Solving the ‘human problem’

Taxi's Thomas Kenny on how the ad industry is taking the wrong approach to the creative brief.


By Thomas Kenny

Good advertising is possible without a good brief, but it’s stumbled upon by chance rather than by design and is, as a result, far more elusive.

A good brief will set the parameters within which successful advertising can be created. We may not know the landscape of our final destination at the briefing stage, but we will know the criteria with which to evaluate whether or not we’ve found it. Writing a good brief is hard, but the formula is actually quite straightforward. 

Far too many briefs focus on the desired business outcome when they should be focusing on the problem we’re solving for the people we’re talking to. Right now, most briefs begin with identifying the business problem. They will describe how mainstream beer sales are down among millennial drinkers, or how millennials aren’t eating breakfast anymore, or the need to increase the millennial buy rate for chewing gum (it’s shocking how often these stubborn millennials seem to be at the heart of so many business problems over the past few years).

But the problem with beginning a brief this way is that it asks the wrong question. A brief that asks “how do we get millennials to eat breakfast again?” doesn’t bring us any closer to finding a solution. Instead of asking “what is the business problem to be solved?” the question a brief needs to ask – and usually answer – is “what is the human problem to be solved?”

It’s commonly agreed that the best and most inspiring briefs are insightful briefs. Sadly, “insight” is perhaps the most mercurial term in advertising. It is frequently evoked, but rarely understood. It’s commonly defined in the context of advertising as the underlying motivation behind why someone behaves a certain way.

In my mind (and others would surely disagree), the insight we should all be seeking when writing a brief is the correct identification of the human need or human tension which our product will fulfill or resolve. In some instances that need may be functional (“I can’t get my tub clean without scrubbing it for 20 minutes”) and sometimes that need may be emotional (“I want a restaurant that reminds me of the comforts of home”).

By correctly identifying the human problem, we establish the role our product will play in people’s lives and can begin figuring out the best way to position our product as the solution to that problem. If we discover that there is no human problem for which our product is the resolution then, well, that product is a dud and no one is going to buy it.

When I graduated university and started interviewing for my first real job, my dad gave me a great piece of advice. He said, don’t ever talk to a potential employer about what you’ll get out of a job. Instead, he advised that I list the ways that hiring me will benefit my employer. It was great advice.

Likewise, in 2013, Teehan + Lax published a great blog post on their “Jobs to be Done’” approach to product design. In it, they outlined how they viewed a product as a job applicant. They explained how consumers have needs – or to use their analogy, “jobs to be done” – and they set out to design the best products, or “applicants,” to fill those jobs.

The same thinking they applied to designing products should logically be extended to the marketing of those products.

Where this approach, and unlocking a great brief, becomes difficult is in not simply taking the easy way out. If the task at hand is to sell a new deodorant, then the human problem to be solved can’t simply be “people want a great smelling, long lasting deodorant.” If that is in fact the human problem, then there are dozens, if not hundreds of deodorants that solve that problem. The key to writing a great brief is to identify the problem that our product can uniquely solve or that our product solves better than its competitors.

Having identified the human problem to be solved, the rest of the brief becomes an exercise in positioning our product as the solution. At its simplest, a brief should consist of the target audience, the human problem to be solved and the words/actions required to convince the target our product is the best solution to their problem. Anything that doesn’t inform or provide context to one of these three things is extraneous and should be excised.

This approach does, however, presume that a pre-existing solution already exists. In some instances briefs will be required to solve human problems where there is not already a solution – new product development, websites, contests, apps, etc. In these cases, the same basic principles apply. But rather than convincing people that the perfect solution to their problem exists, our task is to create that solution.

Thomas-KennyThomas Kenny (@thomaskenny) is strategy director at Taxi in Toronto

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock