Ducking and Diving

All of our careers are punctuated by what at the time seem like minor incidents but which we look back on as being representative of some larger principle.

I was once in a meeting with a major client, my agency team, and the client’s media auditor/consultant. It was a big deal meeting, lots of senior clients from both UK and USA. For some reason the discussion turned to the possibility of 60-seconds commercials as against what was for this client the more usual 30-seconds format.

The client turned to the consultant, and asked him for his view. The consultant (the guy is still around so I had better keep him anonymous) seemed to have no informed view, beyond using a lot of words before ending his remarks by saying: ‘there’s lots of research on this topic, which I’ve asked Brian to take you through.’

First, he had done no such thing, despite apparently having some advance knowledge that this issue was going to come up. Second, although I’m sure there is a pile of work on the general effectiveness of longer v shorter form commercials, I wasn’t able to call it to mind. Nor did I have any deck.

So given that, my options seemed to be: 1. Embarrass the consultant in front of his largest client (an approach which generally doesn’t end well); 2. Embarrass myself and my agency; or 3. Bullshit. I made something up that was at least directionally correct.

It seems to be alright to pretend to know everything about everything even when we don’t. Admittedly passing the buck like this guy did isn’t all that common (if he’d had any wit at all he could have made something up himself as opposed to making me do it). Even better he could have said: ‘The principles are a), b) and c); my immediate thoughts are d), e) and f) but let me review with the agency all the work that’s out there and come back to you’.

Asking for time to give a real answer is somehow seen to be a weakness.

As is admitting you don’t know everything about everything. The current topic of the moment is AI. I know very little about AI and its application to advertising. I know if I ask my Amazon Echo to ‘play music’ it somehow plays stuff I like, and I suppose on one level that’s AI in action but that is about the extent of what I know.

There are too many pretend experts – most are derided by those who are genuinely informed.

Pretend experts get caught out.

I once had to present some media planning principles to a client that for some long-forgotten reason included (on a chart) a complex algorithm. Being a smartass, even then, I said something like ‘I’m sure you really don’t want me to go through this level of detail’ only for the client to say: ‘actually I have a PHD in advanced statistics majoring on this very sort of work so I would like you to explain this and discuss it with me.’

Learn from me; it’s best to admit from the start you don’t know what you don’t know.

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