Used properly, the Socratic method is especially useful at briefing stage.
The method is to state a position, question the position by stating an exception, arrive at a new position, then repeat, until eventually we reach a point which Socrates calls ‘aporia’, or opening our mind to new possibilities.
There’s a good example of this on a website called Practicable, they use Quentin Tarrantino’s Pulp Fiction.
It begins with Jules saying Marcellus Wallace overreacted when he threw Antoine Roccamorra out the window for giving his wife a foot rub.
Vincent Vega disagrees: “I hafta say, play with matches, ya get burned. You don’t be giving Marsellus Wallace’s new bride a foot massage. Antoine probably didn’t expect Marsellus to react like he did, but he had to expect a reaction.”
Jules: “It was just a foot massage, a foot massage is nothing.”
(Jules stated a position. Vincent Vega then states a contradiction.)
Vincent: “It’s laying hands on Marcellus Wallace’s new wife in a familiar way. Is it as bad as eating her out – no, but you’re in the same fuckin’ ballpark.”
(Jules then rejects Vincent’s exception.)
Jules: “Stop right there. Eatin’ a bitch out and givin’ a bitch a foot massage ain’t even the same fuckin’ thing. It ain’t no ballpark either. Foot massages don’t mean shit.”
(This causes Vincent to prepare an exception to Jules’s view to make his point.)
Vincent: “Have you ever given a foot massage?”
Jules: “Don’t be tellin’ me about no foot massage – I’m the fuckin’ foot-massage master.”
(Vincent makes a point that Jules must accept. Then Vincent raises an exception.)
Vincent: “Have you ever given a guy a foot massage?”
Jules: “Fuck you. Just because I wouldn’t give no man a foot massage, don’t make it right for Marcellus to throw Antoine off no building.”
(Jules must accept the point, so Vincent drives it home.)
Vincent: “I’m not sayin’ he was right, but you’re saying a foot massage don’t mean nothing and I’m saying it does. We act like they don’t but they do.
There’s sensual things going on that nobody talks about, but you know it, and she knows it, fuckin’ Marsellus knew it, and Antoine shoulda fuckin’ known better.”
Jules raised a point he felt was beyond question, Vincent raised an exception, which caused a reappraisal because there were gaps in Jules’s thinking.
This is something we could do with more of in our business, especially at briefing stage.
Robin Wight used to say that, at WCRS, they would pull at the brief like a dog with a piece of cloth.
If it held, the brief was sound, if it began to come apart it wasn’t.
But we don’t interrogate briefs because the people who write them don’t want them questioned.
So let’s consider the Magna Carta, in 1215 it was decreed that no one was above the law, even those who make the law.
By that standard, if the planners and strategists can question the creative work, creatives should be able to question the briefs.
And the starting point for creative questions is always the Bauhaus mantra: “Form Follows Function”.
Is the desired FUNCTION of the brief delivered by the stated FORM of the brief?
This fits very well with the Socratic method.
A good example of it was at BMP with the managing director, David Batterbee, and planner, Jim Williams.
We were pitching on the COI’s Fire Prevention account, the particular problem was chip-pan fires.
Until that point the COI had done what they always did, shown the terrifying after-effects of a fire.
This had no effect, which was why the account was up for pitch.
Stage one of their thinking was that you prevented fires by showing how terrible they were.
Using the Socratic method, David and Jim questioned this: How would they know if the campaign was successful – how would they measure it?
The obvious answer was of course the number of chip-pan fires would go down.
But in Socratic style they persisted with the question: How will they measure if fires went down?
The only possible answer was, by the number of Fire Brigade callouts.
This led to Socrates’ third stage, reframing the brief, which now became preventing Fire Brigade callouts, instead of just saying fires were bad, so how to do that?
The answer must be to tell people how to put out the fire themselves before they had to call out the Fire Brigade.
It sounds obvious now, but it was very different from the previous brief.
Instead of just negative ads scaring people, we did a positive campaign with useful information.
We won the pitch and, when it ran, the campaign put Fire Brigade call-outs down by 40%, and it got a D&AD award.
Just by persistent questioning instead of accepting apparently locked-off thinking.
Socratic thinking may be 2,000 years old, but that doesn’t mean it’s out-of-date.