Now What is a strategy, design, and innovation consultancy that helps the biggest brands in the world ask (and answer) the right questions. Their goal? “Bringing to life” the consumers that a brand wants to reach, and creating a path to reach them.
Now What’s President Kyser Thompson talked with us about knowing what you don’t know, creating strategy documents people will actually use, making market research fun, and Scottish rallying cries.
Small Planet: Let’s start with the big question. What does Now What do?
Kyser Thompson: We define ourselves as a “creative question company.” CMOs, Heads of Consumer Insights, Brand Managers … we help them understand who their consumer is, who their target is, who their audience is, who their fans are. They come to us with a lot of data and say “now what?” That’s where our name comes from. We build the story of who your consumer is, then tell you what to do with, and for, them.
Most of our projects are insight and strategy, where we’re either writing a creative or strategy brief for their agency. Sometimes we’ll do the logo design and brand, we can take it to that level, we have designers on staff. But most of our work focuses on the strategy. Our philosophy as a company is mastering the art of asking questions, and mastering the art of getting our clients to ask the right questions.
SP: So, a company will come to you and say “We need to create a new coffee product for consumers, can you help us?”
KT: Right. A good example is a beer brand we worked on. A couple of years ago they realized their target consumer was changing, coming of age in a more sophisticated tech world. So they came to us and asked “Who is this guy?”
We did some workshopping, did a lot of research, created a deck, then translated those learnings into something akin to a glossy magazine. We printed a limited quantity of these for their agency, branding team, and anybody else involved. Having that tactile example goes a long way to making it actually useful. Instead of just getting a dry internal report, they get something designed for a consumer. Something you’d see in a magazine aisle that’s full of creative content, data, visuals, and strategy points on how to reach their consumer.
We approach making these like an actual magazine editorial team. You wouldn’t believe … we spend an inordinate amount of time just picking the photo of the guy on the cover from a lineup wall of different types of photos, trying to visually represent who this person is.
SP: How did Now What start?
KT: We’ve been around for 12 years, and we were founded by Paul Barnett. He had a tremendous amount of high-level advertising and agency experience. At the time, and actually it’s even more the case now, he felt that in the planning and strategy world of large agencies there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to the research that’s embedded in the strategy.
I joined three years later, and over that time we’ve evolved into an insight, strategy, and innovation consultancy. We’ve been growing at a good pace. Paul, this is like his baby, this is his family. This sounds so utopian, I know, but we’re kind of doing this because we like it.
Our project teams are anywhere from two to five people and we’re all technically strategists, other than our designers. Our strategists are like hybrid project managers, researchers, and brand strategists. Nobody is siloed off somewhere. A lot of our research is anthropological. We do everything from ethnographies, like going into people’s homes all around the country, to bringing people in here to do workshops with us. We’re also developing a few tools that we believe are going to revolutionize the industry. Oh, and did I mention we’re humble too!
SP: When you first engage with clients, do they know what they want or do they come in not knowing exactly what they need?
KT: There’s always some amount of back and forth where we say “Is this what you really need?” and “Is this really the question you’re asking?” Often the response is “Um, actually, no, I don’t think so.”
One of the big things we’ve learned over the years is that the clients don’t know the question that they really are asking, so we developed and trademarked this workshop product called the Whatshop™. It’s essentially a kick-off workshop where we use exercises and activities to extract from the stakeholders involved what they’re really trying to get at.
We try to bring in as many people into that workshop as we can. Let’s say a brand manager is leading a project and has hired us. We ask that manager to bring agency partners, the boss, a marketing team, or anyone who touches the brand. It’s usually a four-hour work session in our offices. We prepare beforehand by immersing ourselves in everything … and I mean everything … we have on the client’s topic and we come in ready to share hypotheses and follow-up questions. We usually land on the three questions we’re trying to solve for the next six weeks or six months.
SP: The term “market research” can have a musty feel to it sometimes. Now What seems to position itself more like a creative agency?
KT: Yeah. So, at our core, if you think about market research, it is a musty thing. That’s a funny way to put it. It’s a grim term, market research. It sounds boring. No one wants to do it.
But there’s something in its core that’s really attractive, and, for lack of a better word, hip. We want to make it fun, creative. Even the word “creative” is sort of loaded. We honestly want to make it fun. One of our values as a company is “playful”. Our clients know us as that. We’re much more creative in our approach and research because we believe it extracts the most insight. We know to ask the right questions. We’re trained in questions, and we ask them in a fun, compelling way.
Our founder, Paul, is a really quirky, funny guy. His philosophy was you’ve gotta have fun or what’s the point? He wanted us to have a mantra, a rally cry. “Never boring!” I think he harkened back to the days of Scotland and freedom and everything. We should put that on a Scottish shield and hang it up! Though don’t tell him I told you that because he’s British!
We have playshops instead of workshops. We have these exercises we do, like sending you on safari. If we do a big workshop with an out-of-town client, we’ll put them up at a hotel and act as a sort of “experiential concierge.” Give them half a day to see different things in Brooklyn, going to restaurants and stores that we have a relationship so they’ll talk with interesting people and get a fun VIP experience. Dumbo in particular is a great neighborhood for that.
