Not-so-obvious solutions

December 12, 2014

I recently got an email from my mother with a fun quiz - actually, a dementia quiz. (Take the quiz here.) You know the kind: labeled as some sort of intelligence test with every question seeming like a trick question. My mother also sent it to my younger brother and (very smart) aunt with the note, "I got them all wrong. I guess old age is catching up with me."


That’s depressing. 


Then the others chimed in: All wrong. Five questions. All wrong. All three of them. This has got to be difficult. But I’ll take the test. I won't look any dumber than the others. 


First question...correct. Too easy. 


Second question...wrong!*


Third, fourth and fifth...all correct. 


Feeling more curious than proud, I began to analyze why I got most right on a test where it's considered good to get two correct. Could it be...advertising?


That’s my best guess, or excuse, because my school grades were never that great. 


But why advertising? I think it's because, in our business, we are always seeking the not-so-obvious answer. Whether it's analyzing data, research, or consumer behavior, what seems to be the obvious conclusion is more likely not the correct or best answer. In our world, nothing is quite as simple as just drawing a straight line to an answer as there are far too many variables in marketing and we're still trying to understand the workings of the human mind. 


For competitive reasons we also seek the not-so-obvious solutions. Most marketers are remarkably consistent at employing the most obvious solutions, drawing straight lines from focus group consumers’ mouths or toplines from quantitative studies. The solutions employed are defendable, based on research, and therefore safe, which is important, because on the marketing team’s side, jobs can be at stake. Decisions need to be defendable.


On the agency side, however, we’re tasked with coming up with new solutions. That leaves us two options: either we view the available information differently (to find different solutions, aka strategies), or we draw the same straight lines to obvious conclusions and rely completely on artistic tools (visuals, words and sounds) to make the same solution appear different (using the same strategy with a different facade).


More often than not, the latter path is taken. Solve the problem with art, but use the same strategy (solution) as before or as employed by others. It rarely works. The solution is still the obvious, straight-line approach giving the illusion of a creative solution. But it’s still an illusion. A defensible illusion of a fresh solution.


Let’s go back to the quiz. If you answer the questions with the first answer that comes to mind, the answer that seems obviously correct, you’ll get every question wrong. But if you take that first answer and set it aside as one option, then push for another solution, you will often come up with the correct answer.


And that’s how we work here and at what I would call truly creative agencies. Set the first, obvious, straight-line solution aside. It’s an option, but one quickly sees it’s the solution already employed. Same research. Same straight-line conclusions and solutions. Set those aside. Dig in and find other solutions. Most often, the more effective solution is not the obvious, straight-from-the-data solution.


And that’s just as creative as fresh design, copy or sound, as that’s where the most effective ideas come from. 


When I took the quiz that’s exactly what I did: set the first, obvious answer aside and look for another. Not because I’m so smart, but because that’s how we work in this business. Getting four out of five right was easy. (But I should have gotten them all right!) The second solution was nearly always correct.


Really, that’s the only answer I can come up with. Or maybe I was adopted. 



*A bit of a trick question as there is no answer.

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