Sharpening the axe. Effective growth needs good problems.

Published on November 30, 2020

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Abraham Lincoln


Solutions are comfortable; they make us feel as though we are making progress. However, the problem with solutions, is that they encourage us to ignore the diagnosis of a problem.

Edward de Bono(1) had a way of explaining this phenomenon. He said that brains are like jelly; when we pour a little hot water on a jelly a channel is formed, as more water is poured, the channel deepens until wherever water is poured on the jelly, it always runs down that channel.

The channels in this analogy are solutions, the water; problems.When we become too comfortable with particular solutions, we fail to recognise the problem. We make assumptions instead, and assumptions are the most direct way to hobble the effectiveness of our work and remove the role and power of creativity.


In the advent of digital platforms and consultancy-style packaged solutions, a focus on tactics gives birth to briefs like “create a movement”, “start conversations”, or the ubiquitous “drive awareness” and “change attitudes”.

These are solutions masquerading as problems. They are tactics, or as Binet and Field(2) call them “intermediate objectives”.

Good problems meanwhile are “hard objectives”; business results, or observed changes in behaviour – in other words, growth. These are the real problems of marketing, and more to the point, are the things we need to focus on to create effective work.

“Marketing metrics should aim to measure changes in the real commercial world of the brand, not just in the mindsets of the people who buy it”

Binet and Field – Marketing in the era of accountability

This is proven from analysis of the hundreds of effectiveness papers in the IPA databank(3). Campaigns with hard objectives enjoyed an effectiveness success rate of 50%, those with intermediate objectives achieved only 11%.

In order for us to find the best opportunity in the market, the biggest contribution that marketing can make is to eschew the rush to tactical solutions and truly understand the world of the brand. Or, as James Webb Young(5) wrote; “bringing together all the facts relevant to the advertiser’s situation, and feeling them all over with the tentacles of the mind”.

Put very simply, the old mantra of “rubbish in, rubbish out” holds true. Without hard objectives (good problems) we simply can’t interrogate and apply marketing science to the problem and that harms effectiveness and ultimately growth.

But effectiveness is only half of the equation, because good problems are essential for creativity too.


In a business world where we stigmatise mistakes, good problems are uncomfortable, they open us up to failure where a solution gives us a (false) sense of control.

”If you are not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with
anything original”

Sir Ken Robinson(4)

Mark Ritson(6) tells the story of an annual marketing plan he was asked to review. It was stuffed-full of clever digital tactics and activations, but when he asked his client about his targeting, positioning and objectives he was astonished to see that the client responded blankly – he had given creativity no problems to solve, just assets to deliver.

Without good problems to solve, brave, original creativity (which we know is crucial to growth from marketing*) becomes undermined. Orson Welles said it neatly; “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

*See ‘Predicting the win’ – for more on this.

Good creative teams want to know the problem they are solving, and get to the root cause of the problem, not just the tactic or platform they are creating work for. The very best creative teams intuitively ask… Why?


Sakichi Toyoda(7), the Japanese inventor and founder of Toyota had an innate love of asking why?

He developed a problem-solving concept called ‘The 5 Whys’ –asking "why" five times to find the source of a given problem, with each answer forming the basis of the next question, often with surprising results.

“When you start working on a job for a client, no one knows where the answer will come from and how that idea – which may not conform to the brief’s assumptions about what is required – could actually transform that client’s business.”

Sir John Hegarty

At the heart of the 5-whys is the antidote to de Bono’s ‘jelly brain’ and the assumptions that hamper effectiveness and creativity. The 5-why’s does not simply provide a solution, it finds something more effective; counter-measures that prevent the problem happening again.

Here’s an example from McCann on how it might work:

Hard Objective: Grow market share.

Marketing solution: Create awareness of a little-known fund that invests in companies with female leadership.

  1. Why? Because women are critically underrepresented in the C-Suite.
  2. Why? Because there is a systemic male focus in finance.
  3. Why? Because finance is culturally seen as a man’s world.
  4. Why? Because young people are taught that from an early age.
  5. Why? Because the signs and symbols of finance are masculine

Counter-measure: Highlight the systemic masculinity in the signs and symbols of finance.

Campaign: State Street Global Advisors - Fearless Girl - 8 Cannes Lions at the 2017 Cannes Lions

Business results:A 384% increase in the average daily trading volume of the SSGA SHE fund following the Fearless Girl launch.

Where marketing solutions are only able to deal with the symptom of a problem, asking why helps us think laterally, find the root cause, unlock creativity and create growth.


The evidence is clear – effective growth starts with better problems:

  • Focus only on the hard business objectives you are trying to achieve, intermediary objectives come only after the marketing problem has been defined.

  • Marketing plans should focus on problems to solve, not assets to be delivered.

  • Avoid rushing to solutions by ruthlessly interrogating problems to unlock the counter-measures within them instead.

Like Lincoln’s axe, by spending the time in honing our understanding of the problem, we can sharpen the effectiveness of the result.

Ringo Moss is Managing Partner – Strategy, at McCann Central.


  1. Edward de Bono: The Mechanism of Mind
  2. Les Binet & Peter Field: Briefing in the Era of Accountability
  3. Les Binet & Peter Field: Marketing in the Era of Accountability
  4. Sir Ken Robinson: Prepared to be wrong x TED
  5. James Webb Young: A technique for producing ideas
  6. Mark Ritson: Tactics without strategy is dumbing down our discipline
  7. Olivier Serrat: The Five Whys Technique