Bring It Back, Do It Over
An ad legend's guidelines for building a foolproof insight-creation machine
1. Be really tough on the work.
With the accent on "really." My first mentor taught me that the power to stop bad work was the only true power a creative director possessed. He once took a set of campaign storyboards that people had been working on for weeks, looked at them, then opened his window and tossed them out on the street, 12 floors below. Not my style, but I'll never forget the cardboard sheets wafting down onto Madison Avenue and 46th Street — like a pathetic ticker-tape parade for the rejected.
2. Never let them hear you bitch and moan.
When people hear you complain, they take it as permission to complain, too. Whatever misgivings you have about a client or a superior, keep them to yourself. Complaining deflates morale, makes you look weak, and creates an environment that breeds negativity like a contagion.
3. Judge an insight on its merits.
Not on how you would have done it. Easy to say, tough to do, particularly if you have a strong philosophy that's working. If you force-feed every insight and execution through your prism, you are bringing otherwise smart people down to your level. If you insist that people only do it as you would have done it, this is the creative equivalent of hiring people weaker than you are.
4. Don't compete with your people.
The biggest interpersonal flaw in any manager's tool kit is the constant overriding need to win. When you're the boss, you can afford to ease up. Cede a debating point, an execution of an idea, even ownership of a concept at least once a day, and you'll have people praising your open-mindedness and feeling that much more free to think boldly (because they know you won't always be automatically stomping on their suggestions). It doesn't mean you're weak and letting standards slip. It means you're strong enough to let others win their share.
5. Protect insights from their enemies.
There's no point in having an insight if you can't protect it from being radically altered by compromise, or rejected by a client who doesn't get it, or stripped of its original insightfulness by committee groupthink. The way to keep your insights out of the clutches of the people who try to reduce the insight to something familiar, or the copycats, is to build relationships. If you don't have that trusting relationship with the client, you won't be allowed to fail.
6. Let your client own your best insights.
In any successful campaign, the client thinks it's his success (and he's right) while the agency folks think it's theirs (and they're right, too). If you can create a seamless line of creativity where no one knows where the big idea came from, and no one cares, you're in the ideal position. It's amazing how much can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.
Six weeks after the attacks of September 11, New York City's downtown was still smoldering and caked in soot. The entire city was in the dumps, which is how I found myself sitting with Mayor Rudy Giuliani in a makeshift command center. As the chairman of BBDO's North American operations, I was there to talk to the mayor about the kind of advertising that would make people feel better about New York and bring them back. Tourism wasn't merely off; it had vanished. No one was visiting the city.
Whatever New York was going through, we were living it every day. We all knew someone who had perished in the attacks; we all had been to memorial services. We realized that New York was demonstrating how people can come out of the woodwork to fight and help and contribute and rise to the occasion. We decided to call this process the New York Miracle.
Now all we had to do was make that miracle concept stick. As we thought about ourselves, why some of us had gravitated to the big city, we realized that people come to New York because they have a dream. Everybody dreams of doing something big in New York. If we could get that message across to people, maybe we could entice them back.
When Gerry Graf, one of our senior creative directors, said, "Imagine Woody Allen ice skating in Rockefeller Center," that opened the floodgates. The suggestions of famous people doing incongruous New York activities began to pile up. How about Henry Kissinger finding his way into an empty Yankee Stadium to round the bases, slide headfirst into home plate, dust himself off, and ask, "Derek who?" Yankee Stadium suggested Yogi Berra, except he was conducting the New York Philharmonic. Barbara Walters auditioning for a Broadway show, butchering the song "42nd Street"?
That's the power of great insights. Insights, not ideas. There's a difference. Ideas, valuable though they may be, are a dime a dozen in business. That's certainly the case at ad agencies, where even the mailroom people spit out ideas as if they were candy from a Pez dispenser. Insight is much rarer — and therefore more precious. In the advertising business, a good idea can inspire a great commercial. But a good insight can fuel a thousand ideas, a thousand commercials. The notion of the New York Miracle was an insight, and the six spots took on a life of their own. We got people feeling good about New York again as a city of possibilities. Tourists came back in droves.
In a business world bedeviled with the problems of differentiating yourself from the crowd, moving the needle and selling enough stuff to have a measurable impact, telling the world you've arrived, fighting off or attacking the competition, and establishing or improving an image, insights are essential. They're as essential to the budding entrepreneur as they are to the master marketers at Nike. Insights are what will let you stay in business, build market share, open new income streams, cement relationships with old customers, and attract new ones.
When you're in search of an idea, big or small, there is a singular moment when insight rears its lovely head. The moment may pass in an instant, it may sail over you unnoticed, or it may smack you in your frontal lobe. I don't have guaranteed rules to help you recognize these moments. I have some suggestions: If it sounds like Mark Twain could have said it, keep it.
In my 40-year career in advertising, I've learned that you can't legislate insight. You can't make your people be creative on cue all the time. But you can orchestrate insight. You can create a favorable environment for it. You can steer people toward it and demand it — and you can reject it when it doesn't meet your standards.
Sometimes insight walks right through the door. That's what happened to us at BBDO when we were invited to pitch the HBO account.
As we listened to the HBO executives explain their business goals, my mind was racing, turning over every word they said, hoping to find some supercharged phrase that would help us identify the one product benefit, large or small, that would break through and let us position HBO as slightly better than its competition. And then it hit us. What was HBO comparable to? There was nothing out there like HBO. That's when we realized that the insight — what television could be — had walked through the door with the HBO executives.
