The Zen of Digital Marketing:
Starting with an Empty Cup.


A few years ago, I pitched a campaign to a psychiatrist who was in the process of rebranding his practice. He was integrating mindfulness and Eastern philosophy into his theraputic process in order to set himself apart from his competition. After giving us a general overview of how he arrived at this approach, he shifted gears and got down to business.

Other marketing agencies presented me with plans for my branding. What will you do for me?

I counted to three, took a deep breath, and said, “Nothing.”

“Nothing?” I caught him by surprise.

“Yes, nothing at this point.” I went on to explain the plans submitted by my competition were based on their experiences with other local psychiatrists. To help him stand out, I needed to collect information on what made him different and not start from a list of preconceived ideas. 

I ended up winning the account because I listened to him rather than trying to show him how smart I am

I refer to my approach to new clients as “starting with an empty cup,” based on the Buddhist concept of Shoshin.

Shoshin is a concept from Zen Buddhism, meaning beginner’s mind. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions. When meeting a new client for the first time, I purposely do minimal preliminary research to avoid bringing any preconceptions to the table.

The practice of Shoshin acts as a counter to the hubris and closed-mindedness often associated with thinking of oneself as an expert, including the Einstellung Effect, the negative impact previous experiences have when solving new problems. The word shoshin is a combination of sho (Japanese: 初), meaning “beginner” or “initial,” and shin (Japanese: 心), meaning “mind.”

I don’t do much preliminary research when I meet a new client. I want to hear directly from the horse’s mouth, as it were, and not bring any preconceptions to the table. If they were happy with what they were already doing, they wouldn’t have called me in the first place. 

I don’t check in on the competition, either. First, we don’t know if what they are doing works for them. Second, I’d prefer to focus on MY client and the work we are about to do. We haven’t figured out what we are doing; why drag the competition into it?

Not surprisingly, most companies look at their website from the inside out, bringing their experiences and attitudes to the project. A new visitor to the website is usually looking to fill a specific need—a product, service, or piece of information. You don’t want to get in the way of them finding what they need.

I start by putting myself in the shoes of their customers. I want to experience the existing website, social media, advertising, and coffee mug, for that matter, with a completely open mind.

I’m a blank canvas, a clean slate, a fresh pair of eyes.

Also, many new clients are eager to jump into the fun side of the project —photos, video, fonts, headlines, and text. Before getting “creative,” my process starts with an in-depth, getting-to-know-you interview where I ask such questions as:

  • What prompted you to seek our services?
  • Can you provide an overview of your company/organization and its main activities?
  • What specific challenges or problems are you currently facing?
  • What are your short-term and long-term goals?
  • Who are your target customers or audience?
  • How do you now measure success or evaluate your performance?
  • What resources (financial, human, tech) are available to support our work?

With that information in hand, I submit a report that covers where the client is, where they want to be, and how we will get there. The empty cup is now a blueprint for moving forward with deliverable and achievable goals.


Can you benefit from an empty cup?  Book a 15-minute call to discuss what a fresh approach can do for your brand, or email me at [email protected].