SP: Often big organizations have so much talent working internally to gain consumer insight, there’s a resistance to going outside. What do you offer them?
KT: If you’re looking to develop your products, or build a brand, or launch a new show for a new audience, you can’t just rely on the data and behaviors and activity of an audience on a social media platform. That’s easy to do for big companies because they have gobs and gobs of data they’re collecting and processing all the time. You have to go and you have to spend time with them, and interact with them, sit face-to-face with them and work with them. I think we place a really high value on that.
SP: How many clients come in with preconceived notions?
KT: Oh, all of them.
SP: Are they trying to validate what they already believe?
KT: All of them do to a degree. Most, to their credit, are coming to us knowing that they don’t know what they don’t know. A lot of times we sit across from them and say “Hey, look,you have reams of data, segmentation studies and Attitude and Usage studies. You have data from Target and Walmart on exactly which product a person was buying on a certain day and time. You are the expert on your audience.” But they come to us with all that data, and they want us to bring to life who that person is and tell them what to do with those insights.
SP: A company may know their audience numbers inside and out, but if they’re looking to create a new product for that audience, or relaunch a product, or looking to rebrand completely, it’s hard to determine exactly what to do.
KT: Right. Maybe they’ll have the sales strategy down pat, but don’t have any idea how to do a brand strategy. Companies often use a lot of frameworks – here’s the structure of the brand, and how we communicate, and what the brand is internally. They all have that, which is great. We work under that, and we realize all major brands need some sort of framework or formula.
However, you can get stuck in those frameworks. There’s a demand, spoken or unspoken, that the work needs to land on this brand pyramid or that brand wheel. So, we emphasize the fact that they hired us because they knew we’re creative, and because we know they just want some answers.
We do some quantitative studies, but only when it’s purposeful. We don’t do focus groups. We focus on the journey. A healthcare company will come to us and say “We’re launching a new drug in two years. We don’t know much about the patient. We need to understand the patient journey. Help us visualize that. Help us in sharing it.” Then we’ll create a beautiful journey map and bring it to life. Something a sales or marketing team can use to understand what a patient goes through on their first diagnosis, when they first go see a doctor that talks to them about their treatment options, to three months later.
SP: Do you ever have clients who are disappointed? Say, a client desperately wants to hit millennials or Generation Z, and you come back with a different story?
KT: We used to, much more so when we were starting out. It’s funny, but we did millennial work — this sounds so arrogant when I say it out loud — we did millennial work before millennial was even a public term. So, you think you’re tired of hearing about millennials, and believe me everyone’s tired of it, we started doing that 10 years ago. We were working with Viacom and Neil Howe, who actually coined the term “millennial.”
We did so much stuff on millennials at work, millennials in TV, and millennials in healthcare, millennials in … you name it.
SP: Right, “What are millennials destroying today?” has become a common topic.
KT: Exactly. Millennials get pegged as being sort of static and one-dimensional. One of the interesting things we’re about to start on is millennials with Multiple Sclerosis. Very interesting project. MS diagnosis comes earlier and earlier these days and we’re going to be able to leverage all the knowledge we have about MS.
SP: Generational labels often act as shorthand for unease with change. Every day, Gen Z represents that dynamic, since there’s a dawning realization that the higher end of millennials are in their 30s.
KT: Yeah, the media doesn’t latch onto that idea. But if you just look at Gen X or Boomers, when they were in their 20s and 30s, it’s the same exact story, different decades. There are definitely unique contributing factors for each generation. But take, say, helicopter parenting. It was this big insight years ago with millennials, and it came with all kinds of judgment and pop psychology about the kids and parents. But helicopter parenting has been around for a while, it just looked very different.
SP: What do you do when you’re not thinking about questions that need to be asked?
KT: Oh man, being a husband and a dad, those are the big things. Timothy is two-and-a-half and Rosemary is six months. My wife Alice is an actor and model, so she’s pretty busy too. Our schedule can be all over the place, but we remain sane. We’re heavily involved with our church in Williamsburg, and our other passion is adoption and foster care. Timothy is adopted and Rosemary’s a bio baby. We also have a foster kid, Tashem, who’s in college now.
SP: Are you part of a larger foster care community?
KT: Oh yeah, we just helped 16 people go through a foster care certification program. It’s awesome because three couples and a few singles, we think, are going to foster to adopt teens early next year. We’re focused on teens, fostering to adopt teens in Brooklyn. We’re hoping to foster to adopt a teenager, probably next year. We gotta kind of get a little bit out of the baby stage.
Our personal vision, long term, is to make the foster care system of Brooklyn obsolete. This is our 2030 vision, very audacious. How amazing would it be to find permanent forever homes for every single kid in foster care in Brooklyn. Challenging? Yes. Impossible? No. You could say it’s the big question our family is asking and working on: How do you make the foster care system in Brooklyn obsolete?