Problems wanted


Mad Men, a simpler time of real men, real problems and lots of sex on mid century design classics. Image courtesy of Slate.

Unfortunately much advertising is self indulgent nonsense that simply serves to waste the client’s money and the consumer’s time.

Sometimes, just sometimes this work is the product of precious and pretentious creative endevour that is brought into being simply to puff up the bloated ego of a creative director seeking to shove his make-weight agency up the award’s league tables.

However, more often than not the hollow stuff that troubles us most is not the product of some creative flight of fancy but the result of a hollow brief. And the blame for that must lie squarely at the feet of the client community, for being less than clear about the business problem they are trying to solve and less than clear about how advertising might be used to solve it.

You see advertising loves problems, the bigger and hairier the better. It is one of the reasons that some of the most creative and effective work in the market is done to Government briefs where there is often a proper problem and a need for a serious change in behaviour.

Ask any good creative agency what they crave most from clients and they will tell you that they want a clear and unambiguous problem to solve. In other words an objective. Inspirational client briefs are fantastic, especially if you can get a whiff of the spiritual brief that the client organisation really needs to deliver against. However, I’d sacrifice any amount of inspiration for a serious business objective every day of the week. Serious objectives like ‘slowing the loss of a retailer’s business to online competitors’, ‘increasing every transaction by £1.14’ or ‘become the clear number three in the market by taking share from the two dominant brands’. Not wooly nonsense like ‘increase brand awareness’ or ‘launch our product into the market’ and still less ‘make people love and engage with my brand’.

A desire for proper business problems partly explains the delight taken by the industry in the 1960’s advertising drama, Madmen. Sure there was a good dose of envy over a job which seemed to involve drinking vast quantities of whisky at all times of the day and having sex on top of mid-century design classics. However, its real success in adland was down to a wistful longing for a time when clients were actually clients. In other words the people that ran and had often founded the business being advertised and simply wanted to sell more of their products by any means necessary.

Of course the arrival of professional marketing departments has changed the relationships that agencies have with client organisations and the roles that they play for them. But it hasn’t change the need for clear business objectives.

And don’t for a moment think that the digital world is exempt from this criticism, because of an obsession with accountability. Interaction levels, click through rates and dwell times are important but they are not business objectives. The truth is if ad agencies have got it bad when it comes to getting proper problems to solve the digital community has got it far worse. All too often digital briefs are either at the terminally intermediate end of the spectrum, asking for an ever lower cost per response, or at the terminally fluffy end asking for lots of lovely brand engagement and little else.

This post originally appeared as a column in New Media Age.


And with a robust problem comes the ability for an agency to affect real change and properly partner with a client.

There is something simple but compelling about positioning oneself as a "problem solver" as opposed to the "agency planner". With it comes the pitfalls of client over-reliance, but it's worth it for the work and a better brief.

Posted by: andiho at August 10, 2008 11:39 PM

should agencies not be more proactive and doing more proper solution soving without a brief? Instead of scam ads, why not grab a problem (there a plenty, just read the papers) and do something about it...

Hanibal said :either we find a way or we make one"

We either we get a juicy problem or we make one could apply for agencies.

Off course the biggest problem would be the agenvy revenue model that relies on hours billed

just some thoughts

Posted by: n_to_the_h at August 11, 2008 01:25 PM

That would imply a thorough business education and and an understanding of why people make the decisions they make on the part of the modern marketing department...

But that might just be too much to ask when they're too busy playing one man agency using fancy brainstorm techniques, overly elaborate equity statements, emotional involvement briefings and other such nonsense.

Two schools I encounter quite a lot lately:

Marketing managers that are playing the 'creative and emotional' cards internally to hide the fact that they don't have a clue of what is happening in the market and why the figures don't go their way. So they generally leave out all the hard data and so any idea of the business problem at hand will be hard to find.

Marketing managers that are acting like sales directors, generally formulating a business problem which is not necessarily rooted in an understanding of the market. They'll give you all the hard data and tell you it's your job bring the figures up, without specification and often withholding information which would help you make more sense of the data.

In both cases the solution is to go higher up the food chain, to dig for people who do care about long term business success. Which is probably why we generally make better work for smaller clients, where you get to talk to those who care about a business problem because they're personally involved. And not just until the next evaluation or bonus deadline.

Posted by: Yves at August 11, 2008 03:18 PM

At our design firm, we call ourselves not "problem solvers" but "problem makers." It's a reaction to exactly what Richard and Yves wrote above: clients who regularly lack the perception and desire to properly isolate and frame the problem for their creative partners. Someone has to pick up the slack or else everyone suffers through months of off-the-mark development.

Tired of this needless suffering, we no longer let our clients frame the problem. Instead, we've developed workshop's (we invite clients into) specifically tailored to defining a worthy challenge.

Posted by: Leland M at August 11, 2008 09:07 PM

Another great post and lots to think about Richard. I agree that the best briefs are those that have at their core a business objective. I have alway maintained that a great cleint brief has the following:

1) Business objective
2) Marketing objective
3) Brand objective

leaving the role of communications clear to be filled in by the respective value-add partners (agencies).

My experience over time has led me to believe this is imperative.

In order to create that situation where the brief is written with a full understanding of how an agency can deliver value is one where the client has a clear understanding of the value that the agency can play through a deep trust in the individuals who caretake/curate the brand over time for them. This again is where planning has a huge role to play.

Writing PPT decks is one thing - and there is too much emphasis being placed on junior planners in every agency in London. The key of course is simply to cultivate planners that are able to command respect with a client about how to respond to their inherent needs rather than their wants.

Sadly there are very few individuals operating in agencies that have the intelligence to know the difference between a marketing and a business objective, gravitas to deploy the right insight at the right time, knowledge to know how to respond to a brief and when to question it and the confidence to pursue a strategy that is right despite the lack of evidence to support it.

So - in short - those agencies that find themselves trying to solve a bigger problem than the brief asked of them probably have a planning head who has very few of the skills I have outlined. Sorry but that's the way it is folks.

Posted by: holycow at August 12, 2008 11:22 PM

I really enjoyed this.

Posted by: k at August 15, 2008 03:51 AM

The issues Mark addresses also apply to the client side. In many instances, the marketing department, while controlling an often substantial budget, rarely commands respect at the boardroom table. That is not necessarily a reflection on the marketers, but on an industry-wide reluctance to latch onto and own the resolution of business objectives.

Clearly a strong, strategic partnership between agencies and client-side marketing departments could help address this. But it needs to be a real partnership. Trust, transparency, maybe even skin-in-the-game. And that scares the hell out of most people. Me included. But it is where we need to go.

Posted by: Gavin Heaton at August 15, 2008 04:19 AM

Can't agree more. We need problems. We need restrictions.
Here is what I think an excellent solution to maybe 3 problems:


Posted by: willanderson at August 18, 2008 11:40 AM

Just wanted to say, I really enjoy reading this blog. It's always thoughtful and well written.

And I whole-heartedly agree with this post.

At the research end, fluffy objectives are evident in discussions on sample.

We’re often asked to help define the sample. Isn’t that odd?! How can a client not know EXACTLY who it is they need to talk to? How can they leave this to the research company?

I’m not sure of whether this reflects a lack of understanding about business or about research. Either way, needless to say, defining the right sample – a fundamental part of pragmatic qualitative research – starts with well-defined business objectives.


Posted by: Katie Harris at August 19, 2008 03:00 AM


Posted by: David at August 21, 2008 09:02 PM