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Is There a Problem Here?

August 31, 2010

The phrase is often met with apprehension, which is to say, fear. No one likes a confrontation, and problems are often greeted by the gut reaction that a confrontation is in the offing – even if it’s only with yourself. A problem means you’ve got to stop the flow of whatever you’re doing and deal with the obstacle in your path.

Sometimes a greater picture exists: Does a problem even exist? If so, what, if anything, do I have to do about it? When I first started my firm I thought (with great naiveté): Marketing! Terrific – I’ll never have to sell again since what I do is work internally with clients to develop methods of selling. I don’t actually have to do it myself! I know, you’re chuckling loudly at this point. I naively thought that I was providing solutions. Solutions to problems, which, I thought were obvious: They need more clients, and I would tell them how to market to them.

Little did I realize then that what I’d missed was my assumption that the client would always recognize when they had a problem. They didn’t. Often. And this is actually now where my greatest effort goes: selling them on the problem so that we can get to the marketing to solve the problem. Here are some obvious marketing problems in the abstract: The client doesn’t realize s/he is marketing to the wrong audience. S/he’s targeting highbrow consumers, but the product or service is most often purchased by the less-educated middle class. Or here is the reverse: The client targets the wealthy, but his product isn’t luxurious enough to satisfy that market’s quality standards for the asking price. Or, the most common problem: Example: I envision a large target audience that shops in high end stores and online. They read high-end magazines, take expensive vacations and drive luxury cars. The client can’t or won’t envision marketing to all these opportunities. And yet they lament their dismal sales.

I recognize that budgets are currently severely limited. That makes selling the problem even harder. The client doesn’t want to hear about all the missed opportunities. The client doesn’t want to hear s/he’s missing the big picture and the parade marching by. The client wants to sell a lot more stuff to a much smaller audience that is unwilling to buy in the volume s/he envisions. The problem is the client doesn’t think big enough! Now that’s a tough one to sell.

I often dream much bigger for my clients than I think they allow themselves to dream for themselves. Therefore, they shut themselves off from far greater opportunities. And this is where my work begins. It can take months and even years for me to convince a client new markets await them. And I don’t mean in a strict, geographic sense. I mean a new audience. Just because they were able to sell to a lot of Buick-driving soccer moms when they first began doesn’t mean they have to limit themselves to that demographic or sector indefinitely. …There are Toyota-driving soccer moms out there, too!

On another front, I find a huge challenge in selling the design problem. As a visually-oriented person I see how I think a campaign or a product should look in its finished presentation. I see the photograph’s composition, lighting, background, color, texture and so on. I often explain these elements to clients in great detail, particularly when they are planning out a photo shoot. The end result is often vastly different from what I believe is necessary to sell the solution (to the problem) to the client’s target market.

Time and budgets often wreak havoc with execution of lofty ideas. The photographer’s shot setup takes hours longer than expected. So we don’t get the shot targeted to teenagers. Thus, we can’t even target that market because we’ve no visuals a teenager would stop to look at. The budget gets chopped. But ultimately it is the client who is short changed because the design vision is never achieved. And, therefore, my ability to sell the solution to the problem cannot be achieved because the target audience never sees how magnificent the product is. They don’t see how it would solve all their problems…because they didn’t know they had one!

On the other hand, if the client truly sees the problem, s/he’ll move heaven and earth to ensure the tools are provided to solve the problem, to reach that new audience, because s/he’ll see the value in potential revenue of making that extra investment – even when the photographer has to stay an extra two hours to get the shot.

In our new world economy we’re constantly on the lookout for where we can cut costs, cut corners, shave a little off the expense-o-meter. What we often don’t realize is that in doing so we’ve forgotten the problem we originally set out to resolve. Now we’ve got a new problem because our new solutions aren’t addressing the original problems. This is where we turn our attention to now, in design, in marketing, in production and creation now. We can solve the new problems. But we’ve got to recognize they exist in the first place in order to solve them.

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