I saw a book of brain teasers on my old partner’s desk one time. I said, “I didn’t know you liked brain teasers.”
He said, “I don’t. Someone gave it to me for Christmas. I’ve got three f’ing ads due tomorrow. That’s my brain teaser. I’m so stressed, I almost screamed and jumped out the window when I opened that damn book.”
I can understand that. The last thing people need is more stress. And if puzzles and brain teasers stress you out, by all means avoid them.
But I like them. I’ve always liked them. I like the way they force you to look at a problem a different way. Like the one about connecting nine dots with four straight lines without lifting your pencil. When I was a kid, I was proud of myself for solving that one. I solved the chicken, the fox and the bag of corn one, too. So I’ve always prided myself on not thinking the solution has to fall within established boundaries.
But as proud of myself as I was for thinking outside the box in puzzle books, I didn’t realize how much I still had to learn about thinking outside the box in real life. I learned that from a guy named Tony.
This story goes back to high school. I was in DECA. I haven’t heard of DECA in decades, but they’re still around.
DECA stands for Distributive Education Clubs of America. It’s a marketing club, and it was my first introduction to retail and marketing. We ran the student store at my high school, and it was a lot of fun. Who knew they marked up licorice that much?
The highlight of my time in DECA was a trip up to a regional competition in Ventura, which is about an hour north of Los Angeles. A busload of us traveled up there (along with our advisors and chaperones, of course) from our hometown in San Diego County, and we had a blast. Laughing and singing on the bus, going out to dinner, hanging out in each others’ hotel rooms at night.
And then there was the competition. As I recall, there were different events every hour or so. All participants went to all the events. I thought I had a chance to do well, but my name wasn’t called that evening at the awards show, so I guess I didn’t. However, Tony’s name was called.
Tony was one of our team. He did well and is probably really successful somewhere today. (Yep, he is. I just Googled him.) Tony was definitely a step or two ahead of me in the thinking outside the box department. I know this, because we compared notes after the competition.
The hardest event of the day was this event where you sat at a table as if you were a receptionist, and you had a telephone and a notepad that you had to fill out when someone called. Name, time of day, message, that kind of thing. Someone at the other end of the room, facing the other way so you couldn’t read their lips, would call you and leave a message, and you were judged on how accurately you could take the message.
Boy, I was nervous. I’ve never been a good note-taker, and I don’t write particularly quickly. The phone rang, and I answered it, heart pounding, pen poised. “Hello, Whatever Company.” They gave us a fake company name. Sounded like a law firm or something.
The guy started talking, and I started taking notes as quickly as I could. Of course I don’t remember the message, but it was something like, “Hello, this is Mr. Douglas calling for Mr. Reeves. Please tell him I’ll meet him at the Posh Pheasant on the 13th at 7pm, and it’s located at 734487 Davis Drive, and if he can’t make the 13th, either the 15th or the 17th will work, but not until 8pm on the 15th, and 7:30 on the 17th. My number is 714-724-3452. Thank you.”
Holy cow. I was writing as fast as I could, but I knew there was no way I was going to get all that. I thanked him and hung up, trying to remember as much as I could, and at least trying to place sort of well in the competition. But man, it was tough.
At dinner that night, we were all talking about how hard that particular event was. Then we settled back for the awards show. For each event, they continued to not call my name. I think a couple members of our team won some things here and there, but then when they got to the Crazy Phone Message-Taker event, I was amazed to hear them call Tony’s name. He had won the hardest event at the place, out of hundreds of students! I’m going to make this story even better by telling you that he got 100% on the thing too, which I don’t remember at all, but it makes for a more dramatic story, and besides, it could be true.
So I cornered him afterwards, and I asked him how in the world he had managed to remember all that gibberish. And maybe you’ve already figured this out by yourself and you should join DECA and compete, but his answer blew me away. “I asked him to slow down and to please repeat himself.”
Whaaa? I was stunned. “I didn’t know you could do that!” Well, yeah, obviously. That’s why I’d been sitting there poking dejectedly at my raspberry chocolate cake while Tony was walking up there to collect his award. I mean, I was clapping for him and all, but you know what I mean.
That was the moment I realized that thinking outside the box and looking for solutions wasn’t just for puzzles in books. It was for real life. You could use that kind of thinking even in situations where someone tells you what the rules are.
In reality, they’re only telling you what they think the rules are. There are no rules. The only thing that counts is results. If someone tells you to take a message and you don’t write quickly, do what it takes to take the message accurately. If someone asks you to create a video for a budget far less than what it usually costs, you find a way to shoot that video, and with a great concept, too. Or someone else will.
In my biz, we question things all the time. We’re a nosy group, us ad folk. We try to find the reasons behind the job request, and make sure the strategy is sound. Maybe there’s a better solution than what’s being asked for.
The founder of a company called me up one time and said she needed a brochure. My first question was, “Why do you need a brochure?”
She said, “Well, I have these products, and…”
I politely interrupted. “I’m sorry, I meant, why do you think a brochure is the best solution? Why a brochure?”
I was trying to figure out what problem she thought a brochure would solve. She was blown away. And appreciative. She said people have always just done whatever she asks, and no one has ever asked her why. She said she needed someone like me, and asked me to come in for a meeting. Turned out, she didn’t have her foundation in place, and needed a lot more than a brochure.
It’s like that old riddle. How many art directors does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Does it have to be a light bulb?
Well, as long as we’ve ventured down this path, I may as well tell the other two riddles that go with it. How many account executives does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Just one?
And of course, how many copywriters does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: I ain’t changing a damn thing.
I kid, of course. I’m as flexible as they come. If a client doesn’t like something, fine. We’ll try something else. There’s always another solution.
Wouldn’t you agree, Tony?