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Question the Answers

Posted on June 15, 2012 and read 1,706 times

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pierno Question the AnswersAdam Pierno
Creative Director
Partners + Napier, Atlanta
Founder
Hunting the Spark

For fifteen years, I’ve sat in a quiet room with a copywriter, or a developer, or a planner or whoever had time and tried to invent solutions for clients’ problems. Usually in response to a brief, which gives us a sliver of the situation and context we’re working in. Invariably, this leads to a percentage of the ideas being “wrong” before they leave the room because of something we didn’t know about the client, the competition or the business environment. Nobody’s fault, but I’d put that percentage at about 20.

Creative people are smart. They want to create things, yes. But they really want to take problems apart and solve them. More and more often, there isn’t even a set expectation of what format the solution needs to take. I can’t think of a brief that I’ve worked on where some of the conversation wasn’t about the business problem itself. Not talking about ideas for how to communicate to the audience, or position the client’s product, but actually asking questions about the product. Where is it made? How will it be packaged? What’s the sales process like? What’s the margin? You want people to use it like this, but are we okay with it if they use it like this?

Early in my career as a junior, such questions received a patronizing head tilt by Account Execs. “Isn’t that adorable? He wants the client to think he understands their business,” and rarely merited an answer. On some occasions, questions like this annoyed and frustrated people. What I didn’t understand then was that the entire business of two companies couldn’t stop because the creative team had a question about the new steak sandwich. I’m sure deadlines make such questions seem more of a potential delay than a legitimate query. And sometimes they were actually passed on to the client and never returned. A lot of people want creatives to go away and come back with the answer, not come back with more questions. But the best solutions come from talking through those questions. So the best account folks, planners and clients are the rare few who welcome questions as an opportunity to find a new answer.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned: you’ll get a better reaction to questions if you give some answers of your own first.

Now that I interact more directly with clients, I try to ask the questions and honor the curiosity of teams in the agency. If I can’t get to the client, I try to find some other way to find out and get to the answer. I’m also not above taking a question and turning it into a potential add-on to an assignment. The client may not have asked us to solve this additional problem or even thought of it, but here’s a concept for how to address it.

Recently, we got a project with no brief. Just a quick overview at the end of a meeting with the client. “Here’s our situation. Here’s the problem we need you to help us solve. Here’s the due date. Take a day and let’s get together for a brainstorm.” It was a naming and positioning assignment and it was due in less than two weeks. It came in so fast, our clients hadn’t had a chance to think much about it, either. They were under pressure to deliver the answer.

We knew next to nothing and had dozens of questions, but knew we couldn’t get anywhere by coming in with a list of questions. Instead, we took a few hours to put together a framework for a brainstorm with the same group. We had eight sheets full of word and phrases around the product, the problem, the audience and two blanks. We debated how each word related to the problem, took notes and added new thoughts. We crossed out words that seemed off and made some progress.

After a few minutes, I asked the first question. “Do you think this is for our core audience? Or should we think about a new group or sub-group?” Silence. Then, a ten-minute discussion on the matter and a decision made in that room. Then another question, “Are there changes we should make to the product or sales process to make it more attractive to that group, then?” Another good discussion, then another.  And where we couldn’t make a definitive decision, we put together a list of ideas to recommend to the sales team.

We spent more than half the session trading questions and ideas about the product itself. About how to make it different and more marketable. About weaknesses we saw. About ways we thought customers might misunderstand or misuse the product. And together we shaped the product strategy and as a result figured out the direction of the name. We turned what was initially a rush-naming project into the framework for a presentation of a new product category. We got the answers we wanted, and the client got more than they had even been asked to deliver.

Don’t be afraid of those questions. If you get shut down, find someone who will hear you out. Just talking about the questions can offer new answers.

 






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