"Pick Your Brain" - illustration by Shane Clester

5 June 2013

The Scariest Words You Can Say To Any Consultant: “Can I Pick Your Brain?”

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Guy Who Will Not Work for Food… or Coffee; featured illustration by Shane Clester

I once made the mistake of having lunch with a fellow Harvard alumnus who owned an IT firm with $17 million in annual sales. He had asked for my help to market to his current customers, so one of my recommendations was to create an email newsletter. He loved the idea, so I gave him a few details on how it would work. He asked how much I would charge to create and manage it. When I gave him my rates, he said they sounded “very reasonable” and promised to email me later to work out the terms. He then paid for my lunch (a turkey sandwich and Coke) and I never heard from him again.

That is, until a few weeks later when I received his company newsletter, which he had amateurishly composed using his Outlook account. So not only did he not hire me, he also put me on his subscriber list without my permission.

The sandwich wasn’t even that good.

You’d think I would learn from this and many similar incidents, but to this day, I still give away advice far too freely. The bait comes in the form of RFPs (Ripe For Pilfering Requests For Proposal), invitations to pitch, and people calling to “pick my brain.” The first two sound nice but are actually quite enervating. But it’s the last one that makes my skin crawl. When someone asks to “pick my brain,” I picture zombies taking turns pecking away at my frontal lobe…

If the person is a close friend or former student, I’m happy to chat, but only if they promise to never say “pick your brain” again. I thought I was the only one who cringes at that expression, until I read this blogpost by publicist Nicole Jordan: “No. You Can’t Pick My Brain.” Jordan writes about all the people who ask for her advice in exchange for coffee:

“When you are a creative individual who is a ‘popcorn machine,’ as my mom says, that spits out ideas on a continual basis, doling out advice is no big thing. It’s easy to have coffee with someone whose company I enjoy, most who will ultimately take my ideas and somehow help it benefit their business. Whatevs.

I used to do this a lot more than I do now because here’s the thing I finally came to terms with that helped me start standing my ground: My popcorn machine has value…

I do have my own work schedule and my ‘life balance’ that I attempt and it leaves me little free time to ‘donate’ to others. I appreciate that I am seen as a resource for the community but some of the requests have shown me a repeated trend – people need ideas. A lot of them.

Strategic and creative counsel is one of the most under-monetized aspects of being in the communications and marketing business. Would you ask a lawyer to coffee to ‘pick his brain?’ Do you think a profession as ruthless as they are known, and whose services are enlisted regularly and paid well for, would dole out a hour advice to you for $3.50? Unless he’s your dear friend, what’s in it for him?”

Amen, Sister Jordan, amen.

I also fully join Jordan in vehemently rejecting the argument that “you can give ideas but it doesn’t matter if they can’t execute.” The truth is, they DO execute your ideas — by themselves or by exploiting interns or by contracting some firm in India. Sure, they’ll ultimately screw up, but guess who they’ll blame? “Hey, consultant dude, your idea didn’t work…”

When I shared Jordan’s article on Facebook, another marketer chimed in:

“OMG, that just happened to us. A potential client, hearing what we had planned for his social marketing strategy, decided he could just implement the basics on his own and, sure enough, he’s already started to botch it. When will people learn that they CANNOT do everything.”

I believe it was Michael Eisner who once said, “Ideas are all that matter. You can hire people to do everything else.” Unfortunately, far too many people think they only need to pay for the “everything else.” And sometimes they try to get that for free, too. (See “spec work” and “crowdsourcing” and “internships for credit only.”)

Time to take a stand against the zombies. It means I won’t get as many free turkey sandwiches, but what the hell: “Knowledge workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your brains!”

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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11 years ago

It’s interesting how unethical people have become at this age of ultimate political correctness. People promise/guarantee/lead you to believe things knowing even at the moment they utter the words that they have no intention of following up with actions. Ugh!

Cariline Schroder
10 years ago

How accurate and funny! One correction, however. It is a great grief to lawyers that people do demand to ‘pick their brains’ for free and by right as “they’re all rich lawyers anyway,” whether it’s caller at the office, the startup at the incubator, the neighbor on the sidewalk, the stranger at the party, or the friend on the phone. And most lawyers do give the formal free consult, the free hour, as well. The freebies eat up the day and the night. That’s the chief reason lawyers after some number of years in practice begin to insist on being paid for that hour.

Now, in recent years, even the nonclients who thought they heard legal advice in a conversation have begun suing chatty lawyers for malpractice.

The zombies are out to get the consultants, doctors, and lawyers alike.

10 years ago

So no one is safe. RUUUUUN!

Caroline Schroder
10 years ago

No doubt this is why so many knowledge workers have turned artisanal restaurateur or free range herb collector. Zombies pay top dollar for cappuccino and cupcakes. And yoga.

10 years ago

Free range herb collector sounds tempting. Or since so many people think it’s fair to ask for free advice over coffee, perhaps I should turn Atomic Tango into a coffee shop…

Caroline Schroder
10 years ago
Reply to  Atomic Tango

Terrific name. A chain of coffee shops. Global. Think of the cross-border networks of consultants out there.

Phase II could add a dance studio next door….