When your concept is taken Hostage

So you have a great idea and you’re all excited to present it, this could be the big one! The meeting goes well enough, they like it, you high five anyone who’s passing the meeting room.

A couple days pass and then come the list of amends.

They’ve shown some key stakeholders, they’ve shown their team, the guy in the canteen and a passing doctor and a medic. And they want to see some changes and they want them done now!

It’s like someone’s taken your idea hostage.

The client is hold up inside the bank and they want a helicopter now or the idea gets it.

Now comes the drawn out negotiations and just hoping your idea survives and no one gets hurt.

The one time chief hostage negotiator for the FBI, Chris Voss, writes in his book ‘Never split the difference’ about some of the methods he uses to get the outcome he wants without compromise.

He calls it Tactical Empathy.

This intrigued me, he makes it clear a lot of the skills are transferable to business, but advertising and creativity?

Well, why not.

Like all human interaction his premise is based on empathy, not sympathy or agreeing, but listening more than talking and making the hostage taker feel like they are in charge and making all the decisions.

Sound familiar?

I recently had an experience where I could have done with Chris when dealing with what I can, with absolute certainty, call my worst client experience ever.

I couldn’t see the other side of the story as it seemed just pure lunacy, but with hindsight I wish I had.

To cut a long story short, we’d pitched and won with a particular idea that all the stakeholders liked.

Bingo, an idea straight from pitch to production. Never happens. We’ll get right on it.

Then the main client climbed aboard our concept and took the whole process hostage. He wanted his photographer and his CGI guy to do it all and he assured us he knew what he was doing.

His guys were cheaper and good enough.

This was one of the situations that Chris Voss calls a ‘Black Swan’. Most hostage negotiations follow a similar pattern, but occasionally you get someone who wants to ‘die by cop’ and doesn’t follow any normal pattern.

We were suddenly camped outside the bank with a loudhailer and a sweaty Al Pacino threatening to kill everyone. (Extra points if you get the film reference)

We said we’d consider these guys for sure, we’re all about collaboration, so we’d talk to them.

When we called we discovered he’d already briefed them anyway.

One hostage down.

I usually pride myself on being able to talk a client round to my way of thinking a lot of the time, but on the day of the big ‘powwow’ when we were politely putting our case for using an agency for what they’re good at, I could have done with a little more of Chris Voss’s technique and less of my performance as a scandalised prima donna.

I have a lot of patience and it takes a lot to anger me, but wilful disrespect of our creative skills and process will kinda push my buttons, I must say.

But there must have been a way round it, I just couldn’t see it.

Could a hostage negotiator have faired better?

So here are some of his techniques, in a very brief and inadequate list which I’ve tried to translate in to a pharmaland scenario.

  1. Deference, don’t make it all about you. let the client feel they are the expert and play down your own expertise. People love to talk and they will give you nuggets of information that you may not know about but could help your negotiation. This will give you leverage.
  2. Establish rapport by mirroring what they say, not their physical actions. “I want you to make the data bigger”…”the data bigger?” This can be surprisingly effective at just making people feel you are on their side and understand their issues.
  3. Re-burden the client with their own problem. So if they ask that you do an impossible change, ask ‘how am I supposed to do that?’ Or if it’s an impossible deadline request, “how can we do that?” This keeps them feeling they are in charge but with only the illusion of control.
  4. Instead of saying a flat NO to a request, illicit a more positive response by labelling the problem.”it sounds like you don’t like this idea.” People are inclined to answer with a “no, no…I do like it” rather than outright trashing it. Or “it seems like you want this idea to be all about the data” “No, that’s not it” This style of question has the benefit of leaving you and your personal feelings out of it, it’s not about you, because ‘me and you’ can make it quite combative and we’re not looking for combat.
  5. Don’t go for a YES. Sales people and sales books often are about getting to yes but people often say yes to things without meaning yes (think of how you might get a salesman off the doorstep by saying yes, then cancelling right after) get them to say NO. “It seems like somethings holding you back.” “No, not all” People often will let their guard down if they feel understood.
  6. Get emotional permission to allow them to buy. What you don’t want to hear from your client is ‘you’re right’. Think about it, when you tell someone they’re right it’s usually because you want them to shut up or go away. Real buy-in comes from ‘that’s right’. Think of when you hear a politician you agree with, you point at the TV and say ‘that’s right’.
  7. People are wired to be loss averse, so losing is a safer bet than winning. $5 gained is meh. $5 loss is terrible. Think what the client stands to lose by not buying your idea or your services.

