Most folks sitting in a meeting want to put their best foot forward by appearing (and being) as well-informed and up-to-speed as possible… but long ago, I discovered that one of my strategic advantages was my willingness to ask ignorant questions. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and necessitates getting over the natural inclination to not put one’s head on the chopping block. But after years of doing this with clients, I have seen its value proven over and over.
When I begin an engagement with a client where I am going to be shaping communications, or crafting an experience for a user (also a form of communication), I like to have an extended conversation with the key decision-makers in order to kick around objectives, concerns, and opportunities. I specifically don’t push forward on an initiative based purely on marching orders cooked up by the client back at HQ. Sometimes, clients wonder aloud why we need to have this discussion, since they “already know what they need.”
The reason this is so important is that people who are close to the subject matter – the experts – can often become blinded by the familiar. They are so used to looking at things in a particular way, that their communications can end up entrenching habitual blind spots caused by those perspectives. They keep doing the same things, and by doing so, miss chances to open up new communication opportunities.
In the age of European kings, a court fool was granted special permission by the nobles to speak and behave in ways that were well outside what anyone else could do. This gave them the ability to sometimes speak the truth in jest and touch matters no one else dare address. For a creative holding a strategy meeting with a client, one of the most useful things he can do is put on his motley garb and ask the “ignorant outsider” questions. In a practical sense, there are a few reasons this kind of questioning is useful.
First, verbally processing something is an excellent way to examine it and clarify one’s thinking about it. Too often, the familiar assumptions go without saying, and thereby never get examined in the light of fresh perspective, new opportunities, or the changing landscape of markets and business. When I ask clients questions that are designed to make them really think about how the various parts of their marketing picture fit together, they need to think through and express things that they may not have really looked at either in a while, or all together as one collection of related issues. Getting a subject matter expert to double back and re-examine their understanding of a familiar topic as they attempt to unpack it for a newcomer can yield fascinating revelations.
Secondly, like the court fool, an outside marketing creative is not a part of the internal structure – I have no place in the pecking order, and am not a part of the political sensitivities that can make certain questions or subjects taboo. My ignorance of the particulars of a client’s workings, and my outsider status constitute something of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. I can, in a discussion of a topic that is very familiar to the insiders, step into the middle of something and ask a “Tell me why you do it that way… what about if you did it this way?” kind of question that pushes back on the accepted wisdom. I might be stepping on the head honcho’s toes by calling into question his pet notion, or maybe I’m stepping right into the middle of a hornet’s nest of an issue where there has been a lot of disagreement. Whatever the situation, my ignorance of the matter allows me to speak frankly and ask or suggest things that no one else would touch. And because I am outside of those internal political realities, I can be heard when others can’t.
Thirdly, my outsider/ignorant status coupled with the naturally freeform/spitballing nature of creative thought grants me the ability to float ideas that would never see the light of day in a meeting of folks who need to retain their “insider” respectability. In a strategy meeting with a client who provides student housing to college kids on multiple campuses, I threw out the idea of sticking a couple of “ringer” questions into their FAQ list that covers the whole process of securing and maintaining your student housing. Tucked in between topics like paying rent with financial aid and parking usage, I suggested they stick in a question about what to do if everyone but the reader and his roommates is turned into a mutant zombie by a viral outbreak. The initial reaction was a muted “what have I done by hiring this nut?” kind of avoidance. But the more we talked about it, and I unpacked the idea… well, I went from “wacko” to “not completely crazy”. By the time the site launched, the question was in there, and they were digging it.
(OK – for those of you wondering, my rationale was as follows: The client was looking at increased competition from major league players, and wanted to differentiate from all of the competition. Their audience is college students who are trying to find a quality place to live for a reasonable price, and they are already overloaded with a raft of challenging things that school brings with it. They needed to position themselves as not only providing value, but as being so service-oriented, and so looking-out-for-their-students that we knew we needed to show they understood students by branding them around the idea of really understanding what is important to the students, and speaking it to them in their patois. Addressing the student’s pain points, providing a flexible, searchable/sortable list of properties that lets them whittle down options by student-meaningful criteria, housing that was within just a few blocks of both campus and the social scene… Students needed to see the client as on their wavelength. My suggestion amounted to putting an “Easter Egg” or two into the site to provide a smile and a wink that cements the “yeah, we get you” message. Compound that with the fact that a question like that tucked into the middle of a straight-laced FAQ is prime social media linking fodder, and it’s actually a completely sensible fit for their positioning and audience.)
Questioning the supposedly “obvious”, digging into politically awkward topics, or suggesting unorthodox ideas – all of these are important tools in my creative toolbox because they all do something important – push into new territory for a client and help them to hook into untapped opportunity. Fresh territory and new opportunities are great fuel for the marketing engine, because they often mean a combination of standing out from others, finding spaces that are not crowded with competition, and putting fresh zip into the message by having new things to say. So you might want to consider that the best approach to reworking your communications might just be hiring an ignorant fool like myself.