Solve the Right Problems, in the Right Order

Solve the Right Problems

We automatically assume that what we pay attention to is what’s important.
– Robert Cialdini, Pre-Suasion:

Behavioral scientists have identified a cognitive thing called attentional bias: whatever gets people’s attention becomes most important. Marketing is a tool for shifting people’s attention. Properly used, marketing also lessens concerns a customer may have, instead promoting product benefits; the benefits then get the customer’s attention.

Plenty of ad agencies claim to be consultancies—i.e., they advise on marketing and branding, offer strategic planning and seek to help clients with demands for greater marketing efficiency and accountability… versus just creating ads. Clients may expect a consultancy to proffer advice of a higher caliber, and also expect commensurately better results. But are agencies actually living up to their claims? Are they giving advice that actually merits the “consulting” label? And do the results actually improve client outcomes?

Getting the Order Right

Richard Shotton, behavioral scientist and author of The Choice Factoryshared on his Twitter feed a snippet of an article by Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman at Ogilvy, a marketing and advertising “big thinker” known for fascinating TED talks and insights into how we’ve strayed away from what actually works in advertising and marketing—understanding human psychology. Sutherland was discussing what happens in typical marketing firms when they transpose the importance of what the client wants its customers to do, versus what customers needto get to where they are willing (or able) to do it. In other words, we too often put the cart before the horse by solving the wrong problems, or solving problems in the wrong order.

Sutherland used the analogy of traffic planners studying whether to widen a three-lane motorway to six or even ten lanes. Planners don’t automatically start a big project until they first examine where the roadway leads, and where the bottlenecks actually occur that back up traffic onto that three-lane motorway. If you have a point where the three lanes narrow to one, you fix that first. Otherwise, you’re just exacerbating the backup on the motorway by loading more traffic into a bottleneck.

Efficient vs. Effective

In another article, Sutherland talked about clients’ heavy focus on efficiency—the cheapest way to achieve a short-term goal—and how often, pursuit of efficiency cancels out opportunities to improve results exponentially. 

“The absurdity of the efficiency bubble [a term coined by Will Lion of BBH]was brought home to me in a recent meeting with an online travel company. The conversation repeatedly included the mantra ‘the need to maximize online conversion.’ Everyone nodded along. Clearly, it is much more efficient for people to book travel through the website rather than over the telephone, since it reduces transaction costs. But then someone—not me, I’m ashamed to say—said something revelatory: ‘Ah, but here’s the thing. Online visitors to the site convert at about 0.3%. People who telephone convert at 33%. Maybe the website should have a phone number on every page.’

Now obviously I am not claiming that the telephone is 100 times more effective than the web; prospects who call are warmer than those who browse. But it does raise a serious question—perhaps the most efficient way to sell travel is not the most effective way to sell travel. What, in short, is the opportunity cost of being efficient?

“Nobody ever asks this question. Opportunity costs are invisible; short-term savings earn you a bonus. That’s the efficiency bubble at work again.”

In our pursuit of ways to convince clients obsessed with efficiency that they still need marketing advice, we are getting caught in the same mental traps our clients have embraced. It is increasingly our job to question client objectives and help them see that other solutions may serve them better… or even that they’re trying to solve the wrong problem. That is the kind of thinking that deserves the consultancy brand many agencies lay claim to.

Lead, Don’t Follow

Advertising and marketing consultancies need to start seeking out and fixing their clients’ “bottlenecks”—those things that prevent customers from completing the purchase journey. That usually means that you need to look beyond what clients ask you to do, and make sure that the real problem does not actually start somewhere else, where it might be lessened or even eliminated at less cost. That is true efficiency in marketing.

Efficiency isn’t just about what the client is spending, but what return your agency is able to deliver. Delivering the right return, not just the most cost-effective, requires true partnership between agency and client. If you can guide clients to see that a simpler, less costly fix somewhere else can greatly improve their conversion rates, you will have earned the right to call your agency a consultancy… and gained greatly in credibility and trust.

P.S. You can also justify charging more for that level of consulting.


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