Ah, Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein, a man who was deeply controversial in his day, with the “genius or madman”–a fraud, fake, or a friggin’ phenomenal genius forever?–debate still raging now, heading on a century later; indeed, in this “Who would they PPC?” series, he will probably be the single most controversial philosopher I’ll dive into. Was he…

  • A man whose last line of his Tractus was of mind-blowing novel genius insight? The intellectual’s intellectual, unable to be understood by the normie but the raging genius who understood the world at a whole new level and figured out how to convey that whole new level to those who understood him?
  • Or was he the practical jokester, making nonsensical points in big words–how can reality just be words? It’s the underlying reality underneath that matters, not the labels!–trying to make a mockery of those who would fall for it?
  • Or a man just restating one of the core and even mundane Kabbalist observations, thus insightful and not-obvious only to those outside of the Kabbalist tradition? A man whose Daddy (“who just happens to be the richest man in Europe”) paid for the angry son’s fame, perhaps out of vanity but perhaps out of a long-term family plan?

I won’t take a position on The One And Only Ludwig–not to be confused with Ludwig Von–here, instead  just taking his key insights for granted–and knowing his key insights, I’ll ask the question you’re all wondering: if Ludwig Wittgenstein were a PPC, how would he PPC?

Before we jump into his approach to PPC, let’s review his core insights. The Tractus, his key work, builds up to his final, key point–The Seventh–which is, “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.” Earlier propositions build up to similar but more qualified variations of this theme, like his 5.6 (“the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”) and 6.371 (“The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.”)

These all get at the same point: that matter itself is intricately linked to the words we use for them. I will give you a full confession: when I first studied Wittgenstein as an 18-year-old, I thought he was preposterous and his cousin Karl Popper’s rebuttals were stronger. It was self-evident to me, the 18 year old who thought he was as wise as it comes, that a chair is a chair, regardless of what label we use. Well, two decades of life later, it’s now a lot less obvious to me. On one level, we can always break anything down into increasingly smaller bits, so thus how can we know anything? On another level, every piece of knowledge we have is built on assumptions, and what happens when assumptions you thought were as true as “the earth is round” crumble, then the whole belief system built on top of them must crumble? For that matter, how do I even know the earth is round? If we assume that Intelligence Operations exist, then that begs the question of how deep do they go? (I can only tell you my thoughts on answering that question over alcohol and far away from modern technology after we’ve sworn literal blood-brother to-the-death oaths to each other!)

With this as context, I’ll propose the following: Wittgenstein would be awesome at many things–especially entertaining dinnertime conversations–but he would be a terrible PPC!

Why? For a few reasons.

First, it’s unclear if he’d be able to get anything done because he’d be stuck at the “what does this mean?” question for every little detail. Each keyword could be forked into even more specific keywords, which could be forked into even more specific ones–endlessly recursively until the campaign is huge and detailed… and never launched. And then the campaign finally launches, either it’s the greatest campaign in the history of the universe or a fiasco. But in either case, the client has long since fired your agency! Indeed, did Wittgenstein even write any books other than the Tractus? I’m not even sure offhand (and I’m not cheating by using Google.)

Note, importantly, his criticisms would make sense. He would say, “Do we know what a click is? REALLY? REALLY?!?!?!” I mean, that is a good point. I just see on my screen that Google tells me that there is a click, and how do I know that maps to anything real? On Google ALSO tells me in Analytics that a visitor came to my site from that and that visit saw pages X, Y, and Z… but this is just a lot of trust I’m placing in Google here. Cui bono, an economist would remind us (and Wittgenstein would agree with but he wouldn’t say, instead of talking about the nature of truth and existence and words rather than something as mundane–of this world, literally–as incentives.)

Second, this same obsession with figuring out the meaning to the point of preventing action applies not just to running the campaign, but to managing your client. I can imagine conversations along the lines of:

Client to Wittgenstein: “Why the f— haven’t you launched your humongous, overly-detailed campaign yet?”

Wittgenstein to a client: “If I were screaming while trying to cobble together a campaign for your meaningless product, would you even be able to recognize the sounds I would be making as screams?”

More broadly: Wittgenstein was famous not only for his ideas but his reclusion as well. It’s as much a part of his mythology as Che’s trips are a part of Che mythology. And recluses, while they may be technically fantastic at their given job, they tend to be less adept at the skills needed to ensure that the clients fall in love with working with them.

Of course, that’s where project managers and client managers and account executives–whatever euphemism we use–come in. So some might argue that the PPCs themselves don’t need to be able to deal with the clients. And to a degree, that is true: everyone needs to specialize, so good agencies do have client-management specialists and PPC-specialists, and many other types of specialists. But I would argue, at least in my ideal PPC firm–and possibly any firm–that the key people have at least a basic understanding of the key principles in the key areas. I spoke to an agency recently where the principal proudly told me, “everyone on our team is trained in data analysis, and every single new employee is as well.” While I have my questions as to whether data analysis is the right One Skill to train everyone on (garbage in… garbage out!), I do like that spirit of having a core set of principles and ensuring everyone knows the minimum. And in any agency environment, even the lowest level employees need to be able to say to everyone else, “How many I help you achieve your goals?” whether that is the CEO to the PPC, the PPC to the CEO, the PPC to the client, or the client to the PPC, or in any directions. And that is one phrase we would be very unlikely to hear from Wittgenstein, were he a PPC.