Kevin Chesters: The joy of knowing fuck all

Kevin Chesters, is the partner/CSO of The Harbour Collective and former chief strategy officer of Ogilvy UK.

The joy in knowing fuck all

“The only true wisdom is to know that you know nothing” - Socrates (not the footballer).

Our natural human tendency, as evolutionary problem solvers, is to want to have all the answers. It is also tempting in a ‘service industry’ to want to be seen to have all the answers - for our clients - and to not ever admit that we don’t know or can’t do something.

It’s definitely not encouraged, especially in network agencies, to admit a knowledge or skill gap. In fact, quite the opposite. There is pressure in modern agencies to pretend that you can solve all client issues. Whatever the challenge, the agency will say they have the experience and skillset to solve it - before trying work out how the hell they are going to deliver.

It is seen as a sign of weakness to admit that your agency doesn’t have a certain skillset or capability that a client might need. In the current industry climate, it is also encouraged to never (ever) allow any revenue outside the tent whilst also trying to expand accounts across every single part of the agency offering - like some kind of Augustus Gloop at a scope-of-work buffet.

One thing that struck me while watching that documentary on the Fyre Festival, was that what they did didn’t seem that odd in the advertising industry. We are used to making huge (over)claims about the scale/scope of what we can do and then heading back to the ranch to work out how the hell we can possibly deliver on the outlandish promises made in the meeting/pitch/RFP.

No one can possibly know or do everything – individually, or as an agency/network. It’s simply not possible. The world of communications has just got too complicated. In his brilliant book, “Better”, Atul Gawande discussed this as the need in modern medicine for “pit-crews, not cowboys”. He was talking about the need for a set of experts to come together, Avengers-style, to solve problems that are just too complex for one person to be able to solve alone. This is the case in most modern marketing/brand challenges. The one-stop-shop sounds like a magical panacea to cost and convenience, but it is in my experience a total myth that asks clients to make far too many compromises on quality and specialist output.

My view is that it is the very opposite of a sign of a weakness to admit that you don’t have all the answers, to say that you don’t know, or will have to go and ask an expert in that area. I think only confident people admit what they can’t do and wouldn’t ever pretend to. I believe that if you want an expert opinion then you are better off asking an expert, not an over-enthusiastic generalist.

As an ex-client I can also say that it makes you look much more credible as an agency to admit what you’re good at and what you might need to partner with someone else to deliver (even if that revenue goes somewhere else). Over time any client will value the honesty and it’ll pay back in a stronger relationship. There is nothing more annoying in life than a bullshitter. They are obvious, odious and frankly dangerous to agency credibility (both internal and external).

Now, admitting you don’t know the answer certainly doesn’t come naturally to us Account Planners. We’re supposed to be the thinkers, the ‘clever department’. This was clearly brought home to me in the early part of my career when I shifted from being an account man to being a planner in the same agency. On the Friday I was being scolded for not buying the right biscuits for a client meeting, and then on Monday it was “what’s the answer, oh sage one?”

As planners we find it really hard to say, “you know what, this just isn’t my area, let me go and find someone better who can help you”.

I’ve have also discovered that it is not only a sign of strength to admit that you don’t know everything, but also incredibly liberating! Spending time with experts is really brilliant. It is exhilarating to watch someone who is really good at something you are not. It is really seductive to listen to someone talk enthusiastically about an area or sector that you know nothing about. It is really useful to know people who can add to your knowledge rather than just validate it. This is why I say that it is not just a real joy to discover what you don’t know, but it is also vital.

The best thing about going to the annual TED Conference is how thick it makes me feel. It’s great to sit for a week and listen to people who are ten times cleverer than you talk about stuff that you know nothing about. It takes your brain for a walk and makes you see things very differently.

At Harbour, over the last few months, I've been spending time with VR specialists, programmers, UX folk and eCRM/data experts. I’ve also spent time with people who make proper long-form content (rather than just writing slides about it at the end of a pitch deck). It’s brilliant, so interesting. It’s also a little embarrassing and humbling to realise how much of my career I have spent thinking I knew about stuff when I really didn’t. John Keats said “Nothing ever becomes real until it’s experienced.” I think that says it all when finding an expert.

The nice thing about being a consultant now, with access to specialist partners, is the ability to always be within arms-reach of a true expert. My advice is to find someone who does only that thing because they’ll know an awful lot about it because it is their life.

Give yourself the permission to feel a bit clueless occasionally. It’s fine to ‘not know’ or to have to ‘phone a friend’. It’s amazing how clever you can look when you admit you’re a bit stupid.

Kevin Chesters is the CSO of The Harbour Collective.

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