Know-It-Alls Need Not Apply

Sometimes the smartest people in the room are the ones who don't know anything at all -- especially if they're in the Fourth Room, a creative safe house in London where the credo is "Leap before you look."

Don't come knocking at the door of the Fourth Room Ltd. in London if you're looking for easy answers to your company's marketing problems. The founders of this consulting group happily admit that they may not even know the questions.

That might seem odd, given that the principals know a great deal about their respective disciplines: Wendy Gordon, 58, qualitative-research guru and cofounder of Research Business International; Piers Schmidt, 32, who, as head of strategy at Newell and Sorrell, won both praise and scorn for his multicultural rebranding of British Airways; and Michael Wolff, 67, cofounder of megawatt brand-consulting group Wolff Olins. But ever since the trio set up shop in a Bloomsbury brownstone two years ago, they've been preaching the virtues of unknowing.

"The Fourth Room is a place where you can leave assumptions outside and see things that wouldn't otherwise have been visible," says Schmidt.

You'll find no boilerplate consulting solutions here. Since 1998, industry giants such as Arcadia Group PLC, BP Amoco, and OnStar Europe have come knocking in search of inspiration.

When a director of one of the United Kingdom's biggest banks called in the folks from the Fourth Room to discuss the future of the bank's retail branches, he passed a document from a blue-chip consulting firm across the table, Schmidt recalls. "He told us, 'We've paid 500,000 pounds [$750,000] for that. Five hundred pages long, and it doesn't tell us what we can do, only what's wrong.' "

The bank execs already knew what their problems were, Schmidt says. But seeing the Fourth Room's unconventional presentation six weeks later -- in the form of a two-person play -- helped them visualize a solution.

"While many of their peers are stuck in a groove, the guys at the Fourth Room aren't afraid of experimental, lateral thinking," says Juliet Warkentin, 39, managing director of marketing and Internet development at Arcadia, a $2.29 billion clothing retailer that went to the Fourth Room for help in launching its Web portal. "It's a rare combination."

Consider the group's central creative metaphor, which they describe as an expedition through four rooms: one for past accomplishments, a second for reason and logic, a third for expertise, and a fourth for unknowing. Fourth Room clients are taken on journeys into the interior, where presentations are strictly experiential; flip charts, PowerPoint, and slides are banned.

They've even given a physical form to this space of not knowing: a dazzlingly white room on the third floor with high ceilings, tall windows, and white floorboards. Clients are encouraged to release their creativity by drawing on the walls with crayons.

In addition, the Fourth Room's consulting agreement includes subscribing to the group's business-development network, at a cost of about $15,000 a year. Membership includes invitations to exclusive monthly seminars as well as breakfast, lunch, and dinner meetings where CEOs can rub elbows with leaders from the worlds of design, media, and academia. "It's great," says Schmidt, "to see a CEO talking to a cultural anthropologist -- people who don't ordinarily meet on the dinner-party circuit."

Ian Wylie (ian@wylienet.demon.co.uk) is a writer who lives in London. Contact Piers Schmidt by email (piers@fourth-room.com) or visit the Fourth Room on the Web (www.fourth-room.coM).

Sidebar: Home Improvement

At the Fourth Room, expect to be taken on expeditions into the creative unknown by the company's founders. Here's a short tour.

The First Room: This is the Room of Great Works. All work done here seeks to win the greatest acclaim. But those who look for honor are often inclined to take that as their goal. Having made a beautiful thing and been honored for it, a hunger haunts their minds. They are condemned to repeat their best work, painting in ever-paler shades an idea that once was in shining color.

The Second Room: In the Room of Great Reason, small groups work to analyze questions of the world. Some make numerical models that whir like clocks. Others fit concepts together with the mastery of cabinetmakers. Yet the pitfall of reason is that it is so very reasonable. One idea is like another.

The Third Room: This is the Room of Great Experience. There is no one more expert than the expert. There is no way to become an expert except through practice. But experience is also based on repetition and rigidity. Often the box it comes in is nothing more than an empty box.

The Fourth Room: Welcome to the Room of Great Unknowing. The people here are not fooled by fashion, tamed by reason, or trapped by experience, which all too often fails to change the world. They have chosen the Fourth Room -- the only place where true answers can be found.

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