Don’t Wing It

Some creatives prefer to walk into a client meeting and wing it. They know the work so well, they can just talk about it. They want to keep things casual. They don’t want to sound rehearsed or practiced. They want to sound real.

But here’s the thing:

You should rehearse.

Michael Jordan was famous for staying long after practice to work on his free throws. Peyton Manning was known for watching more tapes of opposing teams than anyone else in the league. If Michael Jordan and Peyton Manning think it’s worth their time to practice, so should you.

Know what you’re going to say to a client. Know how you’re going to say it. Know why you’re going to say it.

That doesn’t happen without practice.

Using Other People’s Ads to Set Up Your Ideas

When creatives present their ideas – either to clients or internally – we sometimes show a video clip as a point of reference. It might be to establish a mood, a look, a technique, anything.

But here’s my warning:

Don’t ever use someone else’s ad to set up your idea.

Think about it. Do you really want to set up your idea by showing a really awesome Nike ad? Or a Jeep spot? Or an Apple commercial?

Whether you mean to or not, you’re basically saying, “Our idea isn’t 100% original. But here’s a really cool ad we wish we’d done and want to rip off.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re presenting ideas for butter and you’re using a car commercial as a reference. It’s still telegraphs “not fresh” to the entire room. It says, “We want to be at least as good as this ad…but no better.”

Go ahead and use a documentary segment to establish a tone. Use a YouTube video to give a sense of energy. A film clip to help explain a technique. Do whatever you can to help the people in the room catch a vision of your idea.

But no matter how strong the temptation, don’t use someone else’s ad to show what you want your ad to be like.

The Many Tellings of a Story

When you have a story to tell, you usually just tell it. But in advertising, you have to tell it multiple times—to your partner, to your team, to your client, to your director—before you finally tell it to your real audience.
If those first tellings don’t go well, that final telling will never happen. So don’t overlook those first tellings. Give a lot of thought to how you’re going to bring the story to life for your client, in particular. They should be as engaged by your telling of the story as they will be by the final execution.

Too often I see ideas that could be great fall flat in meetings because nobody gave any thought to how to present the idea. Or maybe they didn’t think the idea needed anything more than to be read from a paper. Ideas do not sell themselves. Stories sell ideas. So tell a good story, each time you tell it.

Setting Up A Premise

In this video, at about the 13:40 mark, Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, and Louis CK are discussing how Chris Rock sets up a premise.

Chris Rock sums it up like this: “A lot of comedians have great jokes, and they don’t – like – ‘Why isn’t this working?’ Because the audience does not understand the premise…If I set this premise up right, this joke will always work.”

I see the same thing in advertising. In an agency, before work goes to the client, a team will present a random collection of ads. Some of them may even be really good. But if there’s no premise to any of them, even the really good ones will eventually fall to the wayside. But if a team comes in with a premise, and all of their ideas are tied to that premise, people start nodding their heads. Because we get it.

A premise could be “Saving money with Geico makes people happy.” A series of ads could be ridiculous scenarios of happy people (a camel on hump day, a witch in a broom factory).

A premise could be “Interesting people drink Dos Equis.” A series of ads could be biographical snapshots of the World’s Most Interesting Man.

A premise could be “Bad things happen randomly.” A series of ads could be Mayhem personified.

In other words, ads are like jokes. Concepts are like Chris Rock’s premise.

Don’t jump into your executions. If you have specific ideas for a spot, fine. Write them down. Share them with your partner even. But go into every meeting with your premise first. And make sure everyone in the room understands how each execution you present ties back to it.

The Theoretical Ad-Like Thingy

“So there’d be like two guys in a park or at the mall of somewhere talking about normal stuff. And then something crazy would happen in the background and one of the guys would be like pointing but it would be the product. And there’d be some copy at the end that says something about how it gets noticed.”

“Do you have a tagline?”

“Yeah, and there’d be a tagline.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know yet.”

This is a reenactment of the presentation of a theoretical ad. For some reason, students present these all the time in class. It wants me to poke my eyes out or, lately, want to poke their eyes out. There is a vague concept here, but this isn’t an execution. It’s like drawing the first gesture of a circle and saying “What do you think of my portrait?” I don’t know. It’s not a portrait yet. This concept above, I don’t know. It’s not a script. It’s a vague notion about a script.

Do not present theoretical ads. Do not present vague paragraphs. Your job is not to create MadLibs.  If you don’t know whether a spot should take place in a mall or a park or the international space station, pick the one you think is best. Create a concrete idea in the mind of your creative director or client (or instructor). Talk about options and alts afterward. But first help them imagine something real and specific.

Two things can happen when you present a theoretical ad. The first is that, because you haven’t brought the idea to life, people don’t get it or don’t like it and the idea dies. The second is possibly worse. Because you have left the idea so open-ended, everyone fills in the blanks with whatever’s in their head. Instead of everyone in the room seeing the idea as you envisioned it, you now have six different versions/visions of your idea populating people’s brains. Which means that if you push your idea forward to the next stage where you do make it more specific, at least five people will think “Oh, that’s not how I was picturing it.”

Bottom line–be specific. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing course, this is something they tell you about your language: be concrete. The same is true here. If you’re presenting a spot, present a spot. For a print ad, show a print ad. Not an ad-like notion. Or, as my instructor Coz Cotzias used to say: “That’s an interesting thought. Now go do a fucking ad.”

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.