Tasks That Matter: Why Effectiveness Demands Better Problems, Not Better Solutions
“I think it is still the rule, rather than the exception, that creative people are asked to achieve one objective, and then their work is turned down because it hasn't achieved something completely different”
Where are all the problems?
Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-nine minutes defining the problem and only one minute finding the solution.
Yet too much of both marketingland - and with it plannignland - is to my mind, devoting its energies in precisely the opposite proportion, spending far too much rushing to solutions and executional assumptions.
One would have thought it obvious but “We need advertising” isn’t a definition of a problem. Nor is “we need a social media platform/presence.” Those are asset requests.
Nor for that matter does “we need to stimulate conversation” or - heaven forbid - “drive awareness” adequately define the problem. Those are merely intermediate responses. Appallingly vague ones at that.
Badly thought-through and ill-defined problems undermine creativity and effectiveness. Good problems are the first and most essential step to work that works.
Hard is always better than soft
It’s telling that in their their analysis of the IPA’s databank Les Binet and Peter Field observe that “campaigns that are set hard objectives (business or behavioural results) are generally more successful than those working only to intermediate consumer response targets (e.g. attitudes or awareness).
Indeed according to their analysis, campaigns that set hard objectives enjoyed an effectiveness success rate of 50%, while those that only set soft, intermediate objectives enjoyed a success rate of 11%.
Binet and Field conclude that “marketing metrics should aim to measure changes in the real commercial world of the brand, not just the in the mindsets of the people who buy it.”
What should we say?” or - more fashionably these days - “How should we engage?” has never been planning’s starting point. Back in 1963 for example (hence the sexist reference to ‘Advertising Man’) James Webb Young wrote:
“Finding the best opportunity in the market for the particular advertiser and shaping his advertising to exploit that opportunity is one of the greatest contributions the Advertising Man can make to his client. And the chances of making that contribution… will depend upon his penetration into the real facts and nuances of that advertiser’s situation.”
If we - both client and agency - are to stimulate creativity that works, then this is an agenda we need to take to heart.
The necessity of good problems for effectiveness
Done well, the creative process is of course a messy, non-linear journey.
But without real, rigorous and thorough joined-up thinking applied to the setting of objectives, we are failing to build a framework for how we expect our communications to work. As Stephen King wrote in his JWT Planning Guide, in any communications strategy “there must be a hypothesis of how the advertising is intended to work.”
And working to principle of “of garbage in garbage out”, if we’re not constructing some kind of hypothesis of how our work is meant to work, then we’re failing to construct a model of effectiveness.
Writing of the characteristics of winning IPA Effectiveness Awards submissions, Richard Storey has written: “Without exception, each campaign was effective because its 'creators' developed a theory about the problem they were facing and, from that, found a means of influencing the dynamics in their favour. I guess we call that having a strategy.”
Effectiveness is after all an input into the development of advertising, not merely some post-event audit process done for planning and effectiveness awards. As Les Binet and Peter Field put it: “Agreeing clear objectives... makes marketing more effective, by focusing minds and resources on the tasks that matter.”
The evidence from the IPA’s dataBANK suggests that campaigns that set clear campaign objectives are more effective than those that don't. Campaigns that had a clear objective specified enjoyed an effectiveness rate of 46%. versus an effectiveness success rate of 35% for campaigns that did not have clear objectives specified.
And as we’ve already seen, campaigns that set hard objectives (business or behavioural results) are generally more successful than those working only to intermediate consumer response targets (e.g. attitudes or awareness).
Furthermore, if we’re failing to build a model of effectiveness, then our work will always be hostage to views and prejudices of others. In particular those who claim they know how communications works and insist that our work be tested against their metrics, norms, and assumptions. In other words, we leave our work exposed and vulnerable.
Small wonder that Stephen King was moved to complain all those years ago that “I think it is still the rule, rather than the exception, that creative people are asked to achieve one objective, and then their worked is turned down because it hasn't achieved something completely different."
The necessity of good problems for creativity
As Chairman of Lowe in London, Adrian Holmes was fond of saying that “a great problem requires a great solution.” If we’re not feeding the creative process with well thought through, imaginatively framed problems, then we’re failing creativity.
Freedom is often regarded as the necessary and vital oxygen for creativity. The romantic myth of the wayward artist, living on the fringes of society (usually in some dingy garret), refusing to be bound by any of its conventions is a powerful and enduring one.
However, closer inspection reveals the truth that boundless freedom and latitude is a very poor stimulator indeed of ideas. Robert McKee actively teaches against freedom, insisting that: “Limitation is vital the first step toward a well-told story is to create a small, knowable world… The constraint that setting imposes on story design doesn't inhibit creativity: it inspires it." the creative mind actively needs resistance for it to operate successfully and productively.
Indeed, without any of the resistance that boundaries and specifics provide, the creative mind is likely to find itself wandering down many an irrelevant or unfruitful avenue or line of enquiry. Or worse, we are likely to find ourselves staring at a blank canvas with absolutely no idea where to begin. Imagine being handed a sheet of paper and a pencil with the invitation to “draw whatever you want”. The chances are that you’ll stare blankly for quite a while, wondering where on earth to begin.
