow "Tortoise Mind" thinking meant he had to think before asking. Getting your question wrong doesn’t matter to a search engine – you can always ask it again another way. In the real world, Jacob had to think carefully about what he was going to ask. In the initial stages, he had to become more concerned with the "what" than the "why". He had to observe what dog owners were doing and saying. He had to lose himself in the "what" rather than jump to the "why". And this can feel scary, as Jacob admits. It is not our default mode. It means liking and valuing confusion – certainly in the initial stages of a project.
Look at how Adina’s insights change when she is allowed to talk to people. She switches from Hare Brain to Tortoise Mind and starts to have lots of little light-bulb moments, those "Aha!" moments so typical of intuition and the Tortoise Mind.
So, in a pitch, when the race is on, we lean towards our default mode of thinking – the Hare Brain. And yet the Tortoise Mind, scary though it can be, can find richer, more meaningful – and, importantly, for a pitch – different insights. We do need both.