Mar 25, 2009

Why working on a marketing strategy is like solving a sudoku

Adrian Ho wrote a post last week about how solving sudokus serves as a metaphor for doing marketing strategy, and followed up by listing his thoughts on what's analogous between the two.

I am not quite a sudoku aficionado like Adrian, but I do solve the occasional newspaper sudoku - and have also been at the perplexed end of quite a few. And I have also on occasion wondered about the similarities between solving the sudoku and what I do for a living.

So here's a couple of thots I'd like to add to Adrian's.

Excepting for a few key numbers, it isn't quite important which sequence you solve the sudoku in. Every number of the puzzle you solve only opens up solutions elsewhere on the board. Of course, some numbers/positions are key and serve as bottlenecks - all your preliminary answers conspire to lead you to them. Navigate through these and you'll see the coast clear after that.

Though purists would like to think that working on a marketing strategy has to follow a linear route, I prefer to see it in terms of a sudoku puzzle. Fill every blank that can be deduced ignoring where it is on the puzzle - and you'll be ultimately led to the key issue(s) in it. Crack those and you'll only need to fill in the remaining blanks following simple rules and correlations.

I am not sure it's obvious from the above paragraph but what I'm stressing is that it is never obvious in the beginning where in the puzzle lie those key issues/bottlenecks. You can only figure out by starting to solve the problem with what you already have. If you haven't already done that, you can't attack those key numbers - simply because you don't know where they are.

Paradoxically, that could actually mean that coming up with the strategy or the idea was the not the key bottleneck in the puzzle - but instead the key puzzle you may need to solve may be how to work a good backstory or a creation myth from the idea you had 2 minutes after hearing the brief.

My other sudoku-strategy connection might be a little more controversial - or not.

In my opinion, the hallmark of a great strategy is that when you're done with it you know that it is the right solution. Just like when you solve a sudoku. If you've got it all right, you'll know. If you haven't, ditto.

Meaning, the puzzle not only defines the problem at hand but also contains all the necessary information to let you know if you've solved it right. In fact, the puzzle is one half of the solution - the broken part of the key that one needs to complete.

Which brings me to the 'brief.' The one we receive as strategists or the one we pass on to the creative guys. What most briefing formats don't manage to capture is how to arrive at this sudoku state - setting a puzzle (without knowing the solution beforehand) that enables the solver to determine if and when it has been solved correctly.

The whole process of writing a creative or a communication brief in my opinion is to give a marketing/communication problem that sudoku-like quality. By filling in just enough numbers on a blank or almost-blank puzzle to ensure that the resulting brief has one unique and accessible, yet non-obvious, solution - not multitudes.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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