There’s a ton more stuff in his book, which even if you have a passing interest in psychology you should read. Maybe you can find ways of applying it to your creative meetings and get that idea past all the hurdles.

The hardest part of what we do is getting our work from concept to the finish line in recognisable form, with the idea intact, so if we can empathise more with our clients, not necessarily agreeing with them, together we can turn a hostage situation in to a peaceful exchange.

Of course, occasionally we may need to deliver a holdall full of cash to a secret location and a helicopter to Cuba, but hey, that’s advertising.

 

 

 

You take the high-brow I’ll take the low.

Before Easter I took a trip to the US and Canada to visit our agencies in my new capacity as Le Grand Fromage Creative de la CDM.

My ‘talk to the troops’, or as our CEO Kyle Barich described it, my ‘Stump’ speech was a way of introducing myself to those who had no idea who I was or how I got the job or what the job was. It was also a chance to share some of my thinking about creativity and pharma and whatnot.

I hadn’t reckoned on the North American weather though and so the trip was somewhat compromised by a shit ton of snow which decided to disrupt a promising spring in New York, so sadly I never made it to Montreal. It was like the scene in Home Alone when the mum tries to get back to save Kevin and due to no flights has to share a bus with a Polka band, lead by John Candy.

Well, there was no touring Polka band but the frustration was similar.

I managed a quick visit to our Princeton agency but these were guys who’ve become extreme weather experts and weren’t dumb enough to attempt to make it in to the agency with two feet of snow forecast, so a small band of hardened professionals were left holding the fort, while the others worked remotely.

Nevertheless as a small part of my ‘stump speech’ I started to grow more fond of this notion of where ideas come from and how it needn’t be the high brow visits to art galleries and French independent films that supply all the ideas to steal, I mean..ahem..be inspired by.

As you know, if you are looking for inspiration, by the time you come to sit down with a pencil and paper and try and think of something it’s already too late if there’s nothing in the idea bank. You need to be making deposits all the time.

For a creative you never know when the visual or intellectual stimuli will resurface. Even a night in the Hyatt in a business park in New Jersey can provide fodder at some point.

(Right now I can’t think what, but the 1970’s decor and cold scrambled egg was a delight and may pay dividends some day!)

But I digress.

This idea for a flexible fabric Bandaid would only have come from someone who’d skipped the Rauschenburg retrospective at the Tate Modern and gone to watch a Marvel movie instead. I love this idea, yes I know it’s just a print ad, but the thinking is so pure no copy, beyond what the product does, is necessary.

Similarly this idea for Wonderbra swimwear has a delightful simplicity that can only have come from a few viewings of Finding Nemo.

But it’s also not about just watching films, arty or otherwise. (although I highly recommend it)

I was reminded of this when I read about how Dan Weiden (founder of Weiden and Kennedy) who among other things wrote the famous Nike line ‘Just do it’.

Who would have though that his inspiration would have come from the last words of the famous American killer Gary Gilmore.

As the firing squad lined up and he was strapped in to his chair he just said ‘Let’s do it’.

Dan wanted something that would inspire professionals and amateurs alike, an attitude he could apply to the brand and this somehow popped in to his head.

He didn’t like ‘let’s’ in copy, so he changed it to ‘Just’.

And the rest is adland history.

We can get so tied up in our heads that we disregard the everyday creativity and attitudes that surround us. The conversations on the bus, the random acts of graffiti wit on walls. If we want to relate to people on a people basis the more ways we can find to repackage the familiar in unfamiliar ways the easier our job will be.

And so little of it comes from staring at our phones while life goes on around us.

Our clients and customers aren’t art critics or film buffs. They like populist work, they like pop tunes and they like best selling novels about crime and love (okay and maybe science).

So by all means check out the Turner prize winners, go to the opera but also next Sunday when you’re lazily skimming through Netflix in a fug of hangover, take a look at that Pixar movie and well …

… Just do it.

 

Why you must learn to hate your own ideas.

Of course most people like their own ideas, sometimes none more so than creative people themselves.

I’m sure the person who came up with the term ideation was delighted with it.

