My Favorite Idea From An Ad Class This Spring. And Why.

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.

Ideas are cooler than ads.

Ideas are cooler than ads.

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.


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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.