Cole Dalton
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Know What You Don’t Know

Last week on CNN’s “New Day”, Alisyn Camerota interviewed Aaron David Miller, former adviser to Democrat and Republican secretaries of state on the Middle East. He described this anecdote from early in his career:

In 1982, I’m a young analyst at the Department of State following Lebanon and the Palestinians. The phone rings. It’s the White House Sit Room — hold. So I’m holding and all of a sudden I hear the following.

“Aaron, this is Vice President George H.W. Bush on the phone. I read a memo that you wrote on Lebanon and I have a few questions. Do you have a few minutes?” And I’m thinking to myself do I have a few minutes? This is the Vice President of the United States. Bush 41 had a sense of curiosity. He knew what he didn’t know and he was in a hurry to find out… *

Mr. Miller was paraphrasing Confucius, who said, “True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.”  By adding the observation that “he was in a hurry to find out”, he took the insight to a whole new level.

Thinking You Know What You Need To Know

After college, I spent over 20 years working at a large traditional B2C consumer products company. Over the years, I learned how to differentiate myself by learning a little bit about almost everything.  It was the 2000’s and my personal interest in gadgets and technology led to a professional reputation as the guy in the marketing department who you could talk to about the next big thing, like Twitter or virtual reality.  When a vendor pitched a new tech related marketing idea to a brand, I got invited to the meetings.  I had a good sense of what ideas had promise, and what ideas were just solutions trying to find a problem.

I thought I knew all I needed to know.

Thinking Others Know More Than They Know

But the company I worked for was sold and the bosses at the company that bought us had their own people who knew about the next big thing.  Their people were from New York City and a lot of them were even “Millennial” so they must have know everything there is to know about everything.

So, I left that big company and started my own little company.  I would help old friends, classmates, and acquaintances in my hometown with marketing their businesses.  How hard could it be? I’d been responsible for millions of dollars in broadcast and digital marketing and worked with some of the biggest and best publishers and creative agencies in the world. Surely I knew enough to know how to help small businesses sell more stuff.

  • Need a website? Sure, I can help—I’ll just call this great agency I know up in Chicago. I know they can build it for us in six months for a few hundred thousand… What, get out of your office?
  • You want to make a hilarious YouTube video filled with inside jokes about your industry that will “go viral”? No problem, I’ll just write up a little creative brief and send it to this boutique agency I know in Minneapolis that does hilarious stuff… You have $5,000 for the whole project?
  • You want your company to show up on the first page of Google when people are searching for forklift repairs? Easy peasy, there is this great SEO outfit in Silicon Valley we worked with on a new product roll out…  What? Yeahhh, I’m not sure if they’ll take our phone call for $1,000 a month…

You get the idea.  That’s when I knew what I didn’t know, and I had to get into a big hurry to figure it out.

Know What You Don’t Know And Get In A Hurry to Find Out

Since then I’ve learned a lot. I now know the techniques and tactics for small to mid-size business marketing are a world apart from big national brands.  It’s not just the difference in the size of the budgets.  Smaller organizations need to narrow their audience by getting really focused about whom they are trying to reach (ideal prospect) and what they want to tell them (key differentiator).  Smaller marketers need to execute blocking and tackling with day-to-day marketing that is effective, without an expensive creative agency.

After I started Cole-Dalton Marketing Services, I realized how much I didn’t know. But after a lot of hard work, research, trial, error, learning, and humility, I know what I need to know to make a difference for my clients.

(But I’m still in a hurry to figure out the rest)

*You can find the full transcript of the “New Day” Interview here.