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September 8, 2015
No One Likes a Know-It-All
“I don’t have a clue what you should do.” 

Here was our biggest client, a Fortune 500 juggernaut, and the first question they asked as the meeting started was, “So, what do you think we should do?” Our CEO said, “I don’t have a clue what you should do.”

My art director partner shot me a quick glance, but I guess from the look of terror in my eyes, he realized that I didn’t know what our CEO was doing either. We had both worked together long enough that we had the exact same thought: “We are so screwed.”

A quick scan of the room told me no one else knew what he was thinking. I remember thinking to myself, “So, this is how an agency self-implodes. Interesting.”

I should have had more faith in our CEO. He let his answer hang in the air for a pregnant pause, and then he went all in on the question.

“How can I know what you should do when you requested this meeting to explain to us what is going on with your business? I will not presume or pretend that I know what your problems are without listening to you. That would be arrogant and foolish. It is your business. You live it every day. So I’m going to guess you know better than anyone else what is going on. I honestly don’t know what you should do because I don’t know what is wrong. None of us do. So, what’s going on?” he said, flashing a sly smile to us.


At that moment, the meeting was transformed into a frank and honest conversation.

Everyone seemed to drop the titles and pretenses. The client’s representatives talked to us about their business in a way I had only heard when I actually worked on the client side. They shared a picture of their business that was blunt and honest. Some of what they told us we had guessed, but we had no idea how bleak things were to them.

Through it all, my CEO kept asking them questions. He listened and pressed them about what they had just told us. He was willing to be the dumbest person in the room when he was actually the smartest. The rest of the agency team followed his lead – we asked question after question about everything they were sharing with us.

I learned so much during that meeting, and it had very little to do with the client’s business.

No one likes a know-it-all.

Let that marinate for a bit.

In this age of “gurus,” “subject matter experts,” “mavens,” “thought leaders,” “visionaries,” “innovators,” and any of the other titles we like to heap upon ourselves – still, no one likes a know-it-all.

Yet we claim to have all the answers, even before we know the question or the problem.

That is a huge mistake.

It’s okay to not know everything.

It’s all right to let someone else explain things to you. It does not diminish who you are to not have all the answers. Try impressing people with your humility and honesty.

Asking questions, requesting information, and needing clarification are not signs of weakness. They are an invitation for someone to share information with you. They invite people to open up and have a real conversation. Doing these things is proof of your humility; that you are listening. Lord knows we need to listen more.

There are those who will claim that they know their clients’ business better than the client.

“Bull excrement.”

That is a blatant lie. We can never know a client’s business better than they do, and we shouldn’t. Clients live their business 24/7, the same way we live ours — or we should. It is what they do.

Stop trying to know it all. You can’t.

Besides, knowing our clients’ businesses completely isn’t even our job. (Here is where a lot of people have lost their minds)

Our job in advertising is to know how to best reach and engage the people who our clients want to do business with. It is that simple and that complex.

We were never meant to be “know-it-alls.”

How does knowing the client’s business completely accomplish that? It doesn’t. If it did, wouldn’t the client’s people already be better at advertising than us? Yes. We have to know people better than most — where they view media, how and what they respond to.

Look. I understand that everyone wants, in some way or the other, to be the smartest, most creative person in the room. It is only human. We pretend it isn’t true, but come on; there’s a part in all of us screaming for everyone to see us.

But being a know-it-all isn’t the best way to do business.

Always having the answers intimidates people, suppresses the creative energy of a group, restricts the possible solutions to issues, and, most importantly, it pisses people off.

This doesn’t mean you have to “dumb things down” or hide your intelligence. Never do that. But please, think about how you share what you know. Are you inviting others to participate? Are you listening more than you are talking?

Yes, this is counter to what we are taught, and it seems like a fine distinction, but there is a difference between being a professional and being a know-it-all. There is a fine line that we have to be careful not to cross, and if we do, we have to find a way back.

It is a constant battle to appear knowledgeable but not know-it-all. There’s hope, though.

It starts with three simple, little words: “I don’t know.”

You don’t have to say it aloud, but speak it in your heart. Watch how it changes the way you interact with others. You’ll find yourself listening more, asking more detailed questions, and learning more. Those three little words will give others the permission to share with you things they may not have previously. You’ll be surprised what you don’t know, and that is a good thing.

But what do I know?

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Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising, out of the big city of Columbia, S.C. He is on Twitter as @dereklwalker
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