The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

The First Rule Of Problem Solving Is Knowing The Problem You Need To Solve …
May 11, 2012, 6:12 am
Filed under: Comment

One of the things I always find interesting to observe is how people approach problems.

In my experience, they tend to fall into 2 distinct areas:

1. Jump right in with ideas.
2. Think [& discuss] the brief … then get on with coming up with ideas.

The basic problem with both of these approaches is that you assume the brief is correct.

I’m not suggesting someone has given you wrong information on purpose, however I have seem way too many briefs that talk about executional wants rather than commercial needs.

One is like going to the DR, telling him what is wrong with you and then ordering him what to prescribe whereas the other is like going to a specialist, explaining your situation and then having them diagnose your problem and offer advice on how to make you well.

There’s a whole bunch of reasons for these 2 possible outcomes, however one that is entirely our fault is our reluctance to investigate the brief.

I don’t mean asking a few questions about the audience or highlighting a few issues about timing or budget … I mean genuinely understanding what the brand/product/business actually needs to achieve and then evaluating that with what has been given to you.

Now I appreciate that sometimes, clients don’t know.

Some seem to have the attitude their only objective is getting marketing collateral into the hands of their sales teams within a set time period, whereas others have this belief ‘advertising’ is totally separate to ‘marketing’.

Of course not everyone is like this – and for those who are, some have the attitude that they’re not worth dealing with – however I don’t really share that point of view, at least not initially, because I believe there is a way to help everyone see the light and that is asking questions.

But here’s the thing, it’s not about asking any question, it’s asking the right question.

So how do you do that?

Well for me, it’s about understanding that there is rarely an all encompassing ‘magic bullet’ question – that one bit of curiosity that suddenly makes everything clear – it’s about asking questions that allow you to prod and poke, explore and cross reference until you slowly identify and close in on the real issue that needs to be addressed, not the superficial or the generic.

Ultimately, it’s being a Rodi – knowing your clients business intimately rather than just relying on what the brief says.

And of course, when I say ‘knowing their business, I don’t mean in terms of advertising, I mean in terms of their actual business.

Distribution. Development times. Competitive environment. Sales information. Internal issues and opportunities.


Too many planners seem to think their job is purely about the advertising.

Sure, they might ‘talk’ about the business issues of their client, but they simplify it to either:

1. It’s a communication problem.
2. It’s a differentiation problem.
3. It’s a relevance problem.

That’s it, according to them, all the issues of commerce fall into 3 simple areas.


And even if it was true, it doesn’t explain why they believe all of them can be solved with another piece of advertising.

Or an app.

Or a powerpoint document full of meaningless or un-executable ideas.

[If you want to know what I think it the way to approach things, you should watch this from 8″ 9 secs to 8″ 25 secs. The rest of it is utter fucking waffle as usual]

Paul Simons – a legend of advertising and planning – has written a great post on the state of planning these days.

This isn’t – like some would like to claim – some ‘out-of-date’ man trying desperately to remain relevant in an ever-changing World, it’s a highly successful and experienced planner wondering where the fuck the rigor has gone from our industry.

At a time where so many planners swan about the place thinking they’re ‘Rockstars‘, the reality is many of them have confused cool with clever.

Anyone can say they are focused on the business – or quote something from PSFK – but that’s very different to being able to prove you’ve done something.

And I’m not talking about having won some EFFIE awards.

Sure that’s good, but sadly, that has become as much about your submission writing skills as it has to do with creating effective work.

I should point out that this has nothing to do with age, but attitude and application.

Forget the hair-gel and fancy loafers and focus on the approach and the rigor.

I’ve said many times why I think Northern is so good but put simply – like other people I look up to, like Paul Simons and Mark Sareff to name a few – he understands that a problem is simply something that hasn’t had the right questions asked of it yet and before any jumping to solutions can happen, he has to find out what the hell he is really being asked to solve.

