There’s nothing more that irks me at work than…
Wait. Actually the list of “Things that irk me at work” is quite long so it’s hard for me to specify with item tops it. So let me rephrase.
It irritates me when a suit[i] who has just come back from receiving brief from clients tells me, “The brief is simple”.
Or, an even more irritating version: “Don’t worry, the brief is simple”.
Most of the times, when suits say, “The brief is simple” it means they clearly understand what the clients ask the agency to do or make. Consequently, they think there’s no need to try to dissect the client brief any further. What the agency needs to do is to simply fulfill what the clients have requested: make this, do that. No need to ruminate, just do it, do it fast. Can we have this before lunch time tomorrow, by the way?
Suits stating, “The brief is simple” often jump-starts the agency into the find-and-execute-the-solution mode. In other words, “The brief is simple” frequently makes the agency bypassing the stay-longer-with-the-problem mode.
An advertising agency worth its salt believes it’s in the business of solving brands’ problems via communication. It employs people who take pride in seeing themselves as creative problem solvers, not just PowerPoint monkeys, lay-out chimps, or storyboard baboons. They detest being rushed into solutions without taking enough time to understand the problems.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
– Albert Einstein
There are two good reasons why we should stop rushing into solutions before fully understanding what the problem is. Firstly, there’s always the chance that the solutions the clients already have in their mind are actually solutions to the wrong problem.
How can this be? There’s a pervasive slip-up in communication planning where we mistake symptoms for the problem. To borrow from medical world, it’s like mistaking symptoms (“an abnormally high blood sugar level”) for the diagnosis (“Diabetes Type 2, i.e. the body fails to metabolize sugar because it either resists the effects of insulin or doesn’t produce enough of it”).
How many times have we received advertising briefs that state the problem as “the brand has low awareness”? I bet more often than those with problem definitions of “the brand has been unsuccessful to build solid and distinctive associations vis-à-vis the competitors that outspend it”.
I think a lot of times many marketers or communication practitioners make this mistake of not meticulously scrutinizing what lies behind the data or the symptoms. Shouldn’t you doubt the “supposedly clear” solutions from the problem that is defined haphazardly?
I think you should.
Secondly, if we bypass the problem understanding phase, we will overlook opportunities we can use for the solutions.
Let’s say you receive an advertising brief, which states the problem as “the sales of Brand X cooking oil from traditional markets have been declining steadily”. If you take this definition at face value, and you work in an agency that specializes in retail advertising or brand activations, you may start jumping to possible solutions related to making Brand X more salient in traditional market place. Maybe we make retail incentive programs? How about holding marketing events in those places?
But now you know that “the sales of Brand X cooking oil from traditional markets have been declining steadily” is a symptom, not a problem definition. This realization compels you to look up to other sets of data.
Let’s assume you get additional data that shows how “more and more consumers from lower socio-economic level see Brand X as too expensive”. You know that traditional markets are where those people usually do their groceries.
From this new information, you come up with a different and clearer problem definition: “it’s getting hard for those consumers to justify buying Brand X”. Defined as such, we can come up with several possible solutions:
- Remind those people about what makes Brand X worth its premium price –maybe the ingredients, or maybe the way it’s made, or maybe its CSR program?
- Make them feel good about buying Brand X, as doing so help them tell a story about themselves –maybe stories about them having generous heart, or being discerning?
- Convince them that Brand X enables them to make great tasting dishes from the simplest materials
- Release a version of Brand X that’s more affordable –maybe in smaller packs, or start building our refill stations in traditional markets?
Of course there are many other solutions. Imagine what you will overlook if the problem is narrowly (and wrongly) defined as “the sales of Brand X in the traditional market have been declining”.
Those two reasons should make you unfailingly doubt whenever someone says to you, “The brief is simple”.
Don’t let anyone tell you that the brief is simple. It should be your decision whether the brief is simple or not –after you spend enough time to fully understand what the problem is.
[i] That’s someone who works in Account Management or Client Service department, in case the term eludes you