I met Wendy when she was a client on BellSouth Mobility; she was one of the smartest and kindest clients I ever met. Ever. Was proud to work with her again at GSD&M. She went on to be President of Sparkling Brands & Strategic Marketing at Coca-Cola. Now she’s CEO of DDB Worldwide and had a blurb in one of my fave mags, Fast Company.
I swear, keeping an eye on the trajectory of Wendy’s career makes my neck hurt.
Back when I was a young knucklehead in advertising, we all knew the way to advance was to outwork everybody and dig up as much work as you could by walkin’ around and bugging the project managers for open job orders. (“Gimme a problem to solve. I’ll do a radio spot, a brochure, anything.”)
But today the opportunity for digging up cool projects is much bigger. Here’s why. When you think about it, most job orders are basically requests for solutions to problems that’ve already been identified. (“Please fill this 30-second TV buy with a concept. Oh, and make it part of the new fall campaign.”)
For my money, problem finding is a better way for you to advance your career. Not only is it more fun, problem finding is where most of the really cool stuff is happening; it’s the outer edge of growth; the green ring around the tree trunk of ideas. (Okay, I need a better metaphor but shut up, I’m on a roll.)
Here’s the reason why problem finding is an increasingly valuable skill. Most brands already have plenty of people solving their marketing problems; the ads, the TV spots; everybody’s already busy workin’ on that stuff. What you wanna look for are the problems that clients don’t know they have, yet. Problems which might be around the corner.
I define problem finding as a playful screwing-around and “what if-ing” that often results in giant leaps forward; leaps nobody was expecting because the problem didn’t exist until you pointed it out. Think of it as Creative Research & Development. And we do it by looking at the client, at their customers, their stores, their website. We look for bottlenecks, redundancies, unmet customer needs. And then we solve this new problem, elegantly.
All of which leads me to a particular project by two of my recent SCAD ad graduates: Lindsey Dwyer and Jocelyn Morera. As we often do in class, Lindsey and Jocelyn chose their own client, Redbox, and then looked not for an advertising problem to solve but to the future of Redbox; for problems the client’s likely gonna have down the road. The problem they settled on was simple, if daunting: “Save Redbox.”
Redbox launched in 2002 with kiosks in a few McDonald’s stores. They had a great run; their ubiquitous grocery store kiosks surpassed the number of Blockbuster locations in 2007 and for the year 2010 they had one billion rentals. For a long time now, Redboxes have been a convenient way to pick up a movie while making a grocery run. And returning the DVD was easy because you were likely going back for more food within the week anyway.
Well, we all know where this is going: DVDs and DVD players are fading. In fact, the last DVD player I saw was endlessly playing Toy Story for fidgety kids in my dentist’s waiting room. If you agree that the DVD format is indeed headed for a long dirt nap, it’s clear Redbox is gonna need more than just some cool ads. Jocelyn and Lindsey’s identification of the real problem (“Save Redbox”) seems prescient.
Their solution was The Little Redbox.
A little red USB people could plug into the existing kiosks on their way outta the store, download one of the latest movies, and go. It continues to serve the same impulse (“Yeah, let’s get a movie for tonight”), it still serves owners of DVD players still in the market, all while solving the other problem that comes with DVDs. (“Now I gotta return the damn thing.”)
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Okay, all you other SCAD ad students. Your Uncle Luke loves you, too. I’m using tons of your projects out there in speeches I give all over the country. You guys rock, too. I just thought this particular project illustrates an important point: problem-finding can go to some interesting places problem-solving can’t.
SUBTITLE: “OH GOD! WHAT IF I DON’T GET INTO WIEDEN OR GOODBY??”
(Reposting for our 2016 graduates.) Having been around the ad schools over the years, I overhear conversations in the hallways and the computer labs.
“Dude! You know Ashley? Yeah, she got into Goodby and I didn’t even get an email back from them. God, I suck.”
People, here’s the thing.
You probably don’t suck. It’s just that you’ve been raised in a culture that places a lot of emphasis on winning. “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” “Winners never quit…” and all the others.
Fact is, America has been obsessed with winning ever since we won first place in WW II. We copped a silver in the ’50s space race (damn Sputnik), but we came back and nailed the gold with Apollo 11. Ever since then, we’ve been all, “Who even remembers the second man on the moon?”
It seems we’ve left the grading system and become a pass-fail society; in fact, more like Winners/Failures.
“What? You didn’t get into Harvard? You only got into Notre Dame? Duuuude.”
“What?? You didn’t win the Super Bowl, just the AFL title? Lose, much?”
So, students. Repeat after me:
“I did not get a job offer at Goodby.
But I did get a job offer from (say) Shelby & Hammerstein in Chicago.
And they want to pay me for my ideas.
I am not stocking Bic pens on the shelves of Wal-Mart.
I have landed my first job in a creative industry.
From here, I can probably go anywhere.
Because I have a career now.
It has begun.”
So let us bless our friends who’ve landed jobs at the high-profile agencies. (The jobs come with some extra stress. Sure you want that?)
Let us be kind to ourselves and become “recovering perfectionists.”