The Importance of Being Earnest Ignorant

I come prepared to a client meeting.
I’ve read their marketing reports.
I’ve read trade literature.
Checked the Web and made calls.

And culled our swipe library — 52 black looseleaf volumes, relentlessly jammed, over decades, by topic, with materials harvested from articles, mail, newspaper and magazine ads and editorial layout and typography, and in which I can research anything relevant to that meeting — ads, direct mail, marketing, signage, retail lore, corporate naming, and so on.

That’s for a project.

We all want to appear knowledgeable or at least not stupid. Professional. Prepared. Duly diligent.

In the Mad Men era, when the great adman George Lois was prepping for a major meeting with an airline prospect, according to legend — he shanghaied his NY staff at dawn. Tested them on their homework — memorizing the airline’s flight departure sked.

When the client showed a few hours later, George and his crew knew those timetables cold. His creativity was way out (Andy Warhol meets Sonny Liston). But backed by solid business considerations. Who could refuse!

(By the way, for an Art Direction magazine cover, designer and agency owner Harry Jacobs quoted George: “Don’t make speeches about doing good work. Just do it!” Nike didn’t say it first. I still own a copy as proof. I can probably find it if you press me to look, probably in one of those looseleafs in the Editorial category.)

That’s for a major project. Knowledge.

What if you're a small design firm or freelancer on a go–see to a new prospect a lot smaller than a major airline? No marketing experts are down the hall to fill you in. You can’t just hustle up info on every little small-chance prospect and their industries or you don’t get any work done. So like a good creative pro, you use the problem as a solution.

What are your choices?
Here are your choices.
Your choices are:
1.    Fake it. Or;
2.    Wing it.
If you try to fake it and you’re off-base or a smart-aleck or a phony or humorless or just plain lame at selling, you are dead, man, a dead man, outta there, gone. Faking it is not an option unless you’re sure you’re dealing with an idiot who can be conned and that’s your A–game.

Fake it badly and yer dun fer.
Which leaves:

2.    Wing it.
Here’s how.

Use common sense. Life experience. Ask questions. Be spontaneously creative like a stand-up comic. Be inventive and change key signatures like a jazz musician (you are singing, right?). Keep dialogue flowing. As a collaboration. Make suggestions, not decisions. Be cool, man. Dance. If you must wear a tie, be sure it's knotted to the top button.

Get the two of you used to thinking together, working together, solving problems together. If they offer coffee, walk with them to the coffeepot.

The wing-it upgrade

But what if it’s too hot a prospect to just casually wing it?

I switch on my packrat button and there it is. Data. Ideas. Insights. Suddenly, wherever I turn, TV, billboard, that day’s mail, today's paper, waiting room, or sticking to the soles of my sandals, there is information on

Keep your mind loose, jot ideas down the second they come (no one remembers an idea in its initial powerful form — write it down now). You’ll have tons of material! Memorize it? I think working off notes looks professional and organized. And it tempers the impression of excess enthusiasm.

There’s more to it.

The importance of being ignorant

Knowledge was crucial with George Lois’ big airline prospect.
Ignorance can be just as useful.

Because when you’re ignorant of the details of an industry or prospect, you’re free to think outside the box. Heck, when you’re ignorant, you don’t even know what the darn box is.

A lot of knowledge can close doors.
Doors to taboos and to dead ideas that may need resurrection.
A little knowledge can open doors.
Doors of forgotten opportunities and new combinations.
Doors where free (ignorant?) creative minds go
when exhausted executive minds draw blanks.

You have to present your thoughts well: No credibility, no dice. Kapeesh?
Example (disguised): I approached a prospect about whose business I knew little.
I was ignorant.

A natural history museum focusing on exhibits for kids. Income, exhibits, exterior, parking, rep had all suffered, and they had brought in a politically–connected money hombre for a financial turnaround.

What do I know?

Not much about exhibits, but I do have all those black looseleaf reference books.
Not much about architecture, but I studied it at Cooper Union.
Not much about fundraising, but I’ve done it for animal welfare and direct response

I realized that this prospect would focus on the superficial, redesign of their exterior — a mistake, and one I informed them would cost more than all the other more important marketing and exhibit materials put together. They appeared to prefer surface over substance — fat cats adressing fat–cat donors and ignoring customers. That means—

They might end up hiring
(1) an exterior architect,
(2) an interior designer,
(3) an exhibit house,
(4) an ad agency,
(5) a signage specialist,
(6) a public-relations firm,
(7) a logo designer or letterer or corporate branding firm, and
(8) a technical writer to add to their
(9–11) three internal creative and marketing people.
Recipe for disaster!

Design matador to the rescue

I asked how they'd coordinate all those disciplines and ideologies so they don’t end up with ten great ideas and no single cohesive direction. (I cover this at the end of my branding article right here.)

I figured they’d hire a big local ad agency on the theory of, Cover your butt. Which would wipe them out. They did. It did.

I asked them to judge our potential with the two following ideas, the residue of my packrat learning process.
1.    Since the museum is for kids, it’s also for parents. There are lots of single parents around looking to meet other responsible (and available) single parents. So have income–generating parties for parents. As a designer I could not resist two words that have six of seven characters in common and, set artfully, would square up:


2.    I suggested they or Daddy Desktop rewrite the wall placards so a parent could quickly digest the info to explain it to a child. I also suggested they tell the human story of each scientific phenomenon. Kids love stories. And keep it short.

But I’m ignorant.
I sold nothing.
The museum died.

The importance of ignorance is that it will lead to a better focus on what the real problem really is.

Because for a creative person in marketing communication,
defining or redefining the problem for the client
is often the most daring and useful task of all.

That, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, is,
The Importance of Being Ignorant.
We are probably ignorant of your situation so please give us a call.