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Embracing the Unknown

Posted on January 3, 2012 and read 5,091 times

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simonbio Embracing the UnknownSimon Neate-Stidson
Senior Strategy Director
Blast Radius, Amsterdam

I once presented a chart to a client many years ago that unintentionally scared the hell out of him. It was based on a speech that you may be familiar with, about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq by the then US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. My chart had three concentric circles. Inside the smallest circle was written ‘What we know,’ inside the next largest was written ‘What we know that we don’t know,’ and inside the outer circle was written ‘What we don’t know that we don’t know.’ This particular client didn’t really appreciate my honest suggestion that, despite our best intentions, we can only depend on so much for the long-term plan we were proposing. He wanted it all figured out, a guaranteed roadmap that he could show to his boss.

But life’s not like that. Early in my adulthood, something happened to make me realize that long-term plans can be over-assumptive and ultimately meaningless when the unexpected comes along and hits you broadside.

We live in a world of futurologists, trend forecasters, ad pre-testing and predictive product tests, often claiming to give clients the insight on the future. They’re often used, of course, not to seek genuine insight, but merely so that clients can cover their ass to their boss if things don’t go as well as planned.  “But we did our research…”

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying seeking knowledge is a bad thing. Quite the opposite. I think the best planners are constantly curious and soak up interesting things like a sponge. Knowing the inside track on your audience, your product, your brand, your competition… these are obviously critical in developing any strategy. But there’s a difference between knowing things about the now and using them to know and plan as much as you can for the future. Focus your knowledge-seeking on the former, and don’t fret about the latter.

In developing a strategy and a creative brief, I take great pleasure from not knowing exactly where it’s going. I love not knowing what the solution is going to be when first briefed by a client. If the answer’s immediately obvious to me, that in fact makes me doubt it. The challenge of not knowing where the answer’s going to come from makes it more rewarding when a great strategy does eventually come.

Similarly, the eventual creative solution of the briefing itself is also best unknown. I always like to think of a potential solution, just to evaluate if the brief is actually executable. And I’m sure you’ve all had clients who have a certain (often dubious) execution in mind (“Now I know I’m not a creative but….”). But there’s great excitement in briefing something you know to be really sharp yet still creatively rich, not knowing what’s coming out of it, and when your first internal review comes round, being genuinely blown away by ideas you would never have anticipated.

As head of strategy in a digitally-led agency, I also love the fact that technology is full of unknowns. The industry thrives on innovation and we like to think we have our fingers on the pulse, but of course we don’t know everything that’s possible or even imminent. Surely that’s half the fun, though? I have only vague notions of the amazing possibilities of what we’ll be able to do for our clients in a year or two’s time. But that makes for an exciting future, not a predictable one.

In venturing into the unknown, I also think that planners should not be so rigid on whether the ideas are exactly ‘on brief.’ It’s important to agree on what you need to achieve and why, but it can be rewarding to be a bit flexible on the ‘how’ that is often the meat of the brief. When all you have on the table is the brief, it takes guts to see ideas that feel quite different to what you were anticipating and still agree to explore them.  One classic example of this is involving clients in the infamous ‘tissue session.’  It’s infuriating to see a creative territory killed in its exploratory stage because a client can’t see its potential. The best idea within that area may be around the corner. I’d suggest only inviting clients to these if said client can accept this way of embracing the unknown.

It is, of course, nice to have some security in the future.  If I flick a light switch, I assume the light will come on. Thinking a bit more long-term, if you think you’ve found a partner ‘for life,’ it’s reassuring to know you both want to be together forever. However, not knowing what will happen doesn’t mean you can’t make plans. Knowing you’ll be able to adapt to the unknown future is what makes it exciting.

Having recently spent many years as a freelance planner, I realized that once you’ve been in thrown into the deep end in a few different situations, with different agencies, and briefs with very different challenges, you find you can not only cope with whatever surprises come your way, you can in fact thrive on the unpredictability of it.

The point is not whether you know all the details of where you’re going and exactly how you’re going to get there. It’s about having a clear vision, enjoying the journey, adapting as you go and making a success out of it.  Not fearing the unknown but embracing it is what makes this job, and this life, interesting. I wouldn’t have it any other way.




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