How to sell an idea

by / Thursday, 18 December 2014 / Published in Concept development, Creativity, Process and Procedures

Right off the bat, I’ll admit that calling this article “How to sell an idea” is a conceit – as though there’s a way, and I know it for sure. I’ll only nerd-out a little by quoting the fictional Captain Jean Luc Picard… “That, is a conceit. But, a healthy one”. While it’s not possible to teach you how to sell an idea, I can certainly give you an effective formula and the related caveats.

This is relevant to selling a creative idea to a client, if that wasn’t already obvious. Could be an ad concept, a design theme or just a single layout for a one-off piece. It’s also worth noting, while this is a process you’ll refine over the course of your career, you can start doing it right away. Even if you’re only showing your friend’s dad a business card design for his hobby DIY business, worth about $300. It’s the same process as when you show Coca-Cola a national ad campaign, worth $1.3m.

Most of the time, these are every day elements. A website re-design, some store signage, a banner ad, whatever. Sometimes they’re big projects like re-branding or a series of videos and animations. Every so often, it’s something super cool. Whichever scenario, remember the following… actually, remember isn’t strong enough a word. Rather, I might say, “whatever you do, DON’T forget the following”:

this is not your personal brand.

When creative people forget this, they end up feeling rejected and filled with self-doubt. It’s the greatest contributor to the epidemic of work anxiety among creative people. It would take 12 blog posts to explain what this means, but I’ll sum it up for the purpose of this post – don’t take anything personally, when it comes to client feedback on concepts you present. I try not to remember the number of times I’ve pounded my desk in frustration because the LAST idea a client would go for was the cool one. And, no matter which one they pick, they STILL manage to change it so much, you don’t even recognize the idea anymore. Long story, short: get over it. It’s what you signed up for. Period. You’ll get irrational feedback that will make no sense to you, and you’ll watch as your clients systematically, and efficiently, deconstruct your idea, expertly removing all the things that make it work as an idea in your mind. Tough beans. Moving on…

Make sure that you show them three options:
1) The one they asked for,
2) The one you think they’ll buy,
3) The one they’d never buy, but you think they’ll REALLY like.

1) is exactly what the brief outlines. Typically, exactly what they’ve done in the past with new information. It’s basically, the version they could have created themselves if they had a copy of the files, some layout skill and 3 hours. The reason you need this one, is to demonstrate you understood the project. It may sound lame, but it’s not. You need this one.
Caveat: They might buy it, and you’ll hate producing it. As previously stated, tough beans. Often, this is what they need to put out there, and it’s the easiest option to approve without having to think too much. That’s why you need it.

2) is a tough one. Being able to anticipate what the client will buy, making it something you like, on brand, on message, and still cool enough for you… that’s the golden goose egg you’ll chase your whole career.
Caveat: You have to be willing to sacrifice a good idea, if it comes at the wrong time. That’s not the only caveat, but it’s a big one. Tons of good ideas come here to die – in that zone between the client loves it, but it’s not the right idea for the time. You can never re-present it (some might argue that, however, it’s never worked for me or anyone I know).

3) This is where you can can have fun. REALLY stretch your wings, with low risk. Because you put one and two on the table, now you get to present an idea that they’ll look at and say (hopefully): “Wow, that third concept is just… wow. We could never get approval for it, but we LOVE it!” Typically, this is a concept that is outside the current budget and scope. Imagine showing Coca-Cola a crazy ad concept with a helicopter flying through a night sky, and the lights of the city below all come on to form 10,000 Coke bottles. It’s stuff like that. Cool. On brand. On strategy. Too big for the client to consume. If you can pull it off, they won’t buy it, but neither will they forget it, or you. It also helps them stretch their imaginations with you. Magic, when it works.
Caveat: It’s tough to pull off. You can’t force this one out either. If you don’t have an idea this big, don’t try to make one up. This only works, if the idea really is cool AND on strategy AND on brand. Knowing whether you have those bases covered will only come with experience.

The point:
Let your client know you understand what they’re asking for. Show them your creative chops. Make them comfortable with a concept they can go straight to production with if they need to, followed by creative “magic”. It’s a great combination.

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