An Idea Isn’t Everything

This is another in a series from AKQA creative Nathan Archambault. You can follow him on Twitter @NKArch.

Concept is king. It’s all about the idea. Your goal with every brief should be to come up with an idea so big that other big ideas become jealous. Right?

Not so fast. Coming up with a big idea is just one of the many steps that it takes to produce great work. And it isn’t always the most important step to a client. Sometimes it’s not even the most important step to an agency.



The details matter

Lately I’ve been seeing student books that feel like they’re full of high-level case studies. Videos that present the idea but don’t actually explain how it comes to life. After nailing a big idea, you’ve got to figure out the minor details. Not every big idea translates to a great ad. Without thinking through the small things, you’ll never know if your big idea is anything more than a great starting point. When it comes to executing a campaign, an idea isn’t everything.
The strategy matters
Clients don’t want ideas that come out of left field, even if it’s a great idea. Your campaign needs a foundation. You need to be able to explain the insight that led to your idea. Be perfectly clear about why this idea will be an effective one for the client and the target. When it comes to thinking strategically, an idea isn’t everything.
The client matters
Don’t forget that we work in a service industry. Our clients aren’t in the business of supporting the advertising industry. They’re in the business of making profits and selling products. They’re only interested in one type of idea – the kind that grows their business. When it comes to client needs, an idea isn’t everything.
The budget matters
A client isn’t going to toss more money at a project because an idea is so freaking awesome. Doesn’t matter how much they love it. If the best idea goes over budget, the next best idea moves into the starting line-up. Or, even worse, you’re asked to rework your great idea until it’s nothing but a sad shell of its former self. When it comes to sticking to budget, an idea isn’t everything.
The presentation matters
Part of the job is getting clients pumped up for your big idea to become a big reality. That may mean some theater. It may mean bravado. It takes a different approach for every client and every presentation. Just remember, clients weren’t there during your brainstorm sessions. They may not fully understand the thought that led to your idea. You’ve got to set it up for success, making it sound revolutionary. Make it seem like anything but your big idea would be disaster. When it comes to the presentation, an idea isn’t everything.
The objective matters
Every ad has a job to do. Your great idea should lead to action, interaction, or whatever the goal may be. An idea can be cool, but it also needs a nerdy side. A side that accomplishes the very straightforward and quantifiable goal put forth by the client in the first place. When it comes to building a brand, an idea isn’t everything.
There are a lot of factors that can make or break a campaign. Do all these things well, and your big idea becomes that much bigger. It also moves that much closer to becoming a reality.
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This Post Isn’t Cool

You will never sell anything to a client by telling them, “It’s cool.”

Cool is not a reason any client will put their budget and their job on the line. Even if you’re doing ads for the new HALO game, a surfboard, or Porsche. In client parlance, “cool” is not shorthand for “it will sell your product, and make you money, keep your job secure, and maybe even get you an interview in Fast Company.”
Make your work cool. But before you present it, figure out the real reason it’s cool, and sell that.
You’ll not only have more success selling your ideas, you’ll become a better presenter.

Continuation of a Cool Story

About a year ago, I wrote this post on agency tenacity. Long story, short: Creative team comes up with a cool idea. Client loves it, but doesn’t make time or money for it. The agency, knowing a great idea when they see it, tenaciously pursues it with the client until the client capitulates. Then the client ends up using it all over the place – TV, t-shirts, banners, etc.. There was never a brief or a client request. Just a cool idea and a committed agency.
Seems now the client is using it on their own products. A very cool continuation of the story.


Remember, not every agency or every creative director will take a brilliant idea and push it forward like this. Make sure you find those that will.

Essential vs. Extra Credit

More and more clients are expecting work that goes beyond what they’re asking for. If the brief calls for a new print campaign, the agency may throw in a microsite. Or an outdoor idea. Or a guy with a rickshaw. Whatever.

