What the Movies Can Teach You About a Big Idea

This is a guest post from AKQA creative and frequent Makin’ Ads contributor Nathan Archambault. You can follow him on Twitter @NKArch


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Greg has written before about the importance of having a great elevator pitch. Here’s another way of looking at it. This is something I picked up on after attending the Creative Week panel The Idea Matters… Still.
Your best idea should be like a great movie plot. For any great movie, you can reduce the plot down to a single sentence. For example:

Boy’s parents murdered, so he starts wearing a cape, fighting crime and talking in a deep, gravelly voice (Batman).
New York cop single-handedly stops terrorists from robbing an office building, all before the helpful proliferation of cell phones (Die Hard).
Nerd steals website idea from good-looking jocks and becomes an awkward billionaire (Social Network).

Your best ideas should be this simple and accessible. Try this test: take one of your ideas, write it down in a short sentence on a blank piece of paper. No visuals, no technology, no strategy, just an organized jumble of letters.

Now stare at it.
Does it still seem like a big idea? Does it pop? Does it wow? Do you look at that sentence, want to fold it in three and overnight ship it to Gerry Graf, Jeff Goodby and Dan Wieden?
Or, without all the glitter, does it seem empty, boring, unspectacular, less than large?
If, sans glitter, it’s not ready for the limelight, then figure out what it needs. Is it too complicated or gimmicky? Is it just a tactic? Is there something missing or is there something there that doesn’t have to be?
Boiling your idea down to a single, naked sentence can separate the great ideas from the good ones. Because all the glitter we sprinkle on our ideas makes them look better than they really are.
We’re storytellers, after all, and part of telling a story is making an idea seem bigger and better than it is on its own. When we present, there’s always more than the idea. There’s backstory and visuals. A beautiful presentation. People with varied areas of expertise go into an exorbitant amount of detail about each carefully-thought-out step of the process. Then, once sufficiently built up, the big idea is revealed with reserved aplomb.
And it’s glorious.
But if you start with a less-than-great idea, the final product will always have something missing.
So before you put all that effort into presenting and selling your idea, write it down in one single thought and stare at it.
If it still seems like the best idea you’ve ever seen, you’ve got a winner. Just imagine how great it will be once you add all the glitter.

Elevator Pitch, Part 4: The Interview

Granted, you have more than 30-seconds to make an impression in an interview. In fact, if you’ve come this far, your work speaks for itself. Usually, agencies won’t call people in for interviews unless they really like the work they’ve seen.

Here are a few tips to help you through that chemistry test:
1. When someone is looking at your book, resist the urge to talk. No matter how uncomfortable the silence, don’t try to explain your work. It sounds Full Metal Jacket-ish, but when someone’s looking at your book, don’t speak unless spoken to. From the other side of the table, it’s kind of annoying to try to focus on work when your mind is constantly interrupted by comments like, “Yeah, my professors really liked that one.”
2. Rule of thumb: Ask more questions than you make statements. Ask about the agency. About why your interviewer took the job there. The best part and the worst part about the agency.
3. Listen. I can’t remember who said it (probably Stephen Covey), but the problem with most of us is that we aren’t really listening when the other person is talking. We’re trying to figure out what we’re going to say next. It’s even more complicated in an interview because we’re trying to figure out what we’re going to say next that makes us sound so smart they’ll hire us on the spot. Step back. And really try listening. Then answer as best you can. Keep in mind, they probably already like your work. So you’ve got that going for you.

Elevator Pitch, Part 3: Your Book

You need your own elevator pitch. In fact, you’re probably working on it right now. It’s called “your book.”
I can’t stress how narrow the window of opportunity is for your book to make an impression on a creative director. I know one award-winning CD who literally flips through student books like he would a magazine. If nothing causes him to stop, he doesn’t stop. May not seem fair. But it’s how he hires really talented people.
So if your book really is your 30-second elevator pitch, here are a few suggestions for making the most of it:
1. Don’t introduce each campaign with a set-up page explaining the strategy. It bogs things down. I’ve never seen an ad in any medium that was preceded by a paragraph explaining the strategy and target market. Most agency people are smart enough to figure out a strategy from the work itself. (At least the ones you want to work for.)
2. Keep the pages as clean as possible. Just show the ads. If it’s an ambient piece, or some other execution that warrants explanation, keep it to no more than a couple lines.
3. It’s nice if you want to credit your AD or CW. But don’t do it on every page or with every campaign. (See #2.) If you are really so full of appreciation, give a collective shout-out at the end of your book. (Although even that isn’t necessary.)
4. Don’t try to be cute or clever with your book. I’m not a fan of cute themes because I’ve seen so very few of them work. I’ve seen some great ones. But I’ve seen a mountain of them come off as mediocre arts and crafts projects.
5. Ditto for resumes. I know very few creative directors who are fans of clever resumes. Keep it simple. Save your thinking for your ads.

Elevator Pitch, Part 2: Your Agency

So elevator pitches are used to sum up a campaign or an idea. But what about an agency itself?
If you were in charge of a pitch, what would you tell a client about your agency that makes it different from the competition? What’s the agency’s elevator pitch? (Hint: It isn’t “We are a full-service agency, dedicated to breakthrough creative marketing solutions.”) If you’re a student or a junior, you may be a few years away from having to answer that question. But why not ask it while you’re interviewing?
Next job interview you have, ask the CDs, creative teams and account people “What’s the best thing about this agency?” Or something like “What does this agency offer that others don’t?” You might even ask, “If I were a client, why would I go with your agency?”
I think they’re important questions because they’ll tell you a lot about the agency culture. Some answers will indicate that everyone’s striving to do amazing work. Others will show you they’re just there to get a paycheck and be home by 5:30. Some will be able to answer without hesitation. Others will say, “Um…Do you mean like free bagels on Monday?”

Elevator Pitch, Part 1: The Work

An “elevator pitch” is a term ad folks often use to describe the condensed version of an idea. Say you’re in the elevator with a potential client. What are you going to say to that person to get them interested in the 20 seconds you’ve got before they reach their floor.

The reason elevator pitches are important isn’t so much because you’ll find yourself in these situations. But because it helps you strip away all the blah blah from your idea. If it’s simple and concise, chances are it’s either very boring, or very powerful. And you’ll probably know which.
If you watched the Luke Sullivan video, you remember the elevator pitch for E.T. was something like “lost alien befriends boy to get home.” You could probably figure out the elevator pitches for Lost, True Blood, or all seven Harry Potter book. You could also figure out the elevator pitch for the Mac/PC ads, Whopper Sacrifice, and Boone Oakley’s new website.
So what’s the elevator pitch for the project you’re currently working on? It’s a worth while exercise. Before you jump into execution, and start talking layouts or photography or long copy vs. no copy, figure out what your elevator pitch is. It’s not really extra work, because if it takes you longer than 5 minutes for you to crystalize your idea into a sentence or two, it’s probably not an idea that’s going to go very far anyway.