Creativity doesn’t sell itself, but there are ways to reframe ideas that can encourage clients to buy, writes veteran planner Mike Teasdale.

Anyone who has ever worked in an ad agency will be familiar with the following scenario. 

It’s the morning of a big creative presentation. You’re pumped, partly because you have some great ideas and partly because you’ve been up most of the night generating them. Yes, it’s all been a bit last minute and chaotic but, hey, that’s why adland is such a buzz. That, and the intoxicating prospect of your mum proudly telling her neighbours that you were involved in “that ad about thingummyjig off the telly”

But your bubble soon bursts. The meeting is a damp squib as the creative ideas get unpicked by the client.

So, why didn’t they buy your ideas? Many years of experience tells me that the answer is down to a creative paradox: clients always say they want creativity but then seldom buy it when the opportunity to do so arises.

This creative paradox exists because we have an in-built negative bias against uncertainty. You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to know that uncertainty is a mental state we actively try to avoid. Novel creative ideas fuel uncertainty so we shy away from them in favour of more certain solutions.

So, how can you encourage your clients to buy novel creativity?

Focus on appropriateness, not originality.

Contrary to myth, creative ideas do not speak for themselves. They need presentation and explanation. They need selling. 

Selling a novel creative idea is less about highlighting its originality and more about highlighting its appropriateness to solve the identified problem.

The complex relationship between perceived originality and perceived appropriateness was explored in a recent Journal of Advertising Research paper. In a nutshell, the more original an idea is perceived to be, the harder people find the task of judging its appropriateness and that can lead to rejection. The more irrational your creative idea is, the more rational your sell must be.

I worked in the USA for many years and one of the differences between American and British ad agencies is that American creatives are way better than their British counterparts at selling ideas. They talk the language of business more than British creatives and this means they can better reassure clients on the appropriateness of an idea. 

Focus on the twist, not the leap.

No matter how exponential your problem, the preferred solution will likely be incremental. As humans, we respond best to what is known as MAYA thinking: the most advanced yet acceptable solution to any problem. 

So, don’t focus on how revolutionary your idea is. Instead, make it look small, even obvious.

My first ever solo flight as a young planner was on an obscure naval dark rum called Pusser’s Rum. It looks evil but it tastes great. Its traditional open pot-stilled production means it is full of organic impurities, but it is these impurities which give the rum its unique flavour and fragrance. 

I suggested the notion of Pusser’s Rum being “the best tasting rum because it is the least pure” and that became a powerful start point for a quirky print campaign. I positioned this notion as a little twist of facts rather than a big leap of faith and that enabled the client not to overthink it.

Make your idea look familiar.

Back in the early 1990’s I worked on WH Smith at BBH. Each week we’d go down to Swindon to present a crop of Print ads. The whip-smart account man realized that the client tended to buy ads that were “wristed up” by a particular art director. They liked his style of drawing. 

The account man got the favoured art director to draw an ad template into which different headlines/products could be dropped. This template was printed up in pad form so anybody who worked on WH Smith always concepted in the same visual style. Every ad looked like the same art director had mocked it up. It did wonders for our selling success!

Involve your client in the creative process.

Exuding passion for your idea is good but if you can make your client feel they are partly responsible for it then so much the better. In my experience, a carefully managed tissue session can do wonders for client buy-in because collaboration is seductive. 

Back in the days when BBH did strategic pitches only, John Hegarty employed the fantastically effective trick of doodling possible ideas in a pitch after the strategy had been presented. While they seemed to be in response to the client conversation, these ideas had in fact been thought of ahead of time. It was a very subtle and extremely clever way of drawing the client in because they felt they were inspiring Sir John to create on their behalf. It worked too, the wily fox!