In the marketing space, a consistent failure to define the problem creates consistently suboptimal marketing results. Overcoming this, Tim Williams says, requires a commitment to a much more proactive approach to investigating and articulating obstacles to business success.

In the 2011 movie Moneyball, film-maker Bennett Miller recounts the remarkable story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics baseball team. In the film, general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) attempts to assemble a competitive team working under the constraints of a relatively small budget. Beane is also fighting against the old-school methods of traditional baseball scouts who judge player potential based more on style than substance.

In a memorable scene involving Beane and a conference room full of crusty talent scouts who are advocating for the idea of recruiting baseball players that ‘look good’ on the field, Beane interrupts a somewhat frivolous discussion by asking “Gentlemen, what is the problem?” The talent scouts reply that they all understand the problem. “Good,” says Beane, “so what’s the problem?” After listening to a series of fumbled responses, Beane asks once again “What is the problem?” It’s clear that his group of over-the-hill recruiters haven’t stopped to grasp the real challenge the team is facing: a minuscule budget that would make it nearly impossible to afford the star players they’re recommending. (For Beane’s innovative solution, watch the movie – it’s well worth it.)

In the marketing space, our consistent failure to define the problem creates consistently suboptimal marketing results. Agency teams are handed scopes of work by client organisations who have given only cursory thought to the marketing or business objectives. Research by the Association of National Advertisers in the US shows that when marketers are directly asked the question ‘What is the objective of this marketing programme?’, roughly three-quarters offer the generic answer ‘Sales.’ That’s not very useful information. What company doesn’t aspire to sell more products and generate more revenue? ‘Sales’ is an extraordinarily unhelpful default answer to an extraordinarily important query.

The lack of critical thinking in defining business and marketing objectives has created an environment in which most marketers and their agencies jump straight to scope of work without first defining the ‘scope of value’. And without a clear understanding of scope of value, the scope of work might be (and often is) wrong.

One useful way to sharpen the definition of objectives is to ask not ‘What are your objectives?’ but rather ‘What problem are you trying to solve?’ It’s often been said that effectively defining the problem is more than half the solution. The reason marketing professionals don’t do this more consistently is because it’s hard work. It’s much easier to offer up the glib objective of ‘sales’ than it is to frame the problem in an insightful way. As master strategist Richard Rumelt observes in Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, “An especially insightful diagnosis can transform one’s view of the situation, bringing a radically different perspective to bear.” The job of the strategist, he says, is to boil down the complexity of the challenge into a simpler story, one that calls attention to its crucial aspects. In other words, effectively define the problem.

The essence of being a professional is solving, not doing. This requires a commitment to a much more proactive approach to investigating and articulating obstacles to business success. When engaging with a new client, most agencies have a version of a ‘discovery process’, but it’s often a cursory checklist of client wants and needs, not an in-depth inquiry into the pressing challenges faced by the brand.

The best agencies have the equivalent of a ‘success workshop’ in which they invite C-level client executives to plumb the depths of their marketing issues, problems, challenges and opportunities. This involves taking a holistic view of desired outcomes in five areas. First, business-related outcomes, which can include such metrics as sales, market share, market penetration, percentage of full-price sales, average price per sale, incremental profit. Second, marketing-related outcomes, such as inquiries, leads, store traffic, search engine rankings, web page views, purchase frequency, number of new customers, press coverage, online mentions. Third, customer-related outcomes, including success indicators like brand awareness, brand preference, intent to purchase, brand likeability, brand fame, would recommend to a friend, willingness to pay price premium. Fourth, channel-related outcomes, which include specific objectives related to the sales or distribution channel, such as average sale per dealer, dealer knowledge, dealer referrals, channel turnover, channel inquiries. And finally, internal outcomes, representing desired results among internal audiences, including such things as employee product knowledge, internal brand adoption.