Beware of the shallows – how the industry forgot the problems we solve are meant to be hard

In this guest post, strategist Simon Corbett argues that Google has unleashed a plague of shallow thinking upon a communications industry that has become terrified of the word "problem"

I’m a big fan of Google.

I wasn’t always.

Truth be told that I am (in)famous amongst my old mates back in Blighty as the man who predicted that Google wouldn’t succeed. In fact I think my exact quote was: “The whole fun of the internet is trying to find stuff, who wants to just get pointed in the right direction all the time. It won’t last.”

Yep. I know.

Of all the great things on the internet I reckon Google is hands down the very best. Simple, powerful and entirely designed to make life easier. It’s bloody great.


Unknowingly Google is also to blame for a plague that is in danger of overtaking and ruining the media and marketing industry.

The plague I am referring to is shallow thinking.

Google puts information right at our fingertips; it makes things easy and convenient for us. This is all well and good, but often a consequence of this is that it also makes us lazy. I fear that we are becoming increasingly lazy and shallow in our thinking and that if we don’t start to work harder and to go deeper with our thinking then we run the risk of leaving a legacy in market of poorly thought out strategies that do nothing for anyone.

Beware of shallow thinking

Nielsen research tells us that on average we see some 3,000 advertising messages a day; noticing only 80 and reacting to only 10. So basically there is a hell of a lot of noise out there. So if we are truly going to grab people’s attention, help our clients become not just distinct but chosen in their category then we need to get to the heart of things. Getting to the heart of these three things would help enormously I suggest…

  • The heart of the consumer problem we are trying to solve
  • The heart of the behaviour we are trying to influence
  • The heart of the communications approach we need to adopt

To do this as it needs to be done – and by that I mean to do it effectively, so it makes a bloody difference – then we need to work hard. The answer won’t be easy. Before I start any strategy, I know it’s going to be hard.

And why do I know this? Because, I know the details that matter are hiding themselves below the surface. They don’t want to be found, not easily anyway. And the details that don’t matter are trying to distract me and get me off track, trying to lure me into the easy and the obvious.

Finding details that matter, and discarding the rest is the essence of critical thinking and that’s what I fear we are losing. I see so much work in market this is similar, undifferentiated and ultimately trivial. That work comes from shallow thinking, its work that has taken shortcuts and only scratched the surface and I think that it stands out clearly.

How does that work happen?  I think it starts with how the brief is approached, more specifically our tendency to steer away from using the ‘P’ word in relation to the brief.

I am talking about Problem.

Has anyone else noticed a problem with the word ‘problem’? It feels as if people are becoming increasingly fearful about using the word problem lest they are seen to be negative or pessimistic. Nowadays it appears that nothing is a problem it is only a challenge.

Client: Our product has a challenge. It has started to explode and burn off people’s hair effectively leaving them bald…

Agency: Yes…that is a challenge…

Well I love the word ‘Problem’. It means that shit ain’t working and we need to fix it. It means that we have an opportunity but we don’t know how to grab it. It means the solution isn’t making itself visible to us so therefore we need to galvanise ourselves, roll our sleeves up and deal with it. I think ‘Challenge’ is a bit fluffy and problem is meaty and I like meaty!

So I say death to shallow thinking and I call on all of us to get on watch; to find it and kill it when we find it. Deep thinking – critical thinking – means that you work to form a decision or opinion of your own rather than just spouting off what you hear others say.

  • Simon Corbett is Chief Innovation Officer and Partner at independent media agency Slingshot.

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