Problem is, while more and more clients are expecting this, and love to be surprised by additional work, these ideas rarely come to life. They get placed on the back-burner while the real (i.e., urgent, expected, and sometimes less-exciting) assignments are produced.

A few years ago, I was part of a team that helped create a giant snow globe in Times Square with live actors inside. I recently asked my old CD, Chris Hunter, how he sold that idea. (Giant snow globes are never something the client asks for in the original brief.) There’s a huge insight in his answer. Here’s what Chris told me…

I’ve found the way to move forward [beyond-the-brief work] is to link each idea to some kind of measurable engagement in order to demonstrate the value they add to a program.

In the snow globe’s case, it had to do with NY being a media city and getting PR from that. These days I don’t know if I’d recommend the Giant Snow Globe as an investment for the client because the return seems pretty low outside of Times Square. But tying online engagement / participation to a real-world installation — and then incentivizing participation — can start to demonstrate returns for a client, especially if the engagement aspect of the creative drives pass-along behavior. A snow globe that was web-cammed that would allow viewers to control what the actors did inside it, for example, would start to get at that (not a very creative example but you get what I mean).

Also, it’s best to build in engagement programs (be they online, in a real location, or both) at the start of the brief development. This turns the extra thinking into a real assignment vs. a time-wasting exercise. If the client isn’t disciplined enough to do this, then at the very least bundle your extra idea firmly to original assignment — print in this case — so that the two play off one another and are co-dependent. This starts to turn what was once a print assignment into something richer and more programmatic. And by this, I mean make it so that one cannot really exist without the other.

I guess what I’m suggesting is, eliminate the ‘lucky-strike-extra’ sensibility from your mindset and theirs. It will help make your engagement concepts seem more core and essential vs. extra credit.

//www.youtube.com/get_player

(Chris Hunter helped his team win a Bronze Lion at Cannes this year, so he knows what he’s talking about.)

Revising Your Creative Concept Without Ruining It


I can’t think of any time in my career where I went into a meeting, presented work and had no revisions to make coming out. How you handle feedback and present revisions can be a make-or-break step in the process. Over-react to a off-handed client comment and you can unnecessarily water down or complicate your work. Ignore client concerns and you might come across as unresponsive and torpedo the whole project.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you run the revision gauntlet:

IN THE FIRST PRESENTATION

1) Listen to feedback. Take notes. Some creatives like to come in, look cool, present the work, then leave. But the most important part of a client relationship is listening. And unless you have a photographic memory, take out a pen and paper. After the meeting, there will be discussions about what exactly the client said and it’s good to have your own notes.
Note all of the feedback, even from the junior clients. If there are pertinent quotes from clients, write them down (and note who said them). Nothing lets a client know you listened more than, a week or two later, being able to quote them in a meeting, or being able to say that something they said led you to a solution (this does happen).

2) Make sure you understand which feedback needs to be addressed. Depending on the client, many many people may throw out thoughts. Some of it will be overruled, some of it will be ignored by the group, some of it will be irrelevant, and some of it will be very very important. What you need to be absolutely clear on is which issues you will be addressing with your revisions. A good account person will sum up the feedback at the end of the meeting. If they don’t, you should verify what was agreed upon. “So, what I heard was…” or “Just to be clear, for next steps we’ll…”

3) Try to avoid executional feedback by understanding the issues. Good clients know that the most helpful feedback for an agency is issue-based rather than executional, but even the most seasoned client will make executional comments from time to time. For example, “I feel like the tone is too frivolous for our brand,” is an issue. “I don’t like the words “itty-bitty” is executional. “The spot feels rushed” is an issue. “Take out this shot, that shot, and that shot,” is executional. You want to get issue-based feedback because there may be several ways to solve an issue, whereas something like “take out that shot” has only one solution and may not be the best for the spot.

