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March 19, 2009
Why Asking May Be the Answer
Clients come to agencies for answers—but we should question everything first

I recently read about 2 motorists who drove off a road and onto a snowmobile path. Their cars sunk in the snow and they needed to be rescued. So what happened? They simply followed the directions their GPS told them to follow.

Technology is making us smarter, quicker and more in touch with the rest of the world. It’s also making us dumber, lazier and more ignorant of our immediate surroundings.

If you work in an advertising agency, you’ll see evidence of this every day.

How many times have you read and accepted a creative brief unquestioningly? Does your agency treat focus group results or opinion poll statistics ask gospel? Do you believe what your clients tells you about the quality of their products or the health of their business?

It’s time to get a little skeptical—and a lot more inquisitive.

When I take on a new client, or a new assignment, I scour the Web for every related piece of information I can find—blog opinions, articles, customer reviews, news stories, PR releases and everything in between. However, I take it all with many, many grains of salt. I hope you do, too. I amass a body of knowledge, apply my own filters to all of it, then I get busy concepting.

A little intuition goes a long way. Take Wikipedia, for instance, which is truly great. I use it every day, and I’ve come to rely on it. But since it’s updated and edited by a mass of people, it’s also inaccurate in some cases. So how do you know whether the information you’re getting is right or wrong?

Just because something’s in writing, or appears to be the product of statistical analysis, doesn’t mean it can’t be questioned. Behind every piece of information you come across is a flawed source or a biased origin. TV networks will tell you commercials are effective. Direct mail gurus will tell you form letter sales pitches are effective. Everyone in the world has an agenda to push. And your co-workers or clients may be pushing a different one than yours when they declare their expertise on a topic.

It’s not easy to be a skeptic or a doubting Thomas. If you’re in a meeting, and you’re the one who raises an objection or a question, you’ll might be silenced or shouted down if you don’t stand strong. Don’t underestimate the power of groupthink to get in the way of reasonable doubts. The herd doesn’t like to be challenged when one member questions the direction they’re heading in.

We need to ask the right questions. And the tough questions. Not just of ourselves, but of our clients and others. It’s a bit ironic that just before the company imploded, Enron ran TV commercials with the tagline “Ask why.” But no one did until it was too late. Only then did people ask, “How?” Or, more appropriately, “What the fuck?”

Our economy is in a sad shape because not enough people did their due diligence and asked good questions. Perhaps that’s why the only person on television that seems to ask tough questions of influential people these days is Jon Stewart—and he’s a comedian.

In advertising, the answers to marketing challenges don’t often come easily. You have to dig, to prod, to challenge conventional wisdom. And the beautiful yet exasperating truth is that there are always many, many solutions to a marketing problem. So be wary of anyone in the ad business who tries to dismiss a probing, inquisitive mind. People who are afraid of challenging questions might have something to hide—like their own incompetence.

But be prepared for a letdown. Sometimes, even if you ask the tough questions, you have to accept and deal with the answers, no matter how illogical and nonsensical they are. Such is life. Especially in advertising, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense most of the time.

So ask the questions. It’s healthy for you, for your agency, and for the ad industry. Be the devil’s advocate. Be the type of person that doesn’t accept everything at face value. Be skeptical. You know, like consumers do when they see advertising. They’re skeptical, and we’ve given them every reason to be.

Am I right?


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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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