'I’m not a designer, but...' and other things that will ruin a great idea

My hiring goal, as a general rule, is to make myself the dumbest person in the room. There are tons of people who have recognized this and have stated it more eloquently than myself. For illustrative purposes, I’ll quote Malcolm Forbes who said, “never hire someone who knows less than you do about what [they’re] hired to do.”

It just makes sense, right? Why pay someone to do something that you’re already great at? On its face, it seems so logical -- so infallible -- which is why it shocks me that it rarely works that way in advertising. Let me be clear, I don’t mean that it doesn’t stand up within advertising agencies’ walls. We are such a young person’s business, I think we’re generally pretty good at hiring more talented people than ourselves, and letting them do the work. Where I think it falls apart is within the client/agency relationship, and within the agency/vendor relationship.

How many times have you sold great work only to have it fall apart at the finish line? Or how many times have your presentation comps communicated far better than your finished outputs? I don’t think I’m alone in saying that this happens to me with frustrating frequency. Why?

Let’s get to the bottom of this.

I think it comes when clients can’t resist the urge to try to outdo what their agencies are supposed to be great at. I don’t want this to sound like I’m being a delicate creative who can’t stand when clients change their work. I’m actually not proposing that at all. I truly believe that smart client input is critical to great creative that works. I’m simply proposing that there is a point in the process when someone provides feedback that is outside of his or her expertise.

I had this idea when I was on set shooting a bad re-write of a spot that started with so much potential. We loved the concept. It was strategically sound and creatively fantastic. We presented it to the client. The client loved the work...thought it was strategically sound and creatively fantastic. The client pointed out some smart things, high-level things we could do to make it work a little bit harder. We had great calls with production partners. We hired a director who had a great vision for the spot and added tons of value. THEN, the client decided to re-engage and tweak copy and clumsily art direct and turn all of this potential into a tire fire that no one wanted to be a part of.

This problem happens when clients aren’t able to discern their added value line. That is to say, the line after which their feedback doesn’t add value. And their suggestions become destructive rather than constructive. Designers and art directors and copywriters are trained to do their jobs. They typically have the 10,000 hour expert thing going for them, and make decisions after they’ve thought through the implications of their choices.

That day on set, this visual popped into my head. I call it The Inverted Triangle of Client Involvement. There is probably a version of this triangle in every industry. But I think it might be particularly acute in advertising:

This visual tries to illustrate how all companies should hire so as to be the dumbest person in the room. The client should hire a great agency who does something they can’t do. They should give feedback at a high level to make sure they are getting what they want. Then they should let the agency do what they’re great at. Same thing applies to the agency. They should do what they’re great at and hire vendors to do what they can’t do. Agencies should vet vendors and give them feedback to make sure they’re getting exactly what they want. And then they should step back and let the vendors do their thing.

All great advertising campaigns are born out of relationships built on trust. Clients micro-manage agencies when they don’t trust they have their best interests in mind. Agencies micro-manage vendors when they don’t trust they can execute what they’re supposed to. And the spinning wheel of death rotates until you are on a set shooting something that everyone hates.

Conversely, here is a visual I call the Non-Inverted Triangle of Idea Awesomeness. It simply shows how, if done properly, hiring people who are better than you are and trusting them to do their jobs leads to great work. The width of the triangle shows the size of the idea.

The bottom line is that everyone along the idea creation chain needs to recognize their strengths and their weaknesses. They need to take advantage of their strengths and hire against their weaknesses. It is how commerce has worked since the beginning of commerce. But in advertising, for some reason, people can’t trust the people they hire. Clients want to be art directors. Art directors want to be directors. And directors want to be artists. The relationships that get it right produce work that moves the industry forward. I fundamentally believe that ideas don’t transform brands; relationships do. We’re all capable of coming up with transformational creative ideas, but we often lack the relationships and the trust to see those ideas fully realized.

Clients, I would never presume to tell you how to do your job. You have an expertise that I do not possess. You have valuable insights and a distinct point of view. If I took it upon myself to tell you how to do your job, I am positive I would make it worse. Likewise, every time you art direct an ad or design an art card or wordsmith a headline, you are damaging our relationship by exposing that you don’t truly trust the hire you made. And, in the end, you are only making your communications less effective.

Joe Parrish is partner and chief creative officer at The Variable. He tweets @joeparrish

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Joe Parrish

Joe Parrish is partner and chief creative officer at The Variable.

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