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.




Crash. Burn. Adapt.

When I first started as a Creative Director in Pharmaland I had to present some ideas to one particular client. He was new in the role too, just flown in from America, very senior and everyone was in awe of him.

This meeting was a big deal. So I duly gathered my shiniest and cleverest ideas and set off for their shores.

It was not a great success.

Looking back, my first mistake was to treat it like a presentation in consumer, thinking my background in big consumer brands was enough to impress. Back then I hadn’t really learned the different dialect that people speak in these parts, or indeed the correct amount of humility in what was a new advertising territory for me. At the time I thought he was an idiot, (obviously) but now I have a different perspective.

The next round I thought I was closer.

The look of bewilderment grew ever more fixed the more I spoke.

Another round of creative later and it was made clear through the available channels that I was not to come to any more meetings. I just rubbed him up the wrong way and my ideas were awful.

Upon my exit, I was sure he leaned in to an intercom on his desk, pressed a button and and whispered ‘kill him’ in a sinister Russian accent.

Oh crap.

Now, I am not saying that every meeting I ever have is a bed of roses (I wish), but this level of failure was new territory. This was abject, and what made it even more shameful was that, awful as it is to admit, I thought we were getting along fine.

However I was reassured that account people have this kind of thing all the time. I guess they must, I mean you guys get paid to put up with it, but this was me we were talking about!

Oh I know, get over yourself Olly.

But this boycott presented a problem in a small agency.

It’s not always easy to just take the CD out of the picture and replace him/her with a stand in. At the time, I was the creative department, at least in terms of concepting.

The solution was to draft in a senior creative ‘honcho’ from the US to front the agency in creative terms and soon enough they seemed happier. They could talk about baseball and beefburgers and, oh I dunno, American stuff.

I was still going to be doing the work, the USA CD would just present and show up a couple of times a year. All would be happy.

This was not exactly a satisfactory set of circumstances but we needed to keep the business and we felt we could make it work. I felt ashamed and embarrassed, how could I have been so reviled?

Anyway, with me behind the scenes, suddenly the work started to get better reviews.

Now this was the kind of work we like!

Not like that other guy’s stuff…give us more like this!

Except that, obviously, it was still my work. Adjusted somewhat to their tastes, but my work nevertheless.

After a bit of successful research there was a shoot, where a stooge totally unconnected with the account was sent in as an art director, there were all manner of creative things created, all of which were originated and curated by my department and I, all while the client was thinking I had been banished to the hills.

Now, all this may seem like sour grapes and duplicitous agencies – but there is a point of sorts to be made.

We preach the gospel of ‘it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it’ and I had got it wrong on all sorts of levels.

‘My bad’ as us white middle-class, middle-aged, suburbanites now say.

But an agency’s output is as subject to this principle as much as any other product and consumer conversation.

Clients need to hear the message in a voice they recognise, by someone they like, in a way that illuminates the idea.

And even though Creative Directors are now seen as the best way to present creative, sometimes it’s best left to the right person for the right client.

Yes…even (gulps and winces)…..an account person.

Because it’s the relationship that smooths the way to a creative sale as much as all the other things, if not more.

Not just opinionated creatives trying to prove they are right.

And more importantly everyone got what they wanted, the client was happy and the agency kept the business.

Ah well, you live and learn.