Pitching bold ideas in any field is nerve-wracking. Imagine the brave soul at NPR who thought to themselves, You know what? I’m going to suggest Juvenile for our next Tiny Desk concert. If you’re unfamiliar with the late 90s and early 2000s rapper Juvenile, well, if nothing else, you probably know at least a few of his songs like Slow Motion or Back That Azz Up. Regardless, there was someone at NPR who decided to pitch Juvenile, despite Tiny Desk having a reputation, as Vox writer Zachary Crockett puts it, for cultivating a “cult following” and catering to an audience that leans more toward “hipster-infused indie rock” than any other musical genre.
It’s likely safe to say that this person who went out on a limb at NPR knew their audience pretty well and decided to take a calculated, or perhaps strategic, leap of faith on a big idea. In many ways, agencies face this to pitch or not to pitch scenario quite frequently, and every discipline — whether it’s strategy, account, or creative — plays a role in bringing that big idea to life in a way that helps the audience (our client) see its value from both a creative and business perspective. But not every big idea in the agency world is a viral hit like Juvenile’s Tiny Desk concert, so at what point does it make sense to keep pushing, and when is it time to move on?
Well, the short answer is: It depends. And it’s up to each discipline within the agency to work together to strike a balance between selling in ideas the agency is passionate about and being mindful of how we do that, so as to not damage a strong client relationship.
“I’ve always thought about it like this: The account team has the client in mind. The strategy team has the consumer in mind. The creative team has the agency in mind,” explained Account Director, Kenya Madyun.
The Account Team
When pitching a big idea, account teams typically know the client best and can often anticipate how it will be received. That’s because the account team has dedicated the time to relationship building to ensure they understand what the client is looking for, how they best receive information, and how they provide feedback, among other things. Building a solid foundation of trust is essential to knowing how and when to pitch a big idea, Kenya added, because the client needs to know our interests are aligned.
“The account person is there as the most knowledgeable person about the client’s business as a whole,” VP, Group Account Director, Jason Kimbell, explained. “Budget questions, internal politics, other extenuating circumstances or factors need to be considered because that could impact the outcome of the meeting.”
But background knowledge of the client isn’t the only thing account teams must come prepared with when a big idea is on the line. As SVP, Group Account Director Tracy Power explained, no one likes to be caught off-guard, especially in front of their boss or co-workers, so preparing the client for what's in the presentation is equally as important as making sure the agency team has thoroughly researched the “why” that got us to the creative concept.
“If you keep it too close to the vest and you’re coming in with something really wacky that the client doesn’t know [about], that’s usually a recipe for shock, and them shaking their head and saying, ‘no,’” Tracy added.
While those of us on the agency side may be yearning for a big reveal or a “jack-in-the-box-moment,” as Jason put it, sometimes it’s more effective to provide a trail of breadcrumbs leading up to the presentation to steer clear of a knee-jerk reaction that could get that big idea a one-way ticket to the advertising graveyard.
Instead, Jason suggested that those breadcrumbs can be as simple as reaching out to the client and saying, “Hey, do you have 30 minutes to hop on the phone? We’re concepting, but we have some thoughts we’d like your feedback on.” By doing this, he points out that the client gets to provide their point of view early, which adds to the intrigue and can make them feel more involved in the creative solution.
Even after taking proactive steps to give that big idea a fighting chance, Account Director, Macie Heintz added that the account team still has to be prepared for a “no.” She said part of that means really coming in feeling confident about the other concepts so the team leaves the meeting feeling excited about that direction rather than disappointed about leaving that big idea behind.
And, to Macie’s point, those “nos” happen, and for account teams, the benefits of maintaining a healthy agency-client relationship far outweigh the risks of continuing to push for an idea that just isn’t gaining traction.
“At some point, if the client is like, ‘This isn’t working for me,' or 'I’m not connecting the dots,' and we’ve given it all we can — here’s the strategy rationale, the consumer mindset, the creative rationale — and they’re still not getting it; that’s when it’s time to talk with the team about what we can do to either make the adjustments they’re asking for or make the other option one that we’re excited about,” Kenya concluded.
The Strategy Team
Strategists are doing a lot of the research and leg work to help us get to those big, creative ideas, so by the time it gets in front of the client, a lot of collaboration among all three teams has already happened behind the scenes. Much like the account team, the strategy team often takes the data it has gathered and molds it to present to the client in a way that bolsters or fuels the big idea the agency is presenting.
“So much of creative evaluation is subjective,” Rachel Cobb, EVP, Strategy and Planning, explained. “In many cases, our role as we support our clients is to provide the context and the support for why an idea works to help make it more objective as they approach decision making.”
In many cases, the strategy team has already presented findings about consumer insights, category trends, the competitive landscape, and/or the brand’s DNA, so the client is familiar with the “why” behind the big idea. Because of that, as Marissa Stabler, VP, Strategy and Planning explained, the strategy team often has a sense of what type of idea could come across as risky, give the client pause or even a little bit of heartburn.
“Ideally, we’re able to address that going in to set us up for success and be able to answer those initial questions or concerns,” Marissa added.
