Why marketers need to think like Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot
A view from Richard Huntington

Why marketers need to think like Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot

Our business is characterised by seemingly insurmountable problems but "clear evidence" to solve them should not just be taken at face value, cautions the Saatchi & Saatchi chairman and chief strategy officer.

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Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile is among her most loved and famous works. Not only does it feature one of her greatest creations, Hercule Poirot, but it also uses one of her most important plot devices, the insurmountable problem.

In Christie’s Egyptian classic, the insurmountable problem is that Poirot’s prime suspect in the murder of Linnet Doyle, her husband Sean Doyle, could not have possibly committed the crime. He has a cast-iron alibi, for at the time Linnet was shot, Mr Doyle was himself incapacitated by a bullet wound at the other end of the boat.

In many ways, it is the idea of the insurmountable problem that sets Agatha Christie apart from other crime writers. The reason she has transcended her genre and stands as one of the greatest authors of all time. No less a literary genius than other writers that have reaped far more acclaim and reached far fewer people.

Indeed, almost a hundred years after her first story was published and forty years since her death she remains the best-selling author of all time. Not to mention having written the world’s longest running stage play and one of last year’s highest grossing movies.

Conundrums and challenges

That Agatha Christie is not more celebrated and that we tend to think of her as crassly populist and suspiciously prolific has more than a little whiff of misogyny about it. All of which is a shame because there is much we might learn from Agatha Christie, especially in dealing with some of the conundrums and challenges our brands and businesses face in such turbulent times.

And this all hinges on the insurmountable problem.

Classically, in an Agatha Christie story all the available evidence will point to one clear explanation to the murder in question, an answer that those who are only able to see the data in front of them readily jump to. The real solution is often simpler and more straightforward but seems contradicted by the evidence, this becoming the insurmountable problem.

Solving it requires an act of imagination, a hypothesis that is capable of explaining why the impossible is not only entirely plausible but actually probable. It is then that all the evidence can be reassessed and the case made with absolute conviction.

In other words, the relationship between a daring leap of imagination and the rigour of evidence is a delicate dance, an act of pure choreography, each shaping and refining the other.

It is this dance between intuition and data that we must now perfect, rather than dividing into opposing camps that trumpet one or other as the answer on its own

In Death on the Nile, the insurmountable problem can only be resolved if Sean Doyle hadn’t actually been wounded at the time of his wife’s death, only seemingly so. What if he had faked his initial wound allowing him to peg it down the boat and kill his wife, before returning and administering a real shot into his own leg? Hypothesis in hand the evidence takes on a new light. What becomes important is not a gun retrieved from the river but the shawl in which it is wrapped that bears a charred bullet hole suggesting that it was used to muffle a gunshot at close range.

Our business is characterised by seemingly insurmountable problems. Challenges so difficult that many marketers walk away from them conceding defeat or in search of easy answers and superficial solutions. But challenges that, if resolved, release significant value for our brands and businesses.

Solving the truly impossible requires the discipline of a Christie detective. A suspicion of the obvious and superficial, respect but not awe for the evidence, a leap of imagination to create a powerful solution and a forensic reappraisal of the data in light of this solution.

And it is this dance between intuition and data that we must now perfect, rather than dividing into opposing camps that trumpet one or other as the answer on its own. For, those that wallow in lakes of data struggle to achieve more than marginal gains in efficiency. And those that fetishize instinct alone often flail from idea to idea without the conviction provided by proof.

After all, what is marketing presentation, whether between agency and client or at a brand itself if not a classic Agatha Christie "closed room"? With all of us playing Poirot.

Richard Huntington is the chairman and chief strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi