What Modern Marketers Can Learn From My Three Year-Old

Let’s get something clear right out of the gate: I am not suggesting in any way, shape, manner or form, that my three year-old is smarter than a marketer. Although, if I’m being honest, sometimes it seems like she’s got a leg up on some of them.

Including me.

As I’m writing this, she’s closer to her 4th birthday than her 3rd. Rather than take you on a trip down memory lane with irresistibly cute stories about the time she did such-and-such, I’m going to focus here on the one trait that got passed down from Mom and Dad that I’m the most grateful for.

No, I don’t mean her speaking voice. But I do have to admit that Mrs. Hedley and I revisit the conversation almost weekly about whether or not we should add our daughter’s voice to the official KNOPP Studios roster that is growing by leaps and bounds. She’s got one of the most compelling kid reads I’ve ever heard.

If you’ve been around toddlers and preschoolers for any length of time, you know there is one word that kind of defines those years for children. And I really do hope that for you, that word isn’t, “NO”. In our house, that word is, “why”.

I’m envious of children for a great many things. Back when I did stand-up comedy, I had an extended piece in my act about how the best age for a human to be, under normal circumstances, is about eight. There are so many things about that age that bring back great memories for me. The way we were finally old enough to go trick-or-treating alone, so as not to have our intensely terrifying Creature From The Swamp routine be sapped of its credibility by the non-terrifying Mom standing on the sidewalk. The summer vacation when all you needed for a full day’s entertainment was a pile of dirt and an admonition to come home when the streetlights came on. And how the cereal section at the grocery store could be every bit as exciting as a visit to Six Flags.

Three, though, still resonates because of that one word: Why. At three, you’re not afraid to ask why. In his Evening At The Met special – quite possibly the greatest stand-up special ever recorded, Robin Williams talked about his own three year-old:

They’ll ask you about everything. “Why is the sky blue?” “Well, because of the atmosphere.” “Why is there atmosphere?” “Well, because we need to breathe.” “Why do we — ” “WHY THE F#@% DO YOU WANT TO KNOW?!?! A YEAR AGO YOU WERE SITTING IN YOUR OWN S#!T, NOW YOU’RE CARL SAGAN?”

Robin Williams

One thing I’ve learned, though, is that there’s also such a thing as not asking “why” nearly enough.

We’re not all that far removed from Super Bowl Sunday or, as we’ve come to call it in our house, “Stay Away From The TV Sunday”. This year was one of the first in a long, long time that I chose not to participate in any of the analysis of a given year’s crop of Big Game advertising. For me, I’m having an increasingly difficult time understanding the reasoning that led to so many sponsors – and their agencies – only giving a rat’s ass about their advertising one day out of the year.

But let’s use that Sunday as an example of a day where my three year-old might make an important difference.

Imagine, if you will, a board meeting at a giant corporation where the head honchos have gleefully revealed they’re going to spend the seven million dollars it costs for a Super Bowl commercial. Well, at least that’s what the price tag for a thirty-second spot was in 2022. And by the way, that was just for the airtime. That doesn’t account for the cost of producing the commercial.

But back to our fictitious board meeting. The ad agency people do what agency people appear to do, and say to the assembled brain trust, “Okay, this is the only thirty seconds out of the entire year that we actually try to do our very best work, so we’re going to have Ryan Reynolds show up with Billie Eilish and the Old Spice Guy, and the three of them are going to run around for thirty seconds saying ‘Boogity Boogity Boo’ while they’re wearing T-shirts with our logo on them.”

Imagine how much better the crop of commercials would have been if someone in that meeting had taken a page from my three year-old’s coloring book and stopped to ask, “Why?”

And I’m not even talking about the whole Ryan Reynolds / Biliie Eilish / Old Spice guy thing, or the ‘Boogity Boogity Boo’. I mean, am I the only one who remembers “WHAZZAP”?

Someone could have reshaped the entire landscape by asking that simple question the moment the muckity-mucks said they were going to buy time on the Super Bowl.

“Hey, we’re going to spend seven million dollars on airtime for a Super Bowl commercial.”


Not because the seven million dollars aren’t worth it. I’m sure that for some advertiser, the investment was easy to justify.

But sometimes, it becomes obvious that the reason a marketer has done something is because that’s what the conventional wisdom of the moment has said they should do.

Put an ad in the Yellow Pages. Why? Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Spend a bunch of money on SEO. Why? Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Pay an influencer to do Instagram shots where they’re using your product and pretending they discovered it all on their own. Why? Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

Think about whatever project you’re in the middle of right now, and throw the word, “Why” into the step you’re working on today. And seriously search out the answer, don’t just default to, “Because I’ll get fired if I don’t.” Have an actual answer to the question “Why” for every step. And feel free to get as granular as Robin Williams’ son did. As soon you get to something where you don’t have a clear, compelling, well-founded answer, rethink what you’re doing.

Here’s a quick list of times I’ve asked “Why” recently, that stopped an element of a project dead in its tracks.

  • Why hire this model for the ad instead of that one?
  • Why should we start a podcast?
  • Why are we investing in SEO?
  • Why are we using that piece of music in the background of that commercial? (Or, a personal favorite… Why did you reject the piece of music we chose for you?)

Every single one of those is a perfectly valid question.

Look at the podcast question, for example. More times than my accountant would be pleased to hear about, I’ve responded to someone saying, “I want to start a podcast” with the question, “Why?” And that’s an important question to have the answer to, because different answers dictate different paths forward. If your answer is, “Because I want to quit my day job,” we need to have a very different talk than if your answer is, “Because I want to gradually establish myself as an expert in my field.” And a very different talk again if your answer is, “Because all my competitors are doing it.”

Or the music question. If you’re using KNOPP Studios to produce your radio commercial and you send me a note back saying, “I don’t like the background music,” be prepared for a reply from me that asks, “Why?” Not because I’m being a jerk, but because experience led me to pick the music I sent you for a specific reason. And if I’m going to get rid of that music and use something else, I need to know why. Mind you, if I just grabbed a piece of music and threw it in there without having a specific reason why I chose that specific track, it would be fair to ask why there’s music in the commercial to begin with.

If you’re watching a cop show on television and the camera focuses on a person who bumps into the main character on the sidewalk, you’d better believe that you’re going to see that person again later in the show. How do I know? Because airtime is expensive (just ask the Super Bowl people). And there’s no reason to write anything into the show that doesn’t serve a specific purpose. If it has no purpose, get rid of it.

The courage to ask why allows you to understand the clearly-defined reason you’re doing some of the things you’re doing. Because autopilot might be very effective on a Trans-Atlantic flight. But it’s a terrible way to win on Super Bowl Sunday.

Even my three year-old knows that.

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