The great man theory is the human last-click attribution problem
A view from Gen Kobyashi

The great man theory is the human last-click attribution problem

After collaborative efforts achieved so much during 2020, Engine's CSO argues the industry should work together to bring about change.

“Great men should rule, and others should revere them." 

There can’t be many more painfully outdated and inaccurate theories out there than the great man theory. Coined by philosopher Thomas Carlyle, the theory states that the entire history and success of the human race can be traced back to a few “great men” and their individual actions.

The reality is this theory couldn’t be further from the truth. The notion that civilizations can be boiled down to the lone actions of a few men is obviously not true. It ignores 50% of the population for a start. Women have had significant impact on our society from medicine to science to the arts. It also ignores the years of subjugated oppression of people that our so called “great men” benefited from. But importantly this theory falls down when you begin seeing the wider context of the actions that these “few great men” took. 

The sociologist Herbert Spencer counteracted the great man theory with this response, "You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown… Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” The great man theory is basically the human civilisation equivalent of the last click attribution problem. It’s myopic and dangerously inaccurate.

Instead of lionising individual achievements, I think we should place greater emphasis on the context and the role others play in wider achievements. It’s the coming together and collaboration of people that lead to breakthrough moments.

This year has definitely been one to forget. From Covid to deep recession, I’m sure we’ll all be glad to see the back of 2020. But I think we have seen something interesting come about this year. A recognition that it isn’t the actions of a few individuals that make lasting change, it’s the collaboration between us that makes the difference.

Look at the greatest achievement this year. Scratch that. Look at the greatest achievement of a generation. The first successful Covid vaccine announcement came from the scientific partnership between a Dr Ugur Sahin and a Dr Özlem Türeci. This partnership also happened to extend beyond science and into matrimony as they also happen to be husband and wife.

Collaborations between brands became a theme at the beginning of the Pandemic. When you had competing pharma brands GSK and Sanofi working together in search of vaccine. Two directly competing brands working together for the greater good.

Other surprising collaborations came about with office lunch staple, Leon, partnering together with 16 of its fiercest high street competitors to “Feed the NHS” with free hot meals for our frontline NHS staff.

We’ve also seen a quite unexpected but amazing collaboration between Premiership footballer Marcus Rashford and publisher Macmillan to create a Book Club dedicated to giving a young person the opportunity of “escapism through reading” to the most vulnerable children in the UK.

We also saw some of the most powerful advertising come from brands being more open and collaborative in their approach to comms. From Adam & Eve/DDB’s John Lewis Xmas ad which celebrated the creative collaboration between nine different artists and storytellers to make one ad. To Engine’s collaboration with Aardman animations to produce our lockdown “Creature discomforts” work for Born Free. We have seen a theme of creativity thrive from partnerships.

This is not only true for the work we’ve been producing but also the way we have been behaving. Diversity remains a fundamental issue for our industry but we’ve seen strides being made with the power of agencies collaborating and sharing with each other to make a positive change. Look at the Grow Your Circle platform, created by Forsman & Bodenfors this year. An open-source talent platform designed to help agencies recruit from a more diverse pool of people and help raise the profile of people who wouldn’t normally be on the radar of traditional agencies. This isn’t a walled garden created by an agency to give themselves a competitive advantage alone, but a platform for the industry to benefit from as a whole.

I’m not suggesting the industry throws aside any sort of competitiveness and the hunger to grow. But I hope next year we see continued willingness for brands and agencies to think more openly about working in collaboration with one and other. I hope we may finally start putting an end to the fallacy of the “great man theory” and recognise that the most valuable changes and achievements within our industry will come from us working together and not against each other. 

Gen Kobayashi is chief strategy officer at Engine Creative.