During World War II, James Donovan was in the US Navy – he was involved in espionage and intelligence.
After the war, he co-founded a corporate law firm.
His speciality was insurance.
He was good at it and he enjoyed the work.
But he maintained his connections inside the intelligence community.
And, in 1957, he was asked to defend a Soviet spy: Rudolf Abel.
Donovan accepted the job – he believed in a fair trial for everyone.
But he was vilified by the public.
To be defending a man who was spying for the enemy virtually made Donovan a traitor himself.
It was a foregone conclusion that Rudolf Abel would be found guilty and sentenced to death.
And indeed Rudolf Abel was found guilty.
So the death sentence for spying was a formality.
But James Donovan saw it differently.
Instead of the knee-jerk reaction, he saw this as a business problem.
Let’s solve the business problem.
Insurance was about having a backup in case you needed it.
About being prepared for the unexpected.
If Rudolf Abel was dead, that would be the end of it.
And, for James Donovan, that was exactly the problem.
What if an opportunity later cropped up to use Rudolf Abel?
If he was dead, he would be no more use to America.
But if he was kept alive, there was a possibility he could be useful.
So, against the wishes of the entire country, Donovan managed to get Rudolf Abel sentenced to 30 years in prison instead of the death sentence.
The public were furious.
But they were reacting emotionally.
They weren’t thinking of solving a business problem.
James Donovan managed to keep Rudolf Abel alive as insurance.
And, sure enough, three years later in 1960, the US found itself in need of some insurance.
An American U2 spy plane was shot down over Russia.
The pilot, Gary Powers, was tried and found guilty of
But because the US had a Russian spy in prison, they were able to arrange the first-ever spy exchange.
James Donovan managed to swap Rudolf Abel for Gary Powers.
But he could only do it because he’d kept Rudolf Abel alive.
James Donovan’s insurance policy worked.
Because, instead of reacting emotionally, he approached the situation like a business problem.
In our industry, we could learn a lot from that.
We approach advertising as a knee-jerk reaction.
Here’s some money, do some ads.
But we should look at solving the business problem first.
What do we want out of this? What’s the opportunity?
If we did it that way, we might find the answer isn’t advertising.
Or even if it is, it might not be the same old advertising.
We might discover a different kind of advertising.
Starting with the business problem forces us to come at the situation out of a question rather than an answer.
It’s more uncomfortable because, like James Donovan, we have to challenge convention.
It’s more uncomfortable because we have to think.
In fact, to solve a business problem, we have to think creatively.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.