Solving the right problems

TBWA's George Nguyen on why we fail when we look for formulas.

shutterstock_129864713By George Nguyen

When we set out to solve problems, are we asking the wrong questions?

Whenever you look at how to progress, you have to question current practices and identify your barriers. You especially have to question your standard practices and whether they are helping you achieve your objectives.

So I started by questioning whether my own formula for success was failing me and, in turn, the larger question arose: are formulas faulty in and of themselves? And then I quickly thought of a thousand and one exceptions to that very statement.

Yes, placing a thumbnail of a scantily clad woman on your YouTube video will definitely drive up your views.

But if your measure of success is only racking up the views, you can stop reading now. I’m wasting your time.

That’s because business, particularly the business of creativity, has always been an evolving creature. There is a continuous and pressing demand for innovation and improvement. Coupled with the most complex and unpredictable variable of all, human nature, and we eventually find we will hardly ever face the same situation twice. As the Queen told Alice in Wonderland, “Today isn’t any other day, you know.”

So it makes you wonder why marketers and advertisers spend so much time proclaiming that we’ve managed to “crack the code” with a specific formula for success or by putting work through endless rounds of testing to ensure historical benchmarks have been met.

Part of it is because, all too often, we’ve allowed simply navigating the process to become our definition of success. Because when we put any hypothesis, idea, or campaign through the machine, we change the very focus of our efforts. Beware any process and formulas that proclaim a “winning formula.” Why? Because the very use of historical benchmarks changes the very focal point of your effort from solving your client’s problem to satisfying the formula. Our reward is satisfying the formula instead of finding the best solution for the unique situation at hand.

This isn’t a call against rigour, but rather a call for more of it. Too many times, we define rigour as process and we shouldn’t. Rigour should mean we’ve thoroughly thought through every possible outcome and determined the best possible solution based on that evaluation. Hell, do we even have the right objectives? Are we willing to constantly and continuously question every part of our approach?

Think more. Stop allowing a process or formula to act as a de facto guide to decision-making. Formulas, models, recipes by their very nature create limitations. By blindly following them, we not only do our clients, but ourselves a tremendous disservice because we’ve created barriers before we even started. If we don’t, our work becomes about predicting, rather than affecting – guessing how it will turn out rather than adjusting for unforeseen variables and improving.

Let’s be honest, when we follow a formula, we’re trying to take a shortcut. It’s no different than a rat moving through a maze. Once he’s learned the fastest way to get to the cheese he follows the same path time and time again. And studies show when this same rat allows himself to fall into this pattern, mental activity significantly decreases.

So what happens when you move the cheese?

As the Cheshire Cat explained to Alice, “Only a few find the way, some don’t recognize it when they do – some…don’t ever want to.”

george nguyen George Nguyen is managing director at TBWA\Toronto. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock