Business Forbes

When Creative Ideas Become Corporate Therapy


Will Burns

September 5, 2017

Why do many ad agencies present only 2-3 ideas at a time? Worse, why do they put the hard sell on you? The result is an “Us vs. Them” dynamic and, in my experience, misses an enormous opportunity for both sides. A form of corporate therapy through ideas. Lots of ideas.

Let me explain.

“This client doesn’t know what she wants until she sees it.”

How many times have you heard a creative person at an ad agency with that complaint? Thing is, no one knows what they want — in anything — until they see it. It’s not a client problem, it’s human nature.

I don’t look at a creative brief for a car and then just buy the car. I want to see it, drive it, and see if it’s right for me. Same with ads.

The mistake we make is that we pretend we are aligned when the client approves the creative brief, but we aren’t really. Because the creative brief isn’t ”the answer” but is ”the inspiration” for the answer. In other words, the creative brief may be approved but all wonderful creative hell is about to break loose.

Or it should. But most agencies make the mistake of holding back.

“Here are ten ideas and we’re not going to sell any of them.”

Imagine that. But the posture that most agencies take with their clients is, again, one of selling. What if they changed that? What if their posture was one of using lots of ideas as a way to get to the right idea?

The problem with the aforementioned creative brief is that it can’t capture what a client will like and not like. There is no line item for “Client Subjective Biases” because those are impossible to pin down in the abstract.

Now, some agency folks may be of the mind that what the client likes doesn’t matter and that the agency will present instead what the client needs. That’s noble. But in the end, it’s my experience that a client will not buy an idea he or she doesn’t like.

What if agencies took a different approach? What if they presented ten ideas or fifteen and didn’t try to sell any of them? What would happen?

I’ll tell you exactly what would happen.

After presenting ten ideas, the agency will quickly see new parameters emerge that were impossible to see in the strategic process. You will see parameters of tone when you hear comments like, “That just doesn’t feel like us.” You will see parameters of provocation when you hear — “I want to be bold, but not that bold.”

And you will hear parameters of utter subjectivity emerge when you hear – “I just love that one.” or just as valuable to the creative process, “I really don’t like that one.” Getting clients to talk through these “likes” and “dislikes” is invaluable.

What’s beautiful about teasing out these heretofore invisible parameters is that the agency is now doubly equipped to come up with even better ideas in round two. Ideas that solve the marketing problem and that the client will be proud to run.

But wait, there’s more.

Complex clients often resolve their differences through ideas.

There’s another benefit to presenting ten ideas, not three, and that is that the creative becomes a lightning rod grounding the political static between clients. We’ve all seen it. The client side has multiple “approvers” and they are all human and have their own perspectives and opinions. Throw in a little competitive politics between them and the room can carry a seriously negative charge.

However, when these forces are considering ten ideas, something magic happens. They are each more likely to find something they like, for starters. This sets them at ease. But more importantly we give clients a language — the creative ideas — through which they can have healthy discussions with each other.

You’d be amazed at how often a creative idea for an ad campaign or promotion or whatever can trigger a heated discussion about distribution or pricing or whatever else is on the clients’ minds.

And that’s when the real issues — the ones that were just under the surface during the creative brief stage — come out and greater strategic clarity is the result.

The agency leaves the meeting better equipped to nail the assignment and the client leaves the room having now expressed themselves more fully than they could in the more abstract creative-brief stage.

Ideas are therapy.

Or they can be if agencies reframe this first creative presentation from a time to sell to a time to learn.

That means avoiding getting all precious and presenting only 2-3 ideas. It means admitting that no clients know what they want until they see it. And it means seeing the client as not just an “approver” of the work but an important part of the creative process.

But it also will mean a better client relationship and a more efficient creative process. Because now you’re equipped to totally nail it in round two.

This article was written by Will Burns from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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