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To innovate beyond its boundaries, the ad industry must stop putting solutions before questions

Joshua Bell is a famous violin player. He fills concert halls, and people pay hundreds of dollars to hear him play on his Stradivarius violin.

In 2007, the Washington Post did a social experiment. It asked Mr. Bell to play at the Metro subways station in Washington, D.C. The Post wondered how people would respond to hearing a renowned musician playing in a different context. Out of about a thousand people who passed by Bell that day, only seven stopped to listen, despite Bell playing the exact same music he plays on stage. For his 45 minute performance of six Bach pieces, Bell earned $32 in tips, including a $20 tip from someone who recognized him.

Outside his normal context, despite the beauty of his music, listeners barely noticed Bell’s existence. In the new frame of a busy subway station, passers-by didn’t see Bell as a renowned musician. They saw him just as another hard-hit chap wanting to earn a buck.

Now, if we don’t have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world play one of the best pieces of music ever written, how many other things are we missing just by framing them wrongly?

Humans create frames for what we see, hear and experience. Those frames both inform and limit the way we think.

To fully understand and adopt the potential of something new, like digital strategy or experience design, we first need to change our perspective on how we solve problems. How much do we miss by framing the clients’ problems we encounter in one specific way?

If I asked you to build a bridge for me, you’d go off and build a bridge. Or, you can ask me why I need a bridge. I’d tell you then that I need it to get to the other side of a river. This response opens up the frame of possible solutions. There are clearly many ways to get across a river besides building a bridge. We can make a tunnel, or install a ferry service, get catapulted over or fly in a balloon.

The problem with advertising agencies is that they are building bridges in response to clients asking them to cross the river.

We define the business we are in as advertising. This automatically limits the frames we use for problem solving. The frames boil down to a brand or communications challenge. We ask how to make our communications more creative or how to make a bigger media buy or how to become (even) friendlier with the client.

We don’t ask is why is this a problem and what can we do to solve it.

The first reason we need to start asking this question is that today we operate in a much more competitive environment. Companies that don’t constantly reframe their business risk becoming obsolete.

Just look at Kodak. Kodak defined its business as making cameras and film. When digital cameras made film photography obsolete, the company stumbled because it wasn’t able to open up its frame early enough to see its business including this new technology.

Then look at Uber. This controversial startup defines its business as software infrastructure for shipping and logistics. Traditionally, one can say that Uber is a taxi company. (If so, it would be the world’s most valuable taxi company without vehicles!) But Uber is also a delivery company, a convenience store and a software company. It describes itself as a global urban infrastructure. By avoiding the traditional definition of its business, Uber allows itself to compete in many more markets than it would have competed as a mere taxi company. It competes with FedEx, with convenience stores, with concierge and nanny services, and with urban transportation options.

The second reason we need to start asking the "why" question is that the range of solutions that advertising offers is not competitive any more. Advertising has a bad habit of starting off a project with a solution instead of a problem. If the request is, "Increase revenue by X," we usually don’t ask "why" as a catalyst for exploring deeper ideas. Instead, we open our toolbox and take out awareness or customer acquisition or repeat purchases.

But the question of "why" can lead us to realize that our client may be selling an obsolete product, or it may lead us to wonder why our younger audience is more attracted to our competitors’ products.

A good example of putting a problem first is the UK’s Tesco supermarket chain. It set a goal to increase market share substantially and it needed to find a creative way of doing do. Now, Tesco could have offered discounts or made a TV spot or did a promotion via direct marketing.

Instead, Tesco looked at its customers and realized how busy their lives were. To increase its market share, the company accepted that it needed to be where its customers are. Instead of spending millions of dollars in advertising to drive customers to its stores, Tesco entirely reframed the customer shopping experience. In a now-famous move, the food chain took photos of food aisles and put life-size images in subway stations to be scanned by commuters. The sales followed.

Don’t limit yourself by knowing what you want to do up front. By approaching the problem with a fixed solution in mind, all you can do is look for evidence that supports it. Instead, you need to know what problem you want to solve. When you focus on the problem, it frees you constantly to improve your solution.

Ana Andjelic is group strategy director for Spring Studios.

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