I don’t believe in the infantilisation of creatives. Great creatives aren’t children. They’re as passionately interested in solving client’s business issues as the next person. They want to get into the roots of the problem or opportunity. They want context. They’re not content with just taking a pithy proposition (or whatever you want to call it) at face value and rushing to fire up the ol’ Photoshop or HTML5. They want to know what problem they’re solving, not merely what proposition they’re being asked to create work from. So let’s give them great problems.
Interrogating and defining the problem
The first question the planners of the UK’s Royal Marines ask in any situation is: “What is the situation on the ground, and how does it affect me?” That feels like a good, simple useful question for us to incorporate into our mental toolboxes.
In the same spirit, Stephen King’s “useful, if perhaps a little over-simple” (as he described it) planning cycle gives us all a decent framework for making decisions about communications:
Where are we?
Why are we there?
Where could we be?
How could we get there?
Are we getting there?
Obvious questions? Possibly. Neglected ones? Apparently quite often.
In an interview the designer Don Norman has suggested that defining the problem is one of the most important parts of the design. “Do not solve the problem that’s asked of you”, he urges us:
“It’s almost always the wrong problem. Almost always when somebody comes to you with a problem, they’re really telling you the symptoms and the first and the most difficult part of design is to figure out what is really needed to get to the root of the issue and solve the correct problem.”
Planning would be well-served by taking these words to heart. Simply passing on to creatives requests for creative assets or not knowing the difference between advertising’s effects and effectiveness isn’t planning. It’s behaving like a waiter.
According to Michael Michalko, the so-called Phoenix checklist is a set of questions developed by the CIA to enable their agents analyze problems thoroughly. I haven’t been able to verify whether this true, but whatever the case, it is a useful set of questions for examining a problem from every angle:
Why is it necessary to solve the problem?
What benefits will you receive by solving the problem?
What is the unknown?
What is it you don’t yet understand?
What is the information you have?
What isn’t the problem?
Is the information sufficient? Or is it insufficient? Or redundant? Or contradictory?
Should you draw a diagram of the problem? A figure?
Where are the boundaries of the problem?
Can you separate the various parts of the problem? Can you write them down? What are the relationships of the parts of the problem? What are the constants of the problem?
Have you seen this problem before?
Have you seen this problem in a slightly different form? Do you know a related problem?
Try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown
Suppose you find a problem related to yours that has already been solved. Can you use it? Can you use its method?
Can you restate your problem? How many different ways can you restate it? More general? More specific? Can the rules be changed?
What are the best, worst and most probable cases you can imagine?
If only we expended as much energy and creativity thinking through the problem as we did thinking through the solution, we might all be a bit better off.
The role for communications
The crafting of that jewel-like single sentence of strategic brilliance - the ‘key thought’ or ‘proposition’ or whatever you want to call it - is often held up as the truest test of planning’s craft, and contribution. But polishing the proposition/key thought/etc. isn’t the hard bit of developing creative strategy. Defining the role of communications in solving the problem is.
And it’s arguably the most neglected aspect of strategy development. As Simon Clemmow has argued:
“Having identified the role for advertising, defining it unambiguously, accurately and clearly is the ultimate expression of a planner's ability, because it represents the advertising strategy in a nutshell. It depends on having established the status of the brand, both in the market and in the mind, having balanced the client's ambition for the brand with his commitment to achieving it, and knowing 'how advertising works', both in general terms and how this piece of advertising is expected to work specifically.”
Whether one looks to the IPA Effectiveness Awards or the APG Planning Awards, it is striking that (even allowing for some post-rationalisation) all the winners spent time thinking through the problem and the specific role of communications.
No lazy “drive awareness” or “start a movement” nonsense. But attitudinal and behavioral objectives attached to a real business issue. And the role of communications in effecting change imaginatively and clearly defined.
Tasks that matter
Planners in particular have perhaps so fallen in love with the idea of being the collaborators with creatives that we’re in danger of forgetting that some of our most important, challenging and vital work actually precedes the creative process.
Because arguably the most important contribution of planning (whoever it’s done by) is the diagnosing and framing of the problem, the setting of clear and concrete objectives, and the identification of the role of communications in all of this.
Or as Binet and Field put it, “focusing minds and resources on the tasks that matter.”
Les Binet & Peter Field, ‘Briefing in the Era of Accountability', 2008
Les Binet & Peter Field: Marketing in the Era of Accountability
Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure Style and the Principles of Screenwriting
Arnoud Franken, Chris Paton, and Simon Rogers, ‘How the UK’s Royal Marines Plan in the Face of Uncertainty’, Harvard Business Review, Leadership lessons from the military
Michael Michalko, Thinkertoys: A handbook of creative-thinking techniques
Richard Storey, ‘Effectiveness is not just something you measure’, IPA 2008