The Why is Why

This week I'm preparing responses to two RFPs (requests for proposals) for similar but unrelated organizations. One RFP is 46 pages; the other is just two pages. One client says too much; one says not enough, both about the wrong things entirely. Both will result in pages and pages of questions back to the client because we didn't get the right information.

This might seem obvious when you read it, but read it anyway because it's my blog post:

It doesn't matter how much you talk; it matters what you say.

The idea isn't new. It isn't something you'll bookmark and read over and over again, but it applies to more than just clients. I'm as guilty as, or more guilty than, most of you reading this. I talk a lot. Sometimes I wonder how little I'm actually saying. So today's post is a character-builder for you and for me.

Erick Worrell with his friend

We all seem to be great at at least two things and terrible at at least one:

  • We're quite capable of telling people how important and busy we are.
  • We're happy to outline, in at least some detail, our demands and expectations.
  • We're all sufficiently awful at explaining why any of it matters.

Why, as you might expect, matters a lot. But when you hear another agency ask you why, it's probably an afterthought, or worse, something they only ask about their work. Why did it succeed, or why not? Like in any relationship, a little less about us and a little more about you is probably key. But why doesn't get the attention it deserves at most agencies. Why slows people down. Why complicates the pitch. Why opens up more to discuss, more to consider, more to review and more to criticize. Why costs you money. It's a nuisance. It's in the way. It's why your experiences with most agencies begin with those reliable, basic first-date discovery questions: Who's the audience? What's the project? When do they need it? Where do we deliver it? How much can they spend?

But why changes everything, and at STAPLEGUN we spend a lot of time on it. It's not only the most important question to ask our clients and ourselves, again and again, but it's also the most interesting part of the whole thing. I've never understood the industry's aversion to the question. It's significantly less interesting to stop the conversation at "Oh, so you want a video? Absolutely, we can do video!" when one could ask, "Why do you want a video?" And yet, for all the aforementioned reasons, agencies don't usually ask it at all or enough.

Who and what are things we could read on a website, a Facebook page, a LinkedIn bio. Where and when belong on your calendar. How is something we should work out together. But why? Why is what happens over a dinner date, during an argument, at halftime when you're ahead but just slightly. It's the juicy stuff. It's the meaning. It's how you get from a first date to a real relationship.

Why tells us the client wants a video because we have six weeks to spend the grant money, or it's gone; because we're new and need to build awareness; because our stakeholders need to see our name during the Thunder game, or they'll think we're less valuable than our competitors. Sometimes the answer is as simple as the boss wants to be on TV, so we need to put her on TV. That's good stuff. Our decisions about strategy and creative pivot based on those answers.

Here's an example of the why affecting us as a business, too. Seth Mueller (one of the sharpest creative minds I know) and I are both writers. I am the more verbose and less interesting writer between us (this post is Exhibit A), but with just that fact on paper, we might appear the same: writer A and writer B. The trait might put us in the same department, splitting workload and responsibilities evenly. But ask us why we're writers, and you get very different answers:

Seth: I'm not much of a performer, but I've gotten pretty good at writing things that people want to read. It started with terrible jokes as a kid and turned into a passion for comedy and advertising. In college my love for language kicked into hyperdrive, and now I have a useless linguistics degree. I’d be bored if I weren’t spending my days brainstorming, finding the perfect phrasing and writing cringe-worthy puns that 4-year-old me would find delightful. I can't believe I get paid for this.

Me: Somewhere in my attic, there are VHS tapes of “The Erick Show,” where 6-year-old me interviews my pets, introduces records, bangs out drum solos and strums guitars. I always wanted to be in front of people. I love informing and performing for an audience; I love the moment when an idea clicks. I think and write quickly; most of what I say or publish is a first draft (sometimes to my detriment). Give me a microphone or a pen or a keyboard, yell action, and I’ll do it.

Erick Worrell in a conference room

We're both writers, but why led us down different paths, built different skillsets and gave us different trajectories. It means the kind of writing we do is fundamentally different because we were built on different foundations, fueled by different ambitions.

If you're an employer, why helps you play to people's strengths. If you're a colleague, why helps you understand whom to seek for empathy and whom to seek for action. If you're a client, why gives you diverse perspectives and motives, along with fresh ideas and healthy skepticism.

Why is what we get paid for.

  • If you're working with an agency that doesn't ask it, find another agency.
  • If you're working at an agency that doesn't ask it, get the hell out of there, or change the culture yourself.

Why is what makes this job fulfilling, what makes our relationships long-lasting, what makes our creative exceptional and our strategy so spot-on. It's the question we ask because you probably hadn't thought about it before; it's the word we hit over and over to make sure we really know what we should be doing. And at STAPLEGUN, we're really good at the why. It's why we come to work every day, why we love problem-solving, why you'll get to know so many of us by name. It's why our questions are so annoyingly thorough, and why we have a more diverse and versatile portfolio of active clients and award-winning work than our competitors. It's why we sustain. It's why we grow. It's why businesses and organizations from all over the country, and 46 employees, chose STAPLEGUN. The why is why.