Big Enough… Yet Small Enough

Insert handy text here and you’ve got yourself a finished ad that just needs the right voice over depending on your audience. Works for most any company and any product or service. Try it out yourself! Requires no creative effort. No expending of calories. And your clients will love it! They’ll think you did your job well and the check will be on the way.

This is actually the concept my advertising copywriting professor, Bill Winters, said he absolutely NEVER wanted to see. Ever. Yet to this day, I see companies using it to peddle just about anything. And every time, I hear his words.

The concept of big-enough-yet-small-enough is designed to appeal to everyone, offend no one and encompasses every possibility. A company needn’t worry about missing an opportunity to reach an audience they didn’t even know existed!

For this reason, this concept is about as bad as it gets. It’s so overused and watered down, any company, let alone advertising agency or creative, should be ashamed to present this as a credible option.

Considering the dearth of messages we’re bombarded with 24/7, an overused, watered down concept will be certain death from the memorability standpoint. No matter how much money you throw at it, you’ll never capture the hearts and minds in a way that translates into a positive, sustainable brand growth.

It’s lazy. And “there are no new ideas” is not an excuse! I once spent two weeks with the legendary Jay Maisel on a photography workshop on color and seeing. He remarked that interesting people take interesting pictures. Same goes for advertising. If you’re not always questioning, always exploring, looking down when most look straight. Or looking up, sideways and diagonally, you’re not stretching your brain. See. Feel. Touch. Experience. Connect. Pay attention to the simplest details because that’s where the big ideas often lie.

Look at how Apple has done that with every product they introduce. They pay attention to things that most everyone else doesn’t. Yes, they’re often quoted, overused example, but that’s because few companies come close to touching the complete experience they create – with such simplicity. Look, too, at how Method took the lowly cleaning product and made it sexy. What a simple idea.

It’s these simple ideas clients find so tough to embrace. They want more. They want to see all the features. They want their money’s worth from you. And to many, that means something complex.

For creatives who are passionate about delivering great concepts, those that aren’t out for the paycheck delivered safe, boring ideas often see their shiny, groundbreaking counterparts face potential death by committee or clients too afraid to take the risk on their own, even though that’s exactly what they need to do to make an impact. Many say they want powerful, cutting edge creative, yet when presented with an idea that makes them squirm – which you and I know is the kind that will get them noticed – they retreat, back track and pass it off to the idea firing squad also known as the cross-functional approval committee. And said client, fearing for his or her job, isn’t willing to do the heavy lifting required to promote such ‘dangerous’ ideas. And you, fearless creative, are once again beaten down. Yet another award-winning idea relegated to darkness in favor of friendly, appeals to men, women and children worldwide ideas. Which brings us another edition of big-enough-to-offer-you-the-prices-you-deserve-but- small-enough-to-give-you-the-service-you-demand. And the client keeps his job for another round of creative slaying.

We’ve all been there, right?  If you’re leading a creative team who cares about their craft, who carefully interprets the creative brief and who develops the kind of work that’s sure to get noticed by the people who matter – also known as the primary target audience, only to be shot down, you know how tough it can be to keep up the morale. It becomes easy, especially in an in-house department, to create the kind of work that gets approved. At least agencies get the benefit of higher perceived value because they’re the ‘outside experts’ brought in for their brilliance.

At least agency creatives can lick their wounds and focus on the next client. In-house creative leaders can continue encouraging risk taking and concepting of ideas that push the boundaries, but unless one EVENTUALLY sees the light of day, it’s tough to keep up the good fight. It’s tough to keep the idea pipeline vibrant. Over time, even the best can get beaten down, worn out. They lose the passion to work as hard as they need to for the best ideas.

So it’s our job as managers and leaders to push the ideas, to sell them to those fearful of them. To show WHY they’re not scary and WHY it’s essential to take a risk. To take a stand and risk alienating audiences that wouldn’t buy from you anyway. At the same time, we need to keep creative teams engaged via a mix of projects that fulfill their need to do great work. Photographer Chase Jarvis recently created a short film on living a creative life that shows how each of us needs to carve out the time for work that feeds our soul. Creative people need to know that the work they do matters. It’s WHY they do WHAT they do.

At the same time, ideas need care and nurturing because in addition to the fear factor, clients don’t always know how to handle great work. They need help to do so. To survive, they need help navigating the approval process. Marty Neumeier talks in The Brand Gap how you know you’re on to something when it scares the hell out of people.

I’ve always maintained it takes a good client to get good work, and know all too well how tough it can be to get the best work out the door. There’s so much fear and few people willing to take the risks necessary. But whining won’t get you anywhere. In fact it makes people dig their heels in and mark you as a Creative with a capital ‘C’, aka a prima donna. You have to establish the trust and credibility of the senior team.

You have to spend far more time than you think necessary taking clients through the process, including them as much as possible to get them emotionally committed from the start. That way they’ll feel invested and you’ll gain a lot more credibility. Collaborate intensely on the strategy and research. Gain agreement on the premise on which you’ll develop your killer concepts BEFORE you show them. And when you show that super simple idea, the Client will feel like they got their money’s worth.

The actual creative part of any campaign is really less than 20% of the hurdle you need to clear. Effectively managing the relationships inside and outside your company is the single most important part of getting good work approved. Fail to do that and you’re relegated to the safe zone where mediocrity abounds. Please spare your fellow citizens such pain. In fact, I invite you to commit to NEVER allowing a big-enough-yet-small-enough concept to see the light of day.

Originally published on I have an Idea in September, 2011

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