What's the problem?

The real business problem isn't always the one that the client thinks it is.

I taught a training course recently and spent a fair chunk of the day lecturing the fresh-faced ingénues about the value of defining the real business problem. It’s not always the one the client asks you to solve. If only you delve deep enough, you will find something more interesting. And then instead of just doing some more ads, you will be able to suggest a solution that’s more effective and more efficient, because you’re applying yourself to the right issue.

I may even have used that Einstein quote: "If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions."

As with most training course content, what we tell others to do of course has very little connection to what we actually do ourselves. It’s best practice in post-rationalisation at very best and plain dishonesty at worst.

So today I’m going to start practising a bit more of what I was preaching.

Maybe I’ll start with the problems facing the advertising industry.

It’s common to hear people say that audiences have fragmented and it’s hard to reach people in the way we once did. Is this our real business problem?

Probably not, when you consider that, thanks to Apple, Samsung, Google, Facebook and others, people now spend more time with media that carry advertising than ever before. Hell, we’ve managed to place an advertising delivery system in the hand of almost every man, woman and child, and we’re moaning that audiences are hard to reach? Without leaving the house, I can build a target audience and release an advertising campaign to reach the entire world, if I have a big enough limit on my credit card. We’re living in reach nirvana.

That ain’t the business problem.

Maybe the real business problem is that other refrain: that clients just aren’t willing to spend money like they used to, that advertising is a weak lever nowadays. They don’t have the ambition they used to in the glory days.

This one doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny either. Two of the world’s top five most valuable companies exist almost entirely thanks to advertising. Global advertising spending just keeps on going up, having grown by $100bn in the past five years alone. Advertising has never been more popular or more lucrative. More companies than ever are able to advertise and do so on a continual basis. Almost any new start-up pretty much attaches a suction pump to their bank account that Google and Facebook use to inflate their stock price. Advertising has never been as big as this, and it’s still growing.

So that’s not our business problem.

Perhaps it’s a talent issue. We don’t pay the salaries we used to and struggle to compete for the brightest and best. The days of bonuses and fast cars are gone, so the talent just isn’t there.

Well, it depends on what you think counts as the advertising industry. Because where are those bright young minds going? Google and Facebook. Sure, they’re doing loads of clever stuff to invent new technologies, but it’s all funded by advertising. They’re advertising companies that have created new tech possibilities, enabled by advertising. Most of the people working for them are helping to make advertising happen. They are the advertising industry. The rest of us are just playing around the edges. The advertising industry is currently paying the best salaries around and recruiting the best people.

This is the most lucrative and desirable time ever to work in advertising.

That’s not the business problem.

What’s the real business problem?

Our industry became defined by the structures used to deliver our service, rather than the service itself or the benefits it offers to our clients. We got stuck in the "what" and the "how" and forgot all about the "why". Then when the "how" and the "what" changed, we spent more time trying to defend the things we felt comfortable with than we did learning about the new ways our benefit could be delivered.

That’s our business problem.

Maybe it’s time to devote our conversation and energy to solving that. Or just apply for a job at Google or Facebook and continue to profit from the real advertising industry.

Craig Mawdsley is the joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

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