Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

How do you know what you don’t know when your unknowns are unknown?

By Sonia Pham, Head of Business Analysis, Illuma Technology

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes Unperfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

I fucked up recently. Not a big fuck up (my employers will be pleased to know) but a fuck up nonetheless.

Big deal, you might think. Everyone fucks up. But I’m someone who prides themselves on never fucking up. You know the type: bit nerdy, bit serious, the one who constantly sends you emails saying “just checking you got this!” and “wondering if you had feedback??”. Fucking up causes me true existential angst as, really, it makes me question who I understand myself to be.

However, like all good millennials, I have a robust set of self-analytical tools (read: therapy) that – once I get over the breathless shock of the fuck up  – I can rustle up so I can Learn and Move Forward. And I realised it’s the unknown unknowns that throw me for a loop.

A term famously used by Donald Rumsfeld in 2002, unknown unknowns are unimaginable risks or unintended consequences: things whose very existence you weren’t even aware of. Take the pre-pandemic world: back in January 2021, taking the train from your overpopulated city to cuddle your nan in her care home was something you didn’t think twice about. Covid, at that point, was an unknown unknown: how can you prepare for something (mostly) unexpected?

As you might expect, there’s been a huge amount of research in this area – tools and frameworks like risk categorization models and quadrants you can employ to make the unknown known. Because as humans, we hate the idea of unknown unknowns. And indeed, according to researchers, we hate the idea so much that people will often actively ignore them – denying that pit in your stomach feeling that something isn’t quite right.

In ad tech, this is exactly what we do – because really, are we paying attention to how we feel? That slight bit of heartburn every time you think about FLoC (hands up if you’ve really gone through the GitHub), your palms slickening with sweat when you realise Google aren’t actually going to be removing cookies anytime soon (hooray…I think?) or any other panicky news story that pings into your inbox from an industry website (or worse, from your CEO).

Because while unknown unknowns exist – and we can’t predict or prepare for them – there’s a grey area of known unknowns that we can work within. We just have to be honest about the gaps in our knowledge, as it’s settling into the discomfort that brings about transformative change. 

Unfortunately, finding the time to do this brutal self-examination when you’re ricocheting from Zoom to deck to email to Slack is, if not impossible, then certainly something that gets overtaken on your to-do list. So where do we start?

  1. Name that feeling

Identifying and naming what you don’t know is incredibly powerful. Is it why bird-related acronyms seem to be proliferating ad tech? What the new product in your DSP actually is? Or what in the name of the ICO the actual difference is between all these new contextual technologies? Once you start naming things, they become a lot less terrifying – your questions become quick tasks to research, discuss with colleagues or ask other third parties.

  1. Collaboration is key

Figuring out your known unknowns – and thereby uncovering more and more of your unknown unknowns – isn’t something that can be done in a vacuum. Improving and increasing knowledge is best done by finding the right people whose experience and skills intersect with your own. Just don’t be afraid to say where your current knowledge levels lie – you won’t get anywhere by pretending you know more than you do. 

  1. Ask the difficult questions

Claiming that something is too techy, too complicated or too above or below your pay grade to understand isn’t good enough. Don’t let other people – or companies – obfuscate, bullshit and hide behind jargon and acronyms in your quest to make things less unknown. If you can read this article, you can understand most of what we come across in ad tech: don’t let others metaphorically (or virtually) pat you on the head and convince you otherwise. 

Just the simple act of being consistently honest about the things that are putting your stomach in knots can set you towards clarity and action. The world needs more people who are willing to do this and who will try their best to figure things out. Because – and stick with me here – the path to identifying most of your unknown unknowns is to be truthful about what your known unknowns are. And by letting these become your known knowns – aka things you are absolutely shit-hot on – the chance of an unknown unknown tripping you up becomes far less likely.

Can’t promise you won’t fuck up sometimes, though.