We used to have a small fish tank in the kitchen.

Sometimes I’d come home from work and find a dead fish on the kitchen floor.

No one was in the house.

The kids were at school, my wife was at work, we had no pets.

Why were there dead fish on the kitchen floor?

There was no reason for them to be out of the tank, what was happening?

Eventually I asked a vet, she asked me if I had a lid on the tank.

I said no.

She looked at me like I was a dope and said the fish are jumping out of the tank that’s all.

I said why are they doing that, are they ill?

She said no, the fish don’t know the whole world isn’t water.

If they knew they’d kill themselves jumping out of the tank they obviously wouldn’t do it.

But fish don’t know water exists.

So they don’t know a world without water exists.

They live in water, they’re born into water, they’re surrounded by water, they never know anything that isn’t water.

In order to know something exists you have to step outside it and look back at it, to have a comparison.

You have to have a state of no-water to realise water exists.

And the fish don’t have this comparison until they jump out of the tank.

All they see is a bigger world on the other side of the glass and they’d like to swim around in that bigger world.

They don’t know that bigger world doesn’t have water, so they jump over the glass.

That’s when they find out what they don’t know, and die choking on the floor.

It’s beyond them to believe anything could exist outside their experience.

That’s understandable, we can only experience anything through what we already know.

The real power, of course, is in realising that what we know isn’t all there is to know.

This is where experts, like fish, go wrong.

Experts have a vested interest in proving that what they know is all there is to know.

Which is very dangerous, especially in our business.

We are governed by experts who’ve studied how the mind works in every circumstance.

Semiotics, behavioural economics, psychology, neuro-science, choice architecture, cognitive dissonance, the sunk cost heuristic, confirmation bias, hyperbolic discounting, inter-group bias, self-enhancing transmission bias, loss aversion bias.

They mastermind communications according to all the rules they’ve learned.

Then they set these communications loose in the real world.

And like the fish they die.

Because they live in a world where everybody is waiting to see their communication.

But that’s not the world outside the fish tank.

In the real world 4% is remembered positively, 7% is remembered negatively, and 89% isn’t noticed or remembered.

No one cares about it, no one will bother to work out the subtlety, or study the nuances in minute detail like the experts.


Bill Bernbach understood that.

He said “If no one notices your advertising everything else is academic”.