But what a lot of people, and by that I mean the idea-toting non-creative wing of adland, may struggle with (only because it takes time and experience to learn), is knowing how an idea will actually work or how to make it work, or what it will look like when you’ve done it and how it will be perceived once you’ve had it.

Add to that whether the idea is doable in the time, within budget, and won’t simply look stupid or in poor taste.

People tend to think in terms of scenarios. ‘How about a woman who is having trouble reading the small print on a menu while on a first date.’ is a perfectly reasonable scenario in film, but almost impossible in a still. It’s probably just a woman squinting at a menu.

It’s as hard as knowing if you’ve just had a good idea or not. In fact, arguably that’s what a good idea is.

It’s why we still have creatives, and we still have creative directors (for the moment) and it’s why a creative person’s idea is often – not always – been through their own internal creative director’s office, before it even makes it to a ‘what do you think of this?’ in the open air.

Because an instant love for our own ideas has been tempered by the crushing disappointment of other people’s opinions and a desire to do the kind of work that gets them their next job.

As a creative you start out with a raw talent, ideally, if it hasn’t been beaten out of you by your education system, parental pressure for you to find a proper job or the desire for qualifications in History and Maths.

You take this raw talent, tout your book of ideas around town and after about a year of people hating your ideas, eventually you start doing better ones, then quite good ones and then hopefully a few stonking ones and then, if you are in the right place at the right time, someone will recognise talent it in you and give you a job.

You then spend those first ten or twenty difficult years learning what those ideas that pop in to your head actually mean and how you can turn them in to something. But with practice you get really good at deciphering the bad ideas from good, the practical from the impossible and so on, almost instantly. You don’t always get it right, but it’s a process that takes time to learn.

That experience is hard won, but that expertise is what clients pay for without even really considering it, not just the talent of coming up with them.

It comes with the daily agonising process of coming up with ideas and seeing most of them dismissed.

The problem is, none of that is on show when you present work. It appears that you are just showing a bunch of random ideas that you just whipped up in a couple of days.

Sure looks easy. Let’s all have a go, it’s fun.

But all the years of internal deciphering wheat from chaff is what has led you to this point, not a couple of hours in a brainstorm or scribbling on a pad.

There’s probably a sperm and egg analogy here but I’ll leave it at that.

The famous photographer David Bailey, when asked how he could charge 20k for a day’s shoot when he completed the shoot in a couple of hours, allegedly replied “this didn’t take me two hours it took me twenty years”.

I am not sure if he stole this reply from Picasso who was said to have offered to sign a napkin for 20k on the basis that it wasn’t the minute it took to sign it, it was about the fifty years he had spent making it worth signing.

Experience matters in creativity, almost as much as no experience.

So now if you are a ‘non-creative’ and you think your idea is a way better than what you’ve seen, just ask yourself whether you like it because it’s yours or because it’s actually better.

Because judging your own ideas is different to judging someone elses work. Objectivity is a huge factor in judging others’ ideas.

Judging your own ideas is really hard. And it’s important to judge them as if your career were to be judged on it.

That’s not to say your idea isn’t any good, by the way. But you owe that CD a listen as to why it may not be.

I’ve found the best clients or ‘non-creatives’ can offer ideas and lines but are usually also pretty good at taking push back if the CD (in a sudden role reversal) doesn’t think it’s right. As are the best kind of creatives.

The worst kind of client just want you to do it their way.

Mutual respect is important in a client agency relationship and that includes ideas.

What is usually more helpful to hear from the client side is ‘I think your idea is wrong or not doing enough of this or that. How can the agency solve it?’

The more prescriptive you are the harder it is for agencies to crack the problem.

So it doesn’t mean your ‘I’m not a copywriter but…’ idea isn’t any good. It just depends on how you regard it. Does your idea have some kind of special golden ticket as it’s yours? do you have so few ideas that when you come up with one it needs to be curated like an ancient artifact?

Or is it an idea that deserves the same scrutiny that all ideas, from whatever source they derive from, should expect to receive.

So, let’s assume IT IS a great idea.

Has it been done before? Will it look different and stand out. Will it fit brand guidelines? Is too complicated?

Making sense is only the first step.

Because you may be a CEO or a CMO or even a brand manager or planner or agency suit and your idea may be fantastic. But creatively speaking, if you haven’t spent some time learning these creative ropes, it’s an idea from a junior creative.

In other words, someone who hasn’t learned to reject their own ideas yet.

If you can accept that, then ideate away my friends.