68 Comments so far
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Great post. Great point. Great advice.

The only other point I would add is that you should spend time talking to people outside the marketing department to really uncover what is going on. I know you do that Rob, because you trained me to do that.

This should be a read for all planners.

Comment by Bazza

and for people who want to be sure they never want to be a fucking planner in their entire fucking life.

Comment by andy@cynic

My favourite example around this topic from you was when you said that someone from an agency should have gone to Nintendo before they launched the Gamecube and said “Why on earth is it purple?”

Knowing the business and understanding it is so so important.

Dave Trott had a good example of this from a creative point of view where he went to the client to talk to the people who made the product and they told him an inspiring strength that no one else had mentioned.

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Up early or bed late Rob?

Comment by Pete

did campbell say that? given his fucked up sense of fashion, who is he to fucking talk.

Comment by andy@cynic

I must admit, I can’t remember saying that … though given the amount of brands that have ‘purple’ as their corporate colour, I’m sure it had something to do with a branding or fashion advisor saying it was the ‘in thing’.

Of course the other thing I should have asked, is why not do it in a range of colours – it worked for the first iMac … but let’s not go there, at least today.

And why are you up at this ungodly hour in the UK Mr M?

Comment by Rob

no campbell, lets not go there fullfuckingstop.

Comment by andy@cynic

It wasn’t that late!
They brought out a range eventually, but the colour didn’t help them shake off their kiddy image compared to Sony and Microsoft.

It was ok for iMac because they were for creative people and looked stylish. The Gamecube was cheap plastic and looked exactly like the image Nintendo didn’t need.

I bought the Silver one though, that and the orange one looked great.

Comment by Rob Mortimer (Not a fake Andy)

I liked this post before I spotted the reference to your iconic tango ad. That just made it better.

So many great points in this post Rob:

The 2 incorrect ways to approach answering a brief.
The 3 standard responses planners have for answering a brief.
The difference between cool and clever.

All great, great bits of advice underscored by the need to get out there, talk to lots of people and ask an array of questions to try and find out what you really need to solve (or take into account) rather than overly respect the piece of paper you were given. Love it.

Comment by Pete

Great read Robert and as Pete already mentioned, a lovely blackcurrant tango reference.
Could I suggest you write a post on how to ask the difficult questions in a way that doesn’t come across as challenging or questioning. I know you have done something similar previously but not everyone has the charm or cheek to get away with what you subject clients to. Just a suggestion but a very enjoyable and valuable post.
More like this please.

Comment by George

Forgot to mention this point I loved too.

“Too many planners seem to think their job is purely about the advertising.”

Comment by Pete

Are you going to repeat every single bit of Rob’s posts that you like Pete? Because if you are, I’m going. Reading it once is bad enough, my brain can’t take it twice.

Comment by DH

well fucking said dave. seriously pete, now obama has said hes for gay marriage why dont you just divorce your hot wife and hitch up with campbell and spend the rest of your sad little lives whispering brand fucking onions to each other or whatever you call those pointless and bollock charts.

and george. stop fucking encouraging them.

Comment by andy@cynic

I might have let my enthusiasm for this post get away from me.

Comment by Pete

just a fucking bit.

Comment by andy@cynic

And nice heads up on Paul Simons. Great man.

Comment by Pete

A brilliant man.

Comment by George

Sickeningly so.

Comment by Rob

I’ve not met a problem that can’t be solved with help from Mr J. Walker.

Comment by DH

Jack D gives much better advice.

Comment by Billy Whizz

so did my fucking divorce attorney. but not as good as “theirs”.

Comment by andy@cynic

Is this post what planners would consider porn?

I unfortunately imagine all of you masturbating furiously to it.

Comment by DH

Red card.

Comment by Pete

My eyes. My eyes.

Comment by Billy Whizz

Not if can’t find it on Youporn

Comment by northern

You used to call me a problem Rob so I’m not going to read a post about how to “solve me”. Fuck you and your Dr Phil tendencies.

