Starting dumb is a powerful approach that sets the foundation for success.

It involves questioning assumptions and thoroughly understanding the information at hand. By taking the time to gather all necessary information and ensuring its reliability, one can develop a strong plan to tackle challenges. As an agency, starting dumb is an advantage as external partners can challenge accepted industry norms and bring fresh perspectives. Many failures in innovation stem from a lack of thoroughness in identifying customer needs. Often, people are too quick to make assumptions and jump into execution without proper discovery. Spending ample time in the discovery phase and understanding consumers, the company, and competitors leads to valuable insights that drive transformation and growth. 

This is the fourth article in our Challenger Marketing series you can find article three, ‘Building Trust with C Suite’ here.

Starting dumb is a superpower. So many times whenever we have made assumptions or take information at face value, we end up regretting it. That’s why we underline this part of our process as the most important to get right, because if you get it wrong, everything else is a complete waste of time. 

Starting dumb means taking the time to find and understand all of the information we need to make a complete and confident plan for how we are going to address the problem or challenge in front of us. It also means not taking as fact the information or research presented to us. Instead, we take the time to question and to make sure it’s robust, real and can be relied upon, we need to ensure any plans we develop are built on top of a strong foundation of real understanding.

As an agency 'starting dumb' is an advantage because unlike our clients we bring knowledge and expertise from multiple categories and situations to the discovery. As external partners, we also have the ability to question or challenge things that clients may have accepted as an ‘industry truth’ when in reality they were just unchallenged assumptions. In contrast we see things through a different lens because of our different knowledge and experience. 'Starting dumb' helps us uncover new ways to solve the problems holding the business back. 

This is a systemic problem

There was a study done by Robert G Cooper, ‘Winning at New Products’(1), and in this study of 2000 creative/innovation projects, the biggest failure was a lack of thoroughness in identifying the real customer and market needs. The study notes that we only spend 7% of our innovation investment in discovery, while 37% is in development and the balance 56% on execution. I don’t know about you but this split doesn’t feel right.

It seems we are pre-wired for action. Nathan Baird, author of ‘The Innovator's Playbook’(2), says people are too quick to make assumptions in order to justify their ideas and projects. Often we come up with an interesting idea that we’re excited about, and then we only see the information that justifies that course of action. 

While this feels good to do – we’re moving forward, getting things done – often this premature jump into execution costs us both time and money over the longer term. Either because we didn’t spend the time to discover the real problems or we didn’t uncover better options that were right in front of us. 

While it often feels like an indulgence, you need to spend an uncomfortable amount of time in discovery. Stay there, interview, investigate, uncover. Only when you have exhaustively researched your customers, the competition and the company, only when you have all the data, should you move on to starting to make sense of it all. 

So what could go wrong?

"Confession time. As you may or may not know, I spent a lot of my formative marketing years at Air New Zealand. It was a wonderful time, great people, great projects and l learned a lot. After almost 10 years, I left Air NZ and moved to a small BioTech company that produced fertility drugs for cows. Quite a big change! There were a lot of things they weren’t doing well, the branding was a mess, packaging terrible, the website needed to be updated, sales material and conference booth designed. It was clear to me what needed to be done, we did a lot of work, it felt good. Until the business got into real trouble. 

The reality was none of my marketing efforts were making a difference, because they couldn’t source enough raw materials to keep up with demand. So no matter what improvements I made to the brand and to demand, they sold out every month. In hindsight, we could have saved the hundreds of thousands I spent on marketing and instead focused on the key ingredient suppliers to understand how to increase supply. The biggest problem wasn’t the marketing, it was supply, and until they solved that the business couldn’t grow. This should have been the focus first."


The Discovery Process

There isn’t anything secret about the discovery process. The trick is to spend the time and be curious about the industry and the customers. In the discovery phase, you really want to uncover everything you can about the consumers, the company and your competitors. If you understand those three areas, you will be in a great place to make solid plans on what needs to happen to transform and grow the business.


Your objective is to understand the market and clarify the segment you are going to target. And then your priority should be to really, deeply, truly understand what drives these consumers. You need to understand what makes them tick, what drives their behaviour and decision-making. Understand their needs, both functional and emotional. 

Functional is more easy to see and uncover. Often you can understand the functional needs by being the customer, going through the purchase process yourself, or by being beside the customer while they go through the process and asking them questions. 

Once you understand the functional needs, you then need to dig deeper. By asking why, you can explore the consumer’s thinking and start getting pretty close to understanding the emotional need. Ask “why is that important?” and keep questioning until you get to the truth. 

A sound understanding of the consumer’s functional and emotional needs will give us the opportunity to uncover real insights for each group of consumers that we are looking to serve as a brand. You can develop insights for each part of the consumer’s journey and use these to shape your communications and experiences to drive them to the next stage.

Our Strategy Director, Ryan Sproull, calls an insight ‘an under-examined truth which reveals new creative or effective possibilities’.

This is what we are looking for in discovery: new interesting, surprising insights. And by starting dumb, having no preconceptions, and testing before accepting any prior research, we leave ourselves open and receptive to uncovering deep consumer insights that can guide our work. 

Company and Competition

Once we have clear consumer insights, the other discovery work of understanding the company and competitors is relatively straight-forward. How do we meet those needs? How do others? The completion of discovery into all three of these areas prepares the ground to develop brand strategy, positioning and the platform-development work that all the marketing and communications work going forward will be built on. 

Discovery topics




  • Segmentation
  • Target defined
  • Consumer understanding
    • Functional Needs
    • Emotional Needs
    • Insights
  • Journey map - buying process
  • Annual Goals
  • Understand company core ambitions, fight, vision, values
  • Defined Brand Strategy
  • Brand strength - awareness/ consideration
  • Issues/ Opportunities
  • Current market activity
  • Strategy/ positioning
  • Identify best practice competitors
  • Find global/ non category insights.


Moving Forward 

To complete this starting dumb phase and move forward we often organise our findings into ‘key findings and issues’ to show and document where we are right now. From this, it is often useful to make a prioritised list of the key issues that need to be addressed.

A nice way to do this is to give everyone three votes on what issues should be tackled first. Often, as marketers, we try to do too many things and then fail to deliver. So prioritise and then only take on 2-3 major projects as a team and never more than 2 things individually, per quarter. Of course, this depends on how big and well resourced you are, but the general rule applies – focus on fewer important things and get them done.

With a clear list of priorities, it’s just a matter of scheduling the key projects that need to be delivered over the next year. While it can be a lot of work, going through a robust discovery process and ‘starting dumb’ allows you to attack these projects with confidence, knowing this is what you really need to focus on to make a real difference. 


(1) Robert G Cooper, 2011, Winning at New Products: Creating Value Through Innovation
(2) Nathan Baird, 2020, Innovator's Playbook: How to Create Great Products, Services and Experiences that Your Customers Will Love