Why a great idea should make you nervous

No great marketing goal was ever achieved without hand-wringing. If you’re not lying awake at night in a pool of sweat the night before a campaign launch, you’re not doing it right. Great marketing takes great ideas takes great courage takes great Xanax.

The problem with business is that nervousness is never a good thing. Comfort is the corporate resting state. Anything that disrupts comfort leads to downsizing. Which explains why most CMOs avoid the ideas that make them nervous, and gravitate toward the ideas that feel comfortable...like an old shoe.

I gravitate towards ideas that are prickly. I like the ones that still have rough edges. The ones that haven’t had all of their special parts rubbed off. The ones that are hard to sell.

I’ve identified three things that are largely responsible for the lack of “scary” ideas making it into the world. If you’re in this business, these will seem all too familiar:

Failure to launch

How many times have you left a pitch meeting, waited to get into the car, then screamed with excitement over the fact that the client LOVED the RIGHT idea? They were presented with a few options and they chose the BEST one! The one that would truly improve their business. The one that would be fun to produce, win awards and make a difference to their bottom line.

And then radio silence.

And more radio silence.

Then a nebulous regroup meeting put on the calendar titled, “Update to New Campaign.”

And your heart drops. For good reason, too. The update is that the client has talked him/herself into no longer thinking the right campaign is the right campaign, and would instead like to move forward with the old shoe.

“They don’t want to rock the boat” // “They’re just not ready to live into that direction yet” // “Their children don’t understand it...and they’re the target” // “This is such a departure from what they’ve been doing” // “It’s too edgy” // “They don’t think their target will understand it” // “They don’t think humor works in this category” // “They think it feels like an overpromise.”

All of these, and many more, have been used to kill great campaigns. It’s the failure to launch trap. If an idea sits on a client’s desk for more than two weeks, it will change. If it sits for more than a month, it will be killed. Time is the enemy of action.

And we all know what happens after that idea gets killed. We’ve all had it happen. Sing along with me: six months later, the exact campaign runs for a competitor. The competitor uses it to gain market share and the client asks why they aren’t presented work as effective as that. FML.

LESSON TO CLIENTS: Your first reaction is your consumer’s first reaction. Trust your gut. Don’t overthink it. Launch.

LESSON TO AGENCIES: Try to present work in such a way that time – or, more specifically, timing – is your friend. Lots of great campaigns launch under the gun. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that once an idea is sold, an idea is sold.

Improving it to death

This one has a very fresh cautionary tale that I will get to in a little bit. The gist of this is that sometimes, it is the imperfections that make things unforgettable (like the way the girl pronounces “MailChimp” in the ad in the Serial podcasts). Don’t go try to fix something that isn’t broken.

I once launched a campaign (we were under the gun) that had a bit of a reckless tone to it. It was empowering to the consumer, almost at the expense of the client. And it worked like crazy. Of course, the client didn’t like it, so they “improved” it by reducing the role of the consumer and making the client look smarter, and the next iteration failed.

The instinct is to optimize at every possible touchpoint. To improve. Improve. And improve. At the expense of the magic that may not make sense, but just works.

My cautionary tale is Dos Equis. We all watched that campaign get improved to death in front of our own eyes. The first iteration was brilliant and sold tons of beer. But, the client thought, “we can make it better...we can tweak it to gratuitously appeal to millennials and show more product shots!” The result, of course, was a completely lackluster campaign that failed to resonate. And one of the greatest campaigns of our generation was effectively improved to death.

LESSON TO CLIENTS: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s the sticky parts that give the campaign texture and let it take hold.

LESSON TO AGENCIES: Don’t be afraid to push for non-perfection. It is the bumps and bruises that will make the campaign succeed. Resist buffing them out.

The execution is the idea. And vice versa.

Here’s another favorite of mine. This has happened to you. In fact, it probably happened to you yesterday: Your planner nails a strategy. You come up with a perfect idea to bring the strategy to life. And you put together an execution that ties the whole thing up in a bow.

You have a meeting with the client and it seems to go great.

...but hold on...there is one comment. The client really likes the strategy. And they love the idea. BUT, they don’t love the execution. They want to see the idea expressed in a different way.

I’ll caveat my frustration on this one by saying that sometimes this is addressable. Sometimes the idea is rather anthemic and there are a variety of executions that could bring the idea to life. But often times, the execution is the idea. Or the idea is the execution. They can’t be pulled apart. There are so many examples of this.

Part of this is trust. For clients, it’s probably an odd sort of FOMO where they fear of what they didn’t see, but I can promise you the execution the agency brings forward is their best thinking. To revisit Dos Equis, imagine if the client said, “we love the strategy and we like acknowledging that people don’t always drink beer, but when they do, they should make it a Dos Equis, but we’re not crazy about the most Interesting Man in the World Thing...that feels weird.”

Then we would have ended up with this:

OPEN ON FOUR MULTI-RACIAL, MILLENNIAL GUYS PLAYING GOLF. ONE GUY HITS A GREAT SHOT. IT GOES INTO THE HOLE.

GUY1: Wow! What a great shot.

GUY2: The best!

GUY3: That calls for a beer.

GUY1: But Johnny doesn’t usually drink beer...

JOHNNY (enthusiastically): Make it a Dos Equis!

LAUGHTER ALL AROUND AS THEY TOAST THEIR DOS EQUIS.

WE FREEZE ON THE CLINKING OF THE BOTTLES WITH THE LOGOS PERFECTLY FACING CAMERA AND THE LAUGHING FACES IN THE BACKGROUND.

ANNCR: We know you don’t always drink beer, but when you do, make it a Dos Equis.

Or something similarly terrible. Don’t forget the importance of the execution.

LESSON TO CLIENTS: Trust your agency. If you like everything but the execution, ask them if they think they can be de-coupled. If the agency says the execution is critical to the idea, and it makes you a little nervous, refer to the title of this article.

LESSON TO AGENCIES: Be honest about the importance of the execution. It’s OK to say the idea is dependent on the execution. Or not. It’s your work...you know what is possible.

Advertising is hard. There are lots of things that have to happen for a great campaign to go into the world. These are just three impediments that I see on a regular basis. Be aware of them. Learn from them. And know that any great campaign that has ever made a difference to a business began with butterflies and hand-wringing and trust.

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Joe Parrish

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

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