PS) I never read anything you write anyway.

Comment by Billy Whizz

you were and are a problem billy. but you were my fucking fucked up problem. unfuckingfortunately.

love you really. well, moderately tolerate.

Comment by andy@cynic

If you weren’t a problem, you would be a solution. And that begs more questions than a whole planning department could come up with.

Comment by John

and more horror than wes fucking craven and steve fucking king could come up with at a 10 hour brainstorm.

Comment by andy@cynic

Youi mean questions like

“Why do you think you haven’t been able to do this already?”
“What do other people think?”
“Why do you think we could help?”

Comment by John

“Why do you want to achieve this now?”
“Have you ever tried to do it before?”
“Why do you think it failed before?”
“Have you ever achieved a similar result under these circumstances before?”
“What are you prepared to do differently this time?”

Comment by Pete

stop all your fucking wanking, its not impressing anyone. well, no one that actually fucking counts. and besides, campbell would also ask what the name of their favourite pet was or some other fucking weird shit so youre being way too fucking traditional.

its 2012 bitches, youve got to lay down some random psychological shit. dont you know thats the fucking way to do it. of course you fucking dont because youre not fucking twats.

Comment by andy@cynic

well, you’re not always fucking twats.

Comment by andy@cynic

if planners are rock stars. the smiths are heavy fucking metal.

Comment by andy@cynic

If planners are rockstars, John Travolta can go for massages without being accused of rubbing up the male masseuses.

Comment by DH

fucking gold. libellous, but fucking gold.

Comment by andy@cynic

I read today that he has a penchant for people who look like him – so, not so different from planners.

Comment by John


Comment by John

Genius Dave.

Scandalous John.

Comment by Rob

Leave the Smiths well alone

Comment by northern

Nice post filled with great advice Rob.

Sadly enough, the way some organisations (and relationships) are structured, means even the super basic “What’s the objective behind this? What about the business objective?” is met with a blank stare and a request to get back to you once they’ve figured it out themselves. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing I guess.

Comment by rafikrafik

I could add that the first rule of knowing the problem you need to solve is knowing the problems you can’t or don’t need to solve. I could, but then I’d have to kill myself.

Comment by John

We don’t want that John … so keep your opinions to yourself, ha! Good point, though to be honest, I still think you need to know what the fuck it is you have to do before you can work out what is within your capabilities and what isn’t – though for many ad agencies, they think they can solve anything, which is where another problem that needs to be solved, lies.

Comment by Rob

That’s why I wrote the first rule of knowing “the problem you need to solve” Attention to detail etc

Comment by John

If planners want to be taken seriously by clients, they should take their clients business seriously. What you have written should be obvious to anyone who dares call themselves strategic, but it was still an enjoyable post to read.

Comment by Lee Hill

thats all i need, you adding some fucking gravitas to the fucking situation. cant you be like every other client lee and not give a fuck about standards?

Comment by andy@cynic

Great, great post. I’m amazed how blithely we as an industry accept briefs without much challenge. It’s supposed to be a partnership, not just a service.

Comment by Will

Excellent points, but what dismays sometimes is how much some clients try and keep you away from the business and focus on the comms.
Which leads to another point, you can’t do the right thing – challenge briefs etc unless you have a relationships with the client. That doesn’t mean the oil Pete Campbell type account handler schmoozing, and let’s face, if a suit thinks your trying to own the relationship you’re fucked, it means earning respect and being able to have proper, grown up conversations about what they spend the other 90% of their time worrying about when they’re not working with agencies.
All I’m saying is, don’t expect clients sitting there waiting to have chats with you about distribution and pricing strategy, too many lazy arsed ad tweakers that came before you have blotted your copy book.
For example, never, ever, accept the summary presentation of a segmentation (and don’t get me going on segmentations) because they are result of someone else’s opinion. At some point, a research type has decided how to divide up customers. Usually, with stuff that’s about the category that no one ever thinks about until asks. Usually, buried on the hard data, and way behind the algorythm is all sorts of interesting stuff that’s been totally ignored. With a little effort, it’s amazing what you can pull out that both client and research charlatan never found or realised was important.
I remember going mental when I started work on ghd to find they’d segmented the market based on interest in fashion- which was nothing to do with how people felt about or bought the brand, it was what the client wanted to think people associated with the brand. If you’re remotely interested, instead of pulling out a stupid 2 million target audience, which was pointless for a £100 million brand, we found that the real story was uniting all sorts of women around the same need, self confidence, and independence.

