Selling Creative

[May 16, 2010]

Many people, including seasoned professionals, underestimate the effort that goes into the first stages of a creative project. There’s a tendency to think only of the practical matters that follow, because these are easier to grasp and easier to quantify. Yet for those in the creative hot seat, the execution phase is a piece of cake, compared to the hours of deep thought that go into building creative concepts.

Multiply that by two when the creative team, like a mythical mariner, must steer its fragile craft on a narrow course between conflicting imperatives. On the left is a steep shoreline cliff of conventional wisdom. On the right, an equally steep cliff of visionary demands from creative leadership. Getting stuck in the middle is a nasty business because, to put it mildly, the two ideologies clash.

Let’s assume your creative team successfully navigates those perilous waters, arriving ashore safely with concepts strategically correct and technically sound. Then let the real clashing begin. Let project team members hammer out their differences and build a presentation rationale addressing all parameters. Talk it up, throw it back in the oven, argue, wrangle, storm out of the conference room—and eventually arrive at a consensus.

With luck, the process has been positive. You’ve burned away everything superfluous, everything rooted in Marketing Anxiety—and every element whose only function is to angle for a major award. Your concepts now also contain no traces of technical gimmickry, sheer laziness or the sad parade of meaningless tactics that often substitutes for creative strategy.

If you’ve reached this stage, you have a right to feel good about yourself. But there’s one crucial step to take before the concepts go before the client.

Make the commitment.
The entire project team must commit to selling the concepts, to defend them against the oncoming barrage of cautious, ritual responses. Instead of crumbling, sell, but keep one thing in mind: Selling creative has nothing to do with “winning the argument”—and it can’t be done with charisma alone.

In reality, the process involves teaching clients how to evaluate creative work. Wean them from their ritual responses. Lead them step by step, from competitive analysis, through project strategy, through positioning statements and the creative platforms underlying the work you have on display. Helping clients see the big picture, the “concept of the concept,” teaches them not to focus on surface details, like the presence or absence of the color blue.

Even at that, however, your work’s not done. You also need a coherent strategy for selling the creative through every phase of production. Otherwise, with a snip here and a chisel there, the concepts you thought you’d sold will slowly transform into a carbon copy of last year’s campaign. If you’re committed to the idea you sold, you’ll have to keep selling it all the way down the line.

It’s worth the risk.
The assumption that great creative sells itself with its sheer fabulousness is inaccurate. The best work is exactly what’s hardest to sell; like anything actually new, it stirs up the fear of the unknown. Why does this matter? Because without the ability to sell real creative concepts, an agency is on its way to oblivion.

If the majority of your work is so conventional it could be produced by a team of freelances and a print shop in a couple of afternoons, you haven’t made a commitment to doing great work. That commitment begins with the courage to present what you believe in, sell what you present, and stand by what you’ve sold. It may not be easy to overcome ingrained beliefs but the rewards are priceless. In fact, freeing your client from the prison of conventional wisdom is probably the most creative thing you’ll ever do in any branch of advertising.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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