Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Liam Brennan: Going back for the future

Liam Brennan (@LCBrennan), Global Director of Innovation, MediaCom is one of our industry’s preeminent thinkers in innovation and NDA’s monthly columnist.

The opening scene of Back to the Future does a wonderful job of foreshadowing both the key themes of the film, as well as aiding character development of one of the film’s protagonists – Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown. It paints a portrait of an inventor who, although of high intellect and creative in his problem solving, demonstrates a poor track record of success when it comes to creating inventions.

The slow-moving shot pans across a badly kept garage, filled with broken contraptions and several ticking clocks, levers and pulleys that make up his ramshackle automated breakfast machine. The first clock chimes, activating a coffee machine, which pours boiling water into a non-existent cup, subsequently flooding the floor. This in turn powers a television set, and then a toaster (which, of course, burns the toast), where the expulsion of the toast kickstarts a chain of events to open a can a dog food, which, like the coffee, is slowly tipped out of the can and splatters onto the floor.

Doc’s ‘Rube Goldberg Breakfast Machine’ is a complex and inefficient way of performing relatively straightforward manual tasks. It is a creative and somewhat technically brilliant solution, but one that achieves little incremental improvement over the status quo. Although designed to save time and energy, more effort has gone into the construction, setup and clean up than the task it is designed to solve.

We tend to tackle straightforward problems with complex solutions and celebrate achievements in complexity rather than improvement in outcome. Indeed, often complex problems will have simple solutions, and often involve changes in ways of working and operations rather than the deployment of technology.

In one of my very first engineering lectures at University (long story…), we were always told to design first with simplicity in mind – then to optimise with a better, faster, cheaper mentality (and in that order). Better solutions may be more complex, but they should never be presented until something simpler that did the job was showcased – and these more complex solutions had to demonstrate were incrementally improving the end goal.

An example of an optimal ‘dumb tech’ solution is the solve for a short walk to the corner shops. Although a car might be quicker over a set distance than walking, it takes time to start, park and load the car, making the complex solution far more inefficient, even though a car is ‘better’ than walking when compared as a fast mode of transportation.

Good problem-solving process starts first at the desired end goal, evaluating where we are on that journey to achieving said goal, and identifying the barriers needed to be overcome to get there. This all takes place before we even start to consider what the actual solution to solve may be, and or indeed how we improve upon it.

Addressing each challenge one by one, looking at their components in terms importance and impact to achieving the end goal – and perhaps reframing in terms of difficultly – are simple steps one can take to break down complex problems into smaller, but interdependent parts and focus efforts. Having that ‘North Star’ and clearly outlined processes provide you with good sense checks to not introduce overcomplexity.

This weekend I received a ‘2021 Hygiene Kit’ from Unilever, comprising samples of hand wash, detergent and cleaning spray. The pack was sent to me after I shared my details (first party data) via a Facebook Ad to Unilever. A simple mechanic with a clear value exchange of free cleaning product for multiple valuable/relevant data points about me to Unilever.

I find it odd how difficult brands and agencies make this sort of first party data collection out to be. The proposed solution always seems to be one of targeting, optimisation of media and messaging performance and on-site form tweaks. These are things that may make an incremental difference to performance, but also exponentially consume human time and costs. They are optimisations and not solutions in and of themselves.

The ‘Hygiene Kit’ involved a small amount of tech (the Facebook ad), but it was primarily a people-based solution. It cost Unilever at most a couple of dollars for the ad, product, and shipping – much cheaper than a pure tech/media solution. Unilever knows the value of that first party data, and they approach by looking at the value exchange that needs to happen, not what tech is needed.

Technology and ‘newness’ may be exciting additions to a solution, but they’re not always the best to use as a problem solve. A heavily modified DeLorean and 1.21 GigaWatts may be what’s needed for time travel, but all someone needs to efficiently open a can of dog food is a can opener.