“I will protect the creative with my life!”

We’ve been very busy at the agency, developing campaigns for a diverse and interesting array of fabulous clients. (Dear clients, note I said “fabulous” and that I lead with it.) That said, our ideas are now being “socialized,” a lengthy and treacherous path in which all work must pass. Few make it. We will do everything in our power to see that ours do…

In Adland, guiding a truly great idea through to completion is not unlike facing the many hardships Sinbad endured during his seventh treachery-laden voyage in 1958. (Not really, but humor me.) In that quintessential B-movie, the legendary special effects genius, Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) pitted the seafaring swashbuckler against an armada of spectacular pre-CGI creatures that not only took Sinbad to the brink but also changed Hollywood forever.

But I digress.

My point is that it’s soooo difficult producing excellent work in a business built by process and mired in fear. Whether it’s a quick and certain death by the brutish Cyclops or killing by a thousand cuts from the many-armed Serpent Queen, getting our best work in market (unmolested) is, alas, damn near impossible. It can be done, obviously. But you can only lead the horse to water.

“I will defeat your idea!”

Notice I wrote “produce” and not “create.” Contrary to popular hater belief, I don’t think most agencies are shit when it comes to creating excellent work. I’ve been doing this a long time and worked in just enough places to know that the ‘most agencies suck’ criticism just isn’t true. Most of us know what we are doing and generally get it up creatively for every brief.

I see spectacular work all the time. Hell, sometimes I even create it myself. But hard as that is, that is the easy part. Because for every hundred truly special campaigns generated inside a given agency perhaps five make it into the culture; and of those five only one gets out with all its feathers intact.

Experience the journey in terrifying Dynarama! See…

The vulnerable idea face its first hurdle of potential despair: The slew of the Internal. Hopefully, the idea’s champion (it’s Sinbad!) can protect it. For while the internal meeting starts with best intentions it may quickly devolve into chaos. (Fortunately, that never happens at your agency.)

And then, if we are lucky, the idea sails on to the client. Sinbad or not, these rocky shores have claimed many an agency’s idea. For it is here the Beasts of Doubt are unleashed. Up the organization it goes, suffering withering scrutiny. The Medusa of Research can and does turn our ideas into stone. That or something unrecognizable: a creature that is neither fish nor fowl. Pig Man!

The many daggers of research!

During the lengthy ordeal a new King or Queen of Marketing may take the throne. Happens all the time. This ruler often has other ideas. Back you go! If an idea moves forward slashed budgets may take their toll, rendering your concept ill equipped to take on its daunting task of myth making and persuading certain masses.

In the end it is usually time that defeats an idea. Even Sinbad cannot battle time. A few months into the process of creating/selling/producing an idea and folks begin to second-guess it. If it was so good, comes the question, then why is it taking so goddam long to make?

“By the Gods, will this ever end?”

So, here’s to the one in a hundred. The great idea that somehow grows stronger as it moves through its voyage. The concept that won’t die no matter what anyone throws at it. The great irony is these precious ideas are so rare they don’t even need a Sinbad to protect them. For they are legendary.

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad

Delightfully tacky stock photo of a “difficult client.”

Had coffee with another soldier in Adland. “Why are client’s so difficult?” he asked, rhetorically.

Those of us in creative departments have asked the question so many times it has become rote. Clients are difficult. Period. Especially with regard to buying and approving work. We expect them to demand changes to the concepts, to the script, to the voiceover, to the scene, to the CTA, to the size of the logo and so on.

We have become uncomfortably numb. We expect our work to be criticized. So much so the creation process has “revisions and changes” baked right into it. Furthermore, we are told –indeed, I’ve said it myself- if we were in our client’s shoes we’d do the same thing. To use the ultimate cliché “it is what it is.”

But you know what? That’s bullshit. I am far from perfect but I am usually a damn fine client. When I hire someone to do a creative job –be it a director or an architect or whomever- I never give him or her the kind of scrutiny that is typically given to me and/or my team. An interior designer shows me some designs I tell him which one I like, we discuss time and money, and I pay the man. This even when things are late and over budget, which they invariably are. Once in a while I have a question or an honest mistake has been made. We address it. Done. On to the next. Even though it’s my thing and my money I am seldom a dick.

Chances are you’re the same way.

So, why are advertising clients so difficult? Why all the concerns, tweaks and rejections? Like most things in the negative pantheon, I think the answer is fear based. CMO’s and their get are terrified (sometimes understandably) of losing their jobs. Often their counterparts at the agency feel the same way. Every tree we plant better bear fruit. Or else! With all that pressure (much of it self-imposed) it makes me wonder how they (or we) even get up in the morning.

Yet the resulting behavior –hacking at the tree or chopping it down- absolutely guarantees the tree will be barren. Or its yield will be paltry. In the end death by a thousand cuts is no different than doing nothing at all. Either way, the very thing one fears happening happens. The team is blown up. Another CMO is brought in and in turn another agency. The process begins all over again.

Creating campaigns is thrilling. Yet, their potential is and always will be unknown. Hence the thrill. No one can be sure how an audience will react to a thing until the thing is out there. What makes a client nervous might be what makes the thing truly great. We all know the story behind the world’s greatest advertisement, Apple’s “1984.” When it was screened to dealers everyone except its creators and Steve Jobs hated it. The agency, Chiat Day was asked to fire-sell the media, which happened to be two slots on the Super Bowl. One insertion was not sold. And the rest is history. Granted the follow-up commercial, “Lemmings” was an abject failure. Still, was Apple really hurt by it? No. Being reckless and cavalier has never hurt the brand. Failure can be the most excellent teacher.

Follow up to Apple’s “1984” was considered a failure. So what?

So put it out there. Instead of ‘why are we so afraid?’ let’s ask ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ If it doesn’t work as planned we try something else.

Were it that simple, right?

Timely piece in AdAge on the virtues of failure.

Virtues of being “unpopular” from Tedx presentation.