A New Role For Agencies: Solving ‘Wicked’ Problems?

A New Role For Agencies: Solving ‘Wicked’ Problems?

In this guest post, Dr Ken Hudson (pictured below), a specialist in organisational creativity, former AMEX marketing director and author of The Idea Generator & Speed Thinking, says agencies have a significant role to play in helping brands solve big, complex problems…

Clients need help from their advertising agencies to stimulate demand for their products or services and build their brands.


Most agencies excel at meeting this requirement. But there is another challenge, which clients desperately need help.

It’s how to solve wicked business problems.

What is a wicked problem?

‘One that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise’ (Wikipedia). These are typically social and cultural problems, involving many people, major impacts or changes. Wicked problems are made even more difficult to solve because of the interconnected nature of this issue with other issues e.g. climate change or the refugee crisis.

But business and organisational leaders have their own wicked problems to solve. These are big, difficult, interconnected challenges which might involve massive changes and resources e.g. the loss of trust in institutions, brands and platforms (Facebook comes to mind).

The good news is that ad agencies are ideally suited to help clients with these types of problems.


Because the ad agency is slightly distant from the issue (i.e. emotionally, politically and financially) which means that the wicked problem can be more objectively viewed.

In addition, by definition a wicked problem cannot be solved using business as usual thinking. It can only be solved through imagination and creative thinking both of which are in abundant supply at most advertising agencies.

But how to solve a wicked problem?

Here are my six suggestions.

Agree that it is a wicked problem

This means that it should be treated differently from other business, communication and advertising challenges.

A business-as-usual approach will not work with these types of problems.

The problem should be defined in a loose – tight way. This means that the problem might be defined in general terms to start with but may become more concrete when more data, information, interconnections and insights emerge. Being locked into an initial, fixed problem definition whilst comfortable does not encourage the emergence of new, radical possible solutions.

It might mean also that the problem needs to be reframed.

Form a wicked problem team

Form a core team comprising of a diverse group of people from the client, agency, research, data etc.

And complement this team with a range of specialists (as required). These might include for example, scientists, academics, psychologists, start-ups, students etc.

The key point here is that a wicked problem can only be solved by looking at it with fresh eyes.

Remember – one wicked problem per team!

Everything is up for grabs

This means that past assumptions, business models, products and pricing mechanisms can be thrown out.

What worked in the past will not work for a wicked problem.

Although it might be useful to explore how other categories, industries, cultures or countries have solved other wicked problems.

Grounded imagination

Wicked problems require wicked solutions.

These are ideas that may not have been tried before. The goal is to break the existing thinking and solution patterns.

But this requires data. Imagination always works better when it is grounded in real data.

Need a deadline

A wicked problem team needs a deadline and key milestones along the way. This provides urgency, drama and can create a sense of accomplishment via a series of small wins.

By definition wicked problems are big. This is why a big solution is needed but can often only be achieved through a series of small steps.

Adopt a test, re-test mindset

A wicked problem involves a leap into the unknown. To help forge a new way forward the wicked team should adopt a test, retest mindset. This encourages greater risk-taking (within limits) and greater, faster learning.

In summary

Tackling a client wicked business problem can be a rich, new area of opportunity for advertising agencies, brand consultants or market research companies.

You might just solve something that no-one has before which is exciting, you will help your clients and generate an extra revenue stream.

Is it time to establish the wicked problem division at your agency?

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    Latest comments
  • Mo Fox 3 years ago

    Agree — of course agencies should be focusing on this! But to do so they’d have to get out of the transactional, silo’d, artefact production-and-delivery mentality and get back to a focus on thinking and strategy. I have an international ad agency background and now specialise in working with Wicked Problems as a consultant, teaching several courses on it at MGSM business school. The skills I learned in my agency years — particularly the ability to deal with ambiguity and conflicting stakeholders, the nebulous area of brands, evaluating creative ideas and influencing behaviour — have been invaluable. It’s the wicked areas where agencies can truly add value, particularly in helping clients develop a mindset where they can navigate the intangibles and the ambiguity instead of having to cling to the concrete.

    A question though — the last several times I’ve played with agencies in recent history I’ve seen a marked move away from “big picture” generalist strategic thinking (couldn’t make it a profit centre) towards a narrow, channel driven specialist strategy focus, with billing focussing on tangible outputs rather than upfront thinking. Is this a fair reflection and if so, is it changing?

Dr Ken Hudson wicked problems

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