Why Not Pursuing High-Risk Ideas is a Huge Risk
Early in my career, I had a B2B client who came to my agency looking for some fresh thinking. We presented some ideas for an ad campaign that was spectacularly unlike anything in its category. What my art director & I came up with was so bizarre the President of our agency wouldn’t come along to the client presentation. He was certain we’d fall flat on our faces.
But our client understood we were trying to do something different, and it helped that my copy paid off the idea quite smartly. More significantly, he put his trust in us as advertising people. “I like it,” he said. “So what happens now?”
“You say OK and we do it,” my art director said without missing a beat. And the campaign got produced.
These days, I’m not so sure I’d present that campaign. Not because I don’t like it, I still do. But because I’ve developed a dreaded tic — the five words that flash through my brain like a creative seizure.
“They’ll never go for it.”
It’s an awful thing to think, and say out loud, particularly when ideas and concepts are in their gestation stages. But I do it more and more these days, and I hear it all over the place now. In myself, creatives who don’t trust their guts, nervous account directors or planners who want to see the words in a creative brief directly mirrored in the ads, marketers afraid of even the slightest risk of offending anyone regardless of who the target audience might be, or anyone who doesn’t know the history of the business and fails to realize that the craziest, most counterintuitive ideas are often ones we talk about for years.
That’s the rub with gaining experience in the ad industry: The good news is you’ve seen a lot and tend to know what to expect. The bad news is that you’ve seen a lot and tend to know what to expect. Or so you think. In an industry that seeks the unexpected, “they’ll never go for it” is a sure ticket to pursuing ideas that are less interesting and often less effective.
All too often we don’t say, “OK, perhaps they won’t go for it. What happens if we at least present the idea? What’s the worst that can happen?” Because the answers include: We’ll have to start all over. We’ll lose the business. We’ll get fired. We’ll have to go scrub floors at the DMV to pay the rent.
Actually, there’s a worse consequence these days: Pursuing what we believe is a great idea and producing it, only to watch it get ridiculed or condemned spectacularly, instantly, and publicly. Let’s face it: In the age of Agency Spy, Twitter, and Facebook comments, taking a risk is an immediate pass/fail. It wasn’t always this way. Brands could experiment with running ads or tests in one market, gauge the relative success, then roll it out nationwide. Not every ad was meant to be seen by everyone.
Today, everyone sees everything instantly, and reacts in real-time. An advertising idea that needs time to build momentum often doesn’t get it. I once did some work for a regional client that, in the pre-Facebook age, did garner a couple of complaint letters. Today, those ads would’ve generated online petitions, boycotting efforts, and endless outrage. No wonder so many people are cowed these days.
And “they’ll never go for it” is also an arbitrary notion. Perhaps they’ll go for it in San Francisco but not in Des Moines. Or perhaps a male client won’t go for it but a female client would. We tend to rationalize a client’s anticipated reaction far more than prepare ourselves with logical arguments that might overcome their objections.
So what do you need to inoculate yourself from the “They’ll Never Go For It” virus?
It really takes a culture where you can try anything. Or propose anything. And develop the wild-sounding ideas to the point where you get them right or they rightfully should be abandoned. There’s a fine line between amazing and awful. Often times it requires the ability to take a slightly askew idea and improve upon it without the clattering din of groupthink that’ll water it down to mediocrity.
But most importantly, we need to develop the Reasons They Should Go For It. Because while many clients say, “show me an idea that scares me,” few ever really mean it. Or they treat that wild idea as a joke during an otherwise serious meeting. Those aren’t reasons not to try to sell what we believe is the best work.
If you’re a creative, don’t fall into the trap of instant self-editing. And surround yourself with people who will push your ideas farther rather than slam the brakes on. Whether you sell those risky ideas or not, you’ll always be encouraged to keep coming up with them. The day you stop trying is the day you’ve resigned to that naysaying voice in your head.
I’ll keep fighting off the urge to submit to it. But if you have better suggestions, by all means, go for it.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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