If or when concerns do come up, both agree the best answer is never to come up with a solution on the spot because that can quickly lead to a watered-down idea. Rather, they emphasized it’s important to get a sense of what about the idea isn’t working or is giving the client pause.
“Most often it seems like an issue of risk and comfort,” Rachel added. “When I think about some of my favorite work that died on the cutting room floor, it was something that could have been very disruptive or differentiating for the category, and therefore, wasn’t expected and they (the client) feared it might not be universally liked.”
Sometimes easing those fears is simply a matter of resurfacing (or revisiting) the information, data, and insights the strategy team gathered as part of its initial deep dive into the client’s target and collaborating with the creative team to help strategically reframe the idea.
So, if the idea is still falling flat, when is the appropriate time to call it quits? Marissa and Rachel agreed it’s best to abandon a big idea when it could damage the client relationship, when it’s not a good use of resources to continue to push it, or when it could cause internal friction.
The Creative Team
There can be a lot of reasons why a good idea just isn’t resonating with your clients the way your team had hoped. Maybe the client is concerned about being able to communicate the idea up the ladder, or maybe there are internal politics at play that we’re not aware of.
“It can be disappointing because you feel so invested in the idea, and it’s not connecting. It’s important not to get defensive and tell them why they’re wrong, but talk to them and ask why it isn’t clicking,” explained Alex Liebold, SVP, Creative Director. “Usually, we probe a little bit more. If they just say, ‘we hate it,’ then we won’t get anywhere.”
This probing period is when those with the strongest relationships in the room, likely the account teams, can help shed light on what exactly is missing the mark and where the clients’ concerns lie.
When it comes to creative ideas, it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes a creative concept itself is better received than the way we’re proposing to bring it to life. “There have been plenty of times where clients just aren’t buying the execution,” Alex said. “If that’s the case, we’ll just pivot.” This keeps the idea alive while allowing for compromise to address the client’s concern.
“To me, it’s not necessarily fighting for ideas. You should never have to fight for anything with your client,” explained Mark Fisher, Creative Director. “That’s the wrong nomenclature. But you do pick your battles. Change the color, sure. But it’s all about protecting the idea.”
Mark said there are certain instances where you have to stand your ground. “Not combative,” he emphasized. “But just let the clients know how important these decisions are.” Production, casting, location, editors, directors, these are the seemingly small things that could make or break the end product. “A great idea poorly executed is a bad idea,” Mark added.
Occasionally, even feedback with the best intentions can take the teeth out of a big idea and effectively change the impact it could have on the audience.
“I’d almost rather walk away from things than water them down,” said Alexandra Frazier, Associate Creative Director, Copy. “That happens a lot with clients where they say, ‘We like this, but it’s pushing us a little too far, can we make it a little more comfortable?’” Alexandra added that’s never a good place to live in, creatively.
David Olsen, EVP, Executive Creative Director, echoed Alexandra’s sentiment: “I’d rather walk away from a good idea than retool it and make a good idea weaker based on feedback.” But he also insisted how important it is to not kill an idea in the room. “Let us go back and have another crack at it.”
Ultimately, if the core idea is solid, and the client even sees its potential, but the timing just isn't quite right — whether that's because the brand can't deliver on it at this time or their business isn't prepared for it yet — David explained it's worth keeping it in your back pocket.
As disheartening as it may be, sometimes you pull out all the stops and the clients just aren’t going for it. “I live by, ‘there’s always another idea out there,’” says David. “It stinks; it bums you out when you’re so passionate about it, and you’ve worked so hard at it, but sometimes you’ve got to let it go.”
But letting go doesn’t mean forever. “If you have the relationship,” David said, “save it for another day.” Alex agreed that the relationship is key in trying to sell in an idea for the second time: “As long as the team has time and everyone is feeling good about it, there’s nothing wrong with bringing an idea back. If you have a good relationship, you can bring the idea back with some updates. The client is never going to be upset that you’re continuing to think about their business and their success. Most clients will appreciate that you’re still thinking about them.”
While there’s no playbook that tells us when to latch onto a big idea and hold on for dear life versus when to let it rest peacefully in the advertising graveyard, our team has found that taking a cross-functional approach to making this decision works best.
As a creative agency, we serve as a partner and brand steward for our clients, and in that role, as Rachel explained, our goal is to always elevate the work.
“If we didn’t push our clients, and, frankly, push each other internally, we would be doing every aspect of the relationship a disservice,” she added.
That’s why we as an agency always work to bring those big ideas to the table, provide the rationale for why they work and deliver them with passion and enthusiasm. Not every big idea will be as big of a hit as Juvenile’s Tiny Desk concert, so we’re also always prepared to rally around an idea both the agency and client are excited to bring to life.
In a world where attention spans are limited, we're glad you stuck with it and made it to the end of this article because we certainly think it was worth the read. If you like what you saw and want to know how you can partner with a team that's brimming with creative ideas, reach out to our CMO, Taylor Bryant (email@example.com), and get a conversation with Mythic started today.