Johann Cruyff was possibly the best, certainly the most intelligent, footballer ever.

He once said, “Before I make a mistake, I don’t make that mistake”.

To most people that will sound silly, but creative thinkers know what he means.

He’s talking about upstream thinking.

Instead of solving a problem you think upstream and the problem doesn’t happen.

An example of this is the story of two friends walking along a riverbank.

They see a child struggling in the water, then another struggling child, then another one, then more children.

The first friend jumps in the water, the second friend runs off.

The first friend saves one child, he’s furious that his friend ran away, he can’t save all the children on his own.

But gradually fewer and fewer children are in the water and finally none at all.

Eventually his friend comes back and he asks him why he didn’t stay to help.

The friend says, “I ran upstream to find why the children were falling in and a railing was broken so I fixed it.”

The first friend tried to solve the problem, the other friend solved what caused the problem, literally upstream thinking.

A great example of this was the screw-worm fly infestation amongst American cattle.

The female screw-worm laid her larvae in open wounds on cattle and thousands of cattle died from the subsequent infection.

The standard response is to treat the problem, kill as many screw-worm flies as possible by spraying huge areas with pesticide.

But this was harmful as the pesticide would spray on crops and other animals.

They needed to think upstream of the problem, so first identify the cause of the problem.

The females were laying larvae because the males were making the females pregnant, so the females were the symptom of the problem, but the males were the cause of the problem.

The breakthrough came with the discovery that the females could only mate once in their lives, so if the female mated without getting pregnant she could never produce larvae.

Upstream thinking was to address the male not the female.

Upstream thinking led to the discovery of Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) whereby the male is rendered infertile thus interrupting the reproductive process.

Every female that a sterilised male mates with can’t get pregnant and lay larvae in cattle.

So they began using X-Rays to sterilise huge amounts of males and then release them.

The males mated with the females, the females were unable to reproduce, and the problem was solved without chemicals.

No more pregnant females – no more larvae – no more screw-worm flies.

Currently SIT has eradicated the screw-worm fly in the USA, Puerto Rico, and Libya.

SIT has eradicated the Mediterranean fruit-fly in Chile and Argentina.

It’s eradicated the Mexican fruit-fly and cactus moth in Mexico, also the Tsetse fly in Senegal and Zanzibar, also the Melon fly and sweet-potato weevil in Japan, also the pink bollworm in the USA plus the coding moth in Canada, also the false coding-moth in South Africa, and the onion fly in the Netherlands.

Upstream thinking clearly works, so why don’t we use it in advertising?

Planners (aka strategists) issue a brief that simply addresses a problem, creatives follow the brief like dictation and simply answer the problem.

No one thinks upstream because they’ve all learned to simply respond to a problem.

Were so fixated on the symptoms we never look for the cause.

We’re so busy pulling children out of the river we never go upstream to find out why they’re falling in.