Whether you’re a designer or a developer, working in an agency boils down to solving problems. (How can we get people to buy more? Click more? Share more? You get the idea.) Ideally, this is a two-step process:

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Solve the problem.

Seems straightforward enough, but does it always happen like that? Not by a long shot. (I said “ideally.”) Most of the time, the solving steals the spotlight while defining the problem falls by the wayside.

When that happens, the solution suffers. Because at the heart of every marketing problem is a human being driven by a special set of desires and fears, and it’s our job to address the specific ones that will motivate them to act. If we don’t spend enough time on the front-end ensuring solutions are tuned into the right concerns, the work will fall flat.

“Because design as a problem-solving activity can never, by definition, yield one right answer: it will always produce an infinite number of answers, some “righter” and some “wronger.” The “rightness” of any design solution will depend on the meaning and which we invest the arrangement.”
Victor Papanek

Give the Problem Some Love (Before You Start Crushing on the Solution)

There’s a trap that all creatives fall prey to now and again: falling in love with the first idea. Enchanted by the serendipity that something brilliant just tumbled onto the page (before lunch?!?), it can be tempting to halt the exploration process and skip right to the “doing.”


(If we have the patience to read 29 salad spinner reviews on Amazon, we should be able to extend the same courtesy to our ideas.)

The shiny object is exciting to work on at first, but once you’ve committed to a solution, it’s difficult to rebuild the creative momentum to generate more ideas. If you haven’t properly explored the problem, the likelihood that you’ll find your way to the best solution is next to goose-egg. It’s like that famous quote that Henry Ford never actually said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Instead, give as much love to the problem as you do the solution. Hell, maybe even a little more. Push past the typical who-what-where line of interrogation and take the time to really dive deep. Harness your inner six-year-old and unleash a maddening cascade of BUT-WHYs until you get to the core issue at hand.

Here’s An Apple Example to Prove We’re Telling the Truth

This wouldn’t be a proper agency post if we didn’t drag Apple onstage to make our point. Let’s look at their 1984 Macintosh ad, long considered a masterpiece in advertising. (FYI: AdAge named this the #1 Super Bowl commercial of all time.)

The problem at the most basic level was to introduce Apple’s new product, the Macintosh computer, that would give IBM a run for it’s money. But why was it better? How was it different?

These are the kinds of answers that surface-level thinking brings to the surface:

“Because it’s easy to use.”

“It’s an innovative product.”

While true, these responses would have never led to the 1984 ad concept. Luckily, agency Chiat/Day took the time to unearth the real problem, which wasn’t the need for a newer, better product. It was anxiety.

“The intention was to remove people’s fears of technology at a time when owning your own computer made about as much sense as owning your own cruise missile. We wanted to democratize technology, telling people that the power was now literally in their hands…The Big Brother of the spot wasn’t IBM—it was any government dedicated to keeping its populace in the dark. We knew that computers and communications could change all that.”
Steve Hayden, Co-Creator of 1984 ad

Instead of marketing the Macintosh as the newest offering in a line of cryptic machines,  Chiat/Day positioned the Macintosh computer as a tool of personal freedom. The audience, hungry for any reassurance that technology wasn’t the first step toward an Orwellian future, ate it up.

Clients, We Need Your Help (in a Jerry Maguire Kind of Way)

Not all problems come in the form of product launches. Even the smallest challenges (think “I need more people to click this button on my website”) can benefit from asking more questions.

As a client, it’s in your best interest to go through this exploration process with us. After all, you know your customers, products and business better than anyone else.

As creatives, we can play out “what-ifs” and perform thought experiments all day. But if the answers aren’t there (or what we presume internally isn’t accurate), then we might as well be chasing the White Rabbit down a sewer drain instead of finding our way to Wonderland.

Need a little help peeling back the onion layers? Here are a few time-tested methods to get you started:

  • Ask why 5 times (the 5 why’s method)
  • Come at the problem from a different angle. Put yourself in the shoes of your customer, your competitor or even your curmudgeonly neighbor.
  • Consider the “not” questions. Why not? Who doesn’t? What doesn’t?

We’ll ask you plenty of leading questions during discovery, too. And if you find yourself wondering, “But why in Sam Hill do these people want to know whether or not the people who buy our sausages hate their jobs?”, just trust us. Every shred of insight and information you have is fodder for the idea hopper, so bring it on.

Turning problems inside out is what excites us and gives us the ability to deliver superior work. (It’s also why we swig Deathwish and always have a get-things-done-pump-up playlist waiting in the queue.) I challenge you—and our own team at CNP—to push past the obvious answers. Mine the pit of “Why” and find the uncut ideas that lie beneath the surface level thinking. Dig deep. Like fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, it’s where the good stuff is.