Cool New Book Explores, Explains What I call “Problem Finding.”

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 1.31.46 PM

I just finished reading a really good book, a new title from Warren Berger, who’s been writing about the ad industry for a long time. Smart guy.

Book’s titled A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.

What Berger calls “inquiry” or “questioning,” I’ve been calling “problem finding.” But I’ve never found as good an explanation for why questioning or problem finding is becoming such a big deal. And I’ll put it this way:

“There was no ‘job order’ for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album.”

Sounds weird, I know, but when you think about all the coolest things you’ve seen in the world, heard in the world, read in the world, how many of them were ordered, you know, like a hamburger? How many of them were a solution to a problem?

Don’t get me wrong, many great things have been creative solutions to problems. But the coolest things out there, the stuff that blows us away are things that are answers to problems we didn’t know we had.

When asked if Apple depended much on consumer research, Steve Jobs responded, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” He’s right. I never sat around the house goin’, “If only there were a pocket-sized digital device capable of holding thousands of songs.”

The really spectacular new stuff comes less from problem-solving, and more from the kind of exploration and play that uncovers whole new worlds. (Here’s my new word for that: “Terra mensa incognito.” Chicks dig it when you speak Latin, seriously.)

The reason why this is such a valuable skill is that most brands have the marketing basics all figured out, you know, the blocking and tackling of marketing, they got that stuff down. Agencies that can solve only problems that are handed to them, well, they’re just not as valuable a business partner. Problem-solving is good, but it doesn’t result in sea changes or giant leaps forward. I’m reminded of that cool quotation, “Good advertising builds sales. Great advertising builds factories.”

The author quotes business consultant Min Basadur who says “If you’re able to find a problem before others do and then successfully answer the questions surrounding that problem, you can create a new venture, new career, new industry.”

Berger’s shorthand for the process of problem-finding is asking “Why? What if? And how?”

Why is most music sold as vinyl or magnetic tape? They both degrade.

What if there was a way to store music the same way we store regular old data?

How can we use digital technology to create a new music platform?

Voila, the iPod.

As the school year starts, I hope to keep reminding my students that there are plenty of creatives out there in the world who know how to read a client job order and solve the problem. Rarer are the ones whose intelligence is amplified by a consuming curiosity, a curiosity that has them questioning basically everything.

 

 

Richmond 1985: Life at a Small Agency and a Really Small Agency.

In 1983 – for you English Lit majors, 30 years ago – I joined the creative department of a small agency in Richmond as hire #10 or so. I went on to work at medium-sized and large agencies, but my time at the Martin Agency I remember with particular fondness. For students waffling between big versus small – both have their charms – today is about small.

img497
img520

This is the original building at Lee Circle where I first met Mike Hughes, best boss I ever had. (To our great shock, Mike died this last December 15th.) We ten creatives whom he oversaw worked on the third floor, which was an old ballroom. The biggest client at the time was Barnett Banks and while I don’t remember their billings, we did maybe two TV spots a year, buncha magazine, and too much radio. (Today their big account is some company called Wal-Mart.)

In those days, creative teams weren’t as common and everybody pretty much worked with everybody; and everybody knew everybody, and not just in the creative department but all over. If I were a new staffer at some big-ass shop in New York, I doubt their president woulda walked up to my desk – like Don Just did – to whisper, “Psst, we’re takin’ the timeshare jet to Palm Beach for the weekend and stayin’ at The Breakers.” (What followed was kinda like Spring Break, but without the youth, beauty, or sex.)

Not all small agencies were as fun as Martin was in the ‘80s. Come to think of it, it was probably the crazy decade of the ‘80s that got us nuts. Nah. It was us. We were crazy. Well, maybe five of us were crazy. Okay, I was crazy.

We’d gather almost nightly in one area bar or another, and not just Martin Agency people. The creative departments from other city agencies (Siddall, Matthus & Coughter, Lawler Ballard, Ford & Westbrook) gathered at joints like Humphrey’s, Jay’s, Strawberry Street Café, and Joe’s Inn; the last of which still has some of our brain cells on the ceiling, plus I think Mahoney left an open tab there.

Cynicism and sarcasm were the coinage of our realm, and we encouraged leaning into people’s cubicles to insult their work, looks, age, sexual orientation, whatever was handy. Insults were so common on the third floor they were the default setting of all hallway greetings. In fact, to signify you actually had something nice to say to someone, you had to lean in, speak, and then back away with two raised and open hands. (“I’m unarmed, not a threat.”)

Rollover to enlarge.
Rollover to enlarge.

Sometimes blanket insults were called for, such as the time I tacked this list to the third-floor bulletin board. It was for all “my” art directors, a list of rules about proper behavior while riding my coattails to the One Show. (My favorite being rule 5, somethin’ about, “Be quiet, I’m trying to think up here.” Boom!)

Though Richmond was a small ad town back then and never made the New York Times (well, once) we all wanted to crush each others’ dreams in the local ad competition, burn their pathetic villages, and leave their old women wailing in the streets, “Why do we suck so much?”

Actually we were all great friends and we’d help any and all with concepts and share our ideas scribbled on bar napkins. In fact, it was the napkin-layouts that gave my friend Cabell Harris the idea for Drinking Buddies Advertising and the logo. I managed to save only a piece of the stationery but the business card was cooler; an actual napkin with ad scribbles on it. (Oh, and the Martin Agency toilet paper? That’s from the bathroom during a party at an agency across town, Westbrook Inc.) Also pictured below is the entire creative department of Drinking Buddies Advertising. (Cabell, me, Danny Boone at the Strawberry Street Café branch office). Like Martin, we were a small agency too; we just didn’t have a health plan. (No wait, we did. “Try to switch to filtered cigarettes and always eat the fruit in your drink.”)

photo (2)
img522

Our good boss, Mike Hughes, somehow put up with all this foolishness and freelancing, as he had only to peek out his office to see we worked pretty hard at our day jobs. Still, I’m not sure any of it woulda been possible at a big-ass agency (or under a different creative director).

Screen Shot 2014-08-25 at 10.24.47 AM

There are more stories to tell another day. For now I’ll part with these last two pictures, both of me and Cabell Harris. It clearly shows what horrible things 30 years in the business can do to a person. Forgive me for leaving out all kinds of wonderful Martin Agency people, but that core group, you guys know who you are: Andy, Cabell, Christi, Danny, Diane, Hal, HV, Jane, Jerry, Mahoney, Russ, Tyson, and Wayne-us. I love you guys.)

img498
10547163_694980910584087_895007040457540703_o