Why agencies should look beyond the obvious when solving cryptic client needs

Rory Sutherland explains how crosswords and marketing have more in common than you might think

Once a week in term time I used to go to visit my grandmother after school. Well into her eighties, she would complete The Times Crossword every day. In time, I learned to solve a few clues myself. Now, 40 years on, I am still not as good as she was - but I am still grateful for having learned. For one thing, knowing how to solve cryptic crosswords means that you are never bored on a flight or a train ride. 

But what on earth has this got to do with marketing?

Well, in case you don’t know, a cryptic crossword clue must contain everything you need to come to an answer, but the ostensible 'surface' meaning of the clue, at least at first glance, may have no evident connection with the correct answer. In fact the best clues are cunningly designed to mislead you.

(In this respect, crosswords have something in common with the best detective fiction. In reading a good detective story, you learn to be afraid of the obvious. The author is forever laying down traps to cause you to suspect one person or another, while you must resist the temptation to pin the blame on the most likely culprit.)

Let’s take a couple of cryptic crossword clues.

Challenging sweetheart heartlessly (6)

Does, perhaps, rush around (4).

The respective answers are “Daring” and “Deer”.

What the hell? If you have never come across the conventions of cryptic crosswords, both answers seem arbitrary, even insane. The simple crossword clues for these two word would read something like 'Courageous (6)' and 'Sylvan ruminant (4)'.

But let me explain. In the first example, 'challenging' is actually the homonym. It means 'daring'. The cryptic part of the clue is 'Sweetheart heartlessly'. Darling, a word for sweetheart, without its 'heart' or central letter 'l' spells Daring. The trick is to spot that 'challenging' here is being used as an adjective when it looks like a verb.

In the second case, the deceit is even harder to spot. Long experience teaches us to read 'does' as a form of the verb 'to do'. Here, however it is the plural of 'doe' a word for a female deer. 'Rush' is not a verb either. It is also a noun. A 'rush' is a 'reed' (think bullrushes). Reed 'around', i.e. spelled backwards, is deer.

And this is why solving cryptic crosswords (and reading detective stories) is useful practice for a marketer. It rewards you for avoiding the obvious assumption - and teaches you actively to search out the real truth lying below the surface.

Because, like a crossword clue, most human behaviour is formed of two parts. There is the obvious, 'officially approved' rational reading: then there is also the 'real' answer lurking underneath. In B2B marketing, this divide is often more pronounced than in consumer marketing, because business decision-makers need to maintain the pretence of rationality more assiduously than consumers, who are allowed to be irrational from time to time.

"Like a crossword clue, most human behaviour is formed of two parts. There is the obvious, 'officially approved' rational reading: then there is also the 'real' answer lurking underneath"

What this means is that a good agency’s most valuable characteristic - it’s fear of the obvious - can also be its most annoying and unnerving feature to a client company. In client world, following the obvious, “surface” explanation is the safest career path: the route which requires the least justification, and the one with the lowest risk of censure in the event of failure.

The result is that any useful insight into how people really think, decide and act will often feel risky, gratuitous and er, annoyingly cryptic. This is why even good agencies risk looking like idiots when delving into the real motivations of a client’s customers. How can we solve this?

Well, as you’d expect, I believe a better understanding of behavioural science can help to bridge this gap. But ultimately there is really only one way to prove that you truly understand a client’s customers: Difficult trainee, extremely smart (7).*

* Testing. Trainee extremely is T(raine)e, ie TE, SMART=STING. This time smart is a verb not an adjective.

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