Comment by northern

Great, great points Northern …

One of the biggest problems is that at much as some planners blindly accept what’s been given to them, some clients don’t take nicely to being asked some hard questions. Then – as you said – there’s suits who feel direct interaction with clients is treading on their toes.

As with most things, approach is everything – but what’s important is that if things don’t work out the first time, you look for another way because you don’t get remembered for the obstacles, only the success and that won’t happen without getting your hands very dirty.

Oh and your point about client ego directing segmentation …

I once did some work for Harrods who said they appealed to the ‘top 5% of British society’. Andy kindly pointed out that he found that interesting given he’d just walked through the store and saw nothing but Yank tourists holding big Harrods bags with basically the cheapest possible item inside.

This isn’t a post about ‘not believing’ clients, it’s about doing stuff that builds trust based on results, not hype.

Comment by Rob

Oh to have worked with Andy…..

Comment by northern


Comment by Rob Mortimer (Not a fake Andy)

You had the chance to, but you decided to wash your hair.

Comment by Rob

Don’t start that again. You perfectly well why that didn’t happen.
Now he has Bonnie, maybe he’ll understand.
Maybe he’ll even set up office in Leeds.

Comment by northern

I wouldn’t put money on it.

Understanding or Leeds.

Comment by Rob

Andy in Leeds. Would love to see that.

Comment by Rob Mortimer (Not a fake Andy)

id rather have a mortgage for an overpriced mills and fucking boon love shack in the thriving hick town of vanfuckingcouver than live in leeds. which is fucking convenient because i fucking do.

good chips in leeds so its better than nottingham.

Comment by andy@cynic

by the way groper, i still dont understand. like turning down a job with god. actually its exactly like turning down with fucking god. and for the record, having a baby is afuckingmazing because the wife is too busy feeding and changing her to shop and boss you about. oh yes, i wear the fucking trousers in my house. or i do when she tells me i can.

Comment by andy@cynic

Just wait until you put a bloody vest on wrong or, God forbid, make the milk up without washing your hands.

Comment by northern

youll be giving women the fucking vote next.

Comment by andy@cynic

Jesus, my typing worse than ever

Comment by northern

Nothing new. All is fine.

Comment by Rob

Every planning intern should read this post on their first day of work. And again. And again. And again.

Marvelous post Rob, I agree with every bit you’ve written, good to know I’m not the only one who thinks like this.



Comment by Vitor Amos (@vitor_amos)

you think the same as campbell? you poor fucker. seek help immediately.

Comment by andy@cynic

I think you had a remote spy cam installed in my last meeting at work discussing planning strategy. This is EXACTLY what we spoke about on Tuesday. It’s spooky.

Comment by Anjali

he probably did, hes a weird, sick fuck.

Comment by andy@cynic

Rob Campbell, Planning Spy. Not quite the same ring as James Bond, 007, but it’ll have to do.

Comment by Anjali

Definitely believe that which you said. Your favorite justification appeared to be on the internet the simplest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I certainly get irked while people consider worries that they just don’t know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top and defined out the whole thing without having side effect , people could take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thanks

Comment by Amira Feltham

[…] + To Solve A Problem, You Need To Know The Problem […]

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