Thursday, November 11, 2010

A good question leads to inspired answers

When a response to a question is, "now, that's a good question!" chances are that's about all the answer you are likely to get. Asking a good question is not easy as it requires you to have a sound knowledge of adjacent narratives on the issue. To ask President Obama why he is unwilling to characterize Pakistan as a terrorist State, as the St Xavier's student in Mumbai did, suggests apriori knowledge that Obama had not as yet done so, as well as, why he had not done so as yet. Yes, to ask a good question you actually must already know the answer, not unlike professors asking questions of students in class. What you want is elaboration; additional insights. The purpose in asking the question was to make Obama "say" it, which he did in a sense though not outright, but through a justification of why Pakistan is in fact a terrorist State - internal problems and all that. In my line of business of marketing communications asking a good question is very important if we are to solve the right problem. And, that requires some homework and an investigator's mind. (See an earlier post on questions typically asked by the CIA to identify the problem and then put together a plan). Let's look at an example and a pattern that's rampant in our business in client-agency interactions to better understand the implications of not asking enough questions. To produce effective pieces of communication we need a good brief - the first step in the campaign process. A good brief is followed up by a productive brainstorming session to generate lots of ideas. The list of ideas is then pruned to workable ones - a judgement call, really - which is then fleshed out to validate its workability, converted into a proposal/presentation to get the client buy-in following which the plan is executed to meet the stated objectives. Often enough the problem is not even defined, instead an execution is suggested. Example: need copy for a T-shirt to be distributed to server salesmen to enthuse them to sell network computers (NC). Result: creative team works on lines for T-shirt with word play on server, network etc. Job done to brief. What is the real brief? Q. Why do the Server salesmen need to be enthused when it is their job to sell? A. The last time round when we demo'd the NCs with key accounts it completely flopped with the system refusing to boot up, creating all round embarrassment to the salesmen and the group with their clients. So, they are quite lukewarm about the idea. Q. That's understandable, so have there been substantial changes made in the revamped NC to more than compensate for the past? A. Yes, absolutely. We are very keen to do a demonstration for the sales guys to convince them that the problems have been nixed and we have a great product now. Here's the problem: they don't seem to be interested in attending the demo. Q. So, what you need is for server salesmen to calmly hear you out without pre-conception and attend a demo for which the guy from the region has come down? A. Absolutely right. And, we are willing to spare no expenses to achieve our aim. It has also become a prestige issue for the product group. Q. So, it is ok to propose something other than clever lines on T-shirt to address this internal customer motivation issue? A. Of course, that goes without saying ... Result: No T-shirt instead: a. Extension of three-day offsite to four-days to accommodate the recommended proposal b. Across the four days customized newspapers stories were printed and pasted on the actual newspaper of the day and slipped under the doors early in the morning to create curiosity and warm them up to the subject
c. The story was built around the opportunity for NCs and the collapse of the then reigning czar of software who everybody likes to hate - so it was an easy pitch d. The conference room on the fourth day was shroud in darkness as the audience entered and were shown to the seat by torchlight; when the lights came on they were looking at a stage with two actors dressed up as Mr Software Czar and his Lieutenant e. The skit was written and enacted with professional actors with the demo of the NC interspersed in the storyline which went off smashingly well Result: An ecstatic audience and the continuous ring of the leads chiming in as the sales guys went on overdrive. It was a win-win for all - the product manager, the salesmen, the group and company, and the agency which billed 400x on the original "give me a t-shirt line" budget. All because the real problem was identified with good questions to prompt a solution that served the purpose beyond all expectations.

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