When Admitting What You Don’t Know Is Your Key to Success

We’re all familiar with the adage, knowledge is power. But how true is it?

Consider that when those words were first written, common medical knowledge held that bloodletting was de rigueur, stomach-aches were caused by tiny demons living inside brussels sprouts and witchcraft was to blame for everything from the plague to venereal disease.

These things were accepted as fact until the scientific method came along and proved them very wrong. With this in mind, a better, though admittedly less catchy dictum is: Knowledge is only as powerful as our ability to test and verify it.

As a marketer, you would do well to keep this slightly altered adage in mind. However, this can be hard to do as your livelihood is based on the assumption that you know exactly what kind of activation or campaign will help the brands you work with reach their goals. Admitting that we don’t always know what will work best is a great posture to learn what will.

You don’t know what you don’t know

I recently encountered the power of this idea when discussing an upcoming campaign with a new client who wanted me to share a recommendation on what digital creative strategy I thought would drive a desired outcome.

I could’ve jumped in with specific recommendations showing off all of the cool capabilities we could bring to the table from AR to DCO to shoppable video etc.  And while any one of these might have gotten the client excited and delivered performance against their KPIs, did I really know which strategy would be best for this account?

The reality is, no, I didn’t.

So, I took a deep breath and said, “You know, if I’m being honest, I have no idea.”

The room fell silent.  The account executive shot me a look that was equal parts horror, disgust and contempt.

Then I added that I could make a recommendation based on benchmarks, and that might be a good place to start, but there’s only one way to know what will work best. It was by picking a simple assumption, testing it and then building from there.

What ensued was a lively, impromptu workshop in which we converged on a simple hypothesis and designed an iterative methodology to rapidly test it in a live campaign.  In fact, we came up with a whole slew of other questions that would form a basis for future testing, allowing us to further refine the strategies over time.

By admitting we didn’t know what would work from the outset we set the client up for success.  We built trust. Most importantly admitting ignorance focused all of us on establishing verifiable knowledge that would really move the needle for the brand.

In the end it worked. I’m happy to report that this client, like many others, is now using an ongoing creative testing methodology that we co-created and seeing growing performance gains on their campaigns.

I feel certain that we would not have been successful if we had claimed we already had the answers.

Today we have more information and data than we know what to do with.  As such we often fail to design specific ways of using that data to validate or invalidate our assumptions.  Instead, we fall into lazy habits and rely on so-called best practices or the “shiny and new” rather than using the tools at our disposal to build real knowledge that can make us better marketers.

While Francis Bacon’s famous maxim that knowledge is power still holds, truly powerful knowledge is only gained when we humbly admit that we don’t know s***.