4) If you disagree, discuss it. (This has the major caveat of “if you are in a position to do so.” If you are a junior creative and your creative director has already agreed to a client request, you are not in a position to voice a dissenting opinion. Nor are you, if you’re a junior creative, in a position to argue with a CEO). Be clear that you’re in a different place, but avoid being too confrontational. I don’t even like saying things like “One could argue that…” That positions it as an argument. Client meetings, though they may sometimes seem like it, are not debates. You’re on the same team.
One non-confrontational phrase that can be very helpful is, “Help me understand…” to probe the client issues. Phrasing your point-of-view as a question, or simply explaining why you made the choices you did are also good ways to make a point without seeming combative.

5) Know what’s worth fighting for. If your list is “everything,” you’re going to have a tough time. Some things aren’t worth fighting for. Then there are some that are. If you feel strongly that a change completely compromises the integrity of the creative, speak up. And as a last resort, recommend that you take the creative off the table and go try a different approach completely.

6) It’s okay to say “Let me think about it.”
It’s an easy trap to fall into to think that you need to solve an issue at the table, or that you need to decide if a suggestion will or won’t work right there on the spot. Reserve the right to walk away and take the time to think of an appropriate solution. Clients should respect this.


IN THE REVISIONS MEETING

7) Make sure you addressed your client’s concerns. This is a no-brainer. Just double-check before the meeting. It’s not pretty when you don’t.

8) If you find a better way, STILL make sure you address your client’s concerns.
This goes for suggestions from your creative director in pre-client meetings as well. If you agree to a revision, DO NOT come to the next meeting without making it. If you get specific executional direction, you’d best follow it. If you come up with an alternative solution, bring that IN ADDITION TO (but definitely not instead of) the agreed-upon revision. Then you can have a discussion about it.

9) Let the client know you heard their concerns. Set up the work by listing what the objectives of the revisions were. What issues did you address? This is the part where your notes from the first meeting come in handy. If one client had a concern, let them know that you made a revision for them. If necessary, explain how you addressed their concerns before you go through the work.

Revisions are a part of the business, so learn how to handle them. They’re not necessarily a bad thing, but you have to know how to fend off the ducks or your brilliant idea might get pecked to death. The key is to keep bringing back great work each time. If you do that, you’ll only produce great work.

A Big Fat Lesson In Perseverance

Maybe you remember the original Jared Fogel ad from Subway. This spot didn’t win any major awards. And you probably aspire to much more creative work. But the fact that you remember Jared shows that the campaign (now, almost a decade old) was crazy successful. And there are several important lessons from the Jared campaign that are worth noting:

  • Subway’s marketing director wasn’t impressed with Jared’s story. He thought fast foods couldn’t do healthy. He wanted to do a campaign based on taste.
  • The health campaign Subway did want to run was called “7 Under 6,” which talked about the seven sandwiches they had that were under 6 grams of fat. (No matter what you think of Jared, you’ve got to admit he’s more interesting than “7 Under 6.”)
  • The Jared spot made Subway’s lawyers very nervous. They were afraid it would appear like a medical claim. In their lawyer wisdom, they advised against running it.
  • Even though the national Subway office vetoed the Jared campaign, some franchisees showed some interest in running it using regional ad money.
  • With no national funding to cover production, Hal Riney’s president, Barry Krause decided to make the spots for free. Production would come out of the agency’s pocket.
  • The original spot ran on January 1, 2000.
  • Within three days, Hal Riney had received calls from USA Today, ABC, Fox News and Oprah.
  • A few days later, Subway’s national office called, asking if the ads could be aired nationally.
  • That year, sales jumped 18%, plus another 16% after that.
  • The campaign sold a ton of sandwiches. Jared’s since become part of pop culture (He’s been featured on South Park, no less.) Arguably, this story has made Subway the brand it is today.

So what does this mean for you? I’m not saying the Jared spot is worthy of a One Show Gold. But it shows that even wildly successful campaigns meet opposition. Don’t let the road blocks rile you. Don’t hate the client or the account team or creative director or partner who says “no.” One “no” doesn’t always mean the work is dead if you’re willing to fight for the work you believe in.

(The details of the Subway story can be found in the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.)