The insight may have been apparent, but you still have to see it, seize it, and know how to run with it. We almost didn't. As we prepared our presentation, we lapsed into old habits, still thinking in terms of how to identify a little morsel of distinctiveness to slightly differentiate HBO from free TV. One of our false starts was to establish HBO as "the entertainer" — because we saw it as a pure entertainment channel. No news, no local sports. Entertainment wasn't an insight. A lot of stuff on TV qualified as entertainment. In the end, all we were saying was, "Hey, we're like the other guys, but we're a little better."
That's when we came back to our senses and committed ourselves to the insight that walked through the door: There's nothing out there like HBO. In fact, that led to the theme line of our pitch: "There's no place like HBO." None of the other five agencies competing for the business took that position. They all attempted to give HBO a small edge over the competition, when in fact HBO was the only game in town. We won the account.
Since then, HBO's entire image still hinges on the same insight, albeit with an updated theme line, "It's not TV, it's HBO." HBO has eclipsed parity, it's unique, there's still nothing else like it — even as it
has become the place for The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm much more than the home of "uncut and uncensored" movies.
How do you go from an idea that might make a good ad to an insight that reshapes a business for a generation? Let your gut guide you. This is what customers do, but beyond that, it's the most trustworthy meter for measuring the power of an insight. If you laugh, it's funny. If you cry, it's moving. If you feel a jolt of any kind, it's breaking through the clutter. When you don't feel it in your gut, chances are no one else will, either.
You have to be optimistically patient. Insights and great ideas don't come to you with clockwork precision, perfectly timed to suit your needs when you snap your fingers. They come at their own pace, and you have to patiently wait for them. If you have had useful insights in the past, you will have them again in the near future. I can't say when exactly, but they will come. If you have written great copy before, you will do so again. I call it "optimistic patience." Stay at your desk and be patient. There is no rational reason to think that you are blocked (whatever that means!), that you have dried up, that you have used up your full quota of good ideas (as if there is a quota). You simply have to keep scratching and clawing and groping for the answers — and trust that they will come. The only thing you can't do is rush the process, or grab on to the first idea that pops into your head because you're in a hurry.
Every once in a while, a bold company is forced to bet it all on one huge initiative. Failing to place that bet means the end of growth and inevitable extinction. We got involved in one of these bet-the-company moves when Gillette was putting all its chips on a top-secret proprietary shaving system called Sensor, and it was looking to us, as its longtime ad agency, for a huge marketing insight. It was relying on one product to rejuvenate, refocus, and restore the morale of an entire corporation.
We were a little slow to understand how much was riding on this. Gillette had become known principally for making lowest-common-denominator products like the disposable Good News razor. Gillette execs saw themselves as part of an innovative high-tech company. Their product: the steel shaving system. The answer and the insight, we found, was looking at us in every Gillette employee we met. They did not see themselves as producing a low-interest product that people used in front of the bathroom mirror every morning and then forgot about for the rest of the day. They saw themselves as committed scientists who were using technology to relieve men's suffering. Gillette's tech wizards were pioneering laser welding on a mass scale with shaving systems, a process previously reserved for space programs. Gillette's management, from the CEO on down, was enthralled by metal technology and constantly making things better.
This notion of advanced technology being applied to a worthy cause, and of everyone at Gillette pushing to be not good, not better, but the best, eventually sunk into our cerebral cortex. And that's when the theme line appeared: "The best a man can get." We saw it everywhere at Gillette. Why not trumpet it everywhere around the world to describe what the company stood for?
You don't ordinarily find advertising insight in the hearts of the employees who work for the client. You find it in research and marketing data. You find it in the CEO's statements. You find it in throwaway comments in meetings. You find it in customer complaints. But the more we looked at "The best a man can get," the more we appreciated how it fulfilled an absolute must for Gillette.
Achieving this kind of insight might seem accidental. It's anything but. You can't predict when great work will appear, or if the client will appreciate its greatness, or for that matter how the public will respond. But you damn well can stop bad work from getting out the door. You can damn well stop lulling yourself into complacency. And you better damn well challenge yourself to do your best before your client does. Never let a due date or a client meeting the next day convince you that something's ready when you know it isn't. Send it back. Make everybody stay at his desk all night if you have to. Cancel the meeting (as a last resort). And don't feel too bad about it. You'll feel a lot worse if you compromise and let something less than great get through.
In judging creative work, I've never been afraid to deliver the brutal truth. But the effective method for delivering it is to always have a reason for your opinion. This lets you attack the work rather than the person who created it. My reasons were fairly basic and predictable: The work wasn't memorable. It wasn't breakthrough. It's been done before. It's off-strategy. It sounds familiar. Anything less and I had only solved half my problem. People knew I hated the work, but they didn't know why or how to do better. "I don't like it" is only the headline. Why you don't like it is the body copy. You don't have a complete message without both halves. And so I focused on giving people not only clear rejections but clear directions. You can't just be the creative rejecter. You have to be the creative director.
And any sharp, experienced creative director can add something to a bad idea. But why bother? You're only elevating the bad to mediocre. A bad idea, supported by nonexistent insight, should never see the light of day. Save your brainpower for the undeniably good insights that are just a hair short of perfect. This is not only prudent time management but it's also how great creative enterprises are built. If you can add 10% or 20% of value to a concept or execution — whether it's by changing one word in the headline, tweaking copy, tightening up the edit, or brightening up the sound mix — then you're earning your keep and, in turn, raising rather than dropping the performance bar in your organization.
That's a small insight, but if you're armed with it, the ideas will never stop flowing.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.