THE COST OF NOT SELLING WORK
When creative work doesn’t sell agencies pay for it in three ways: money, morale, and relationship. Think about what happens when just one campaign for a big client isn’t bought. Creative teams go back to the drawing board for days, nights and weekends. Freelancers are brought in to help crack it, while even more gunslingers are hired to cover the work staffers can’t get to. Studio art goes into overdrive, not to mention overtime, pumping out board after board of new work. Planners retool briefs. Project managers revise schedules. Account people fight a losing battle for more time. And Papa John gets richer by the night. It’s an all-hands-on-deck, do-whatever-it-takes, budget-be-damned, four-alarm fire drill.
Right or wrong, these costs are usually eaten by the agency. Even the out-of- scope clause in their contract can’t save them, because reconcepting isn’t considered out-of-scope. It’s simply not getting paid for doing the same job twice. Hell, four or five times.
While expenses rise morale tends to head in the opposite direction. Sending creative people back to reconcept is part of the business. We all know that. But in some agencies it can start to feel like The Charge of The Light Brigade. More work is dying than getting through. More nights and weekends are asked for and more are given, mostly without complaint. As Lord Tennyson so eloquently put it, “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” Still, there is a tipping point when even the most resilient creatives want to drop their laptops and go home. That’s when a sweatshop reputation begins to spread, and the words of Monty Python and the Holy Grail ring out across the land: Run away! Run away!
The third way agencies pay for unsold work is as insidious as it is costly. Let’s call it ad creep, the slow but steady erosion of confidence that clients develop in their agency. Truth be known, clients don’t like reconcepting almost as much as agencies. They’d rather be delighted every time the creative folks show up at their door. But when they’re not, when they think the work is wrong time and time again, even the most loyal client will develop a wandering eye. Then it’s just a matter of time before the executioner sharpens his axe.
So what’s a CEO to do? We can’t turn back the hands of time to three-martini lunches and cash cows roaming Madison Avenue. But surely there’s something that can help stem the bleeding? Actually, there is.
For an industry that’s all about selling things we spend little, if any, time training creatives how to sell work. Surprisingly, the art of persuading a client to invest millions of dollars into a creative idea is the one skill not taught in ad schools. Creative people themselves don’t give it much thought or credence. But they should. Because it’s those crucial minutes in front of a client that can make the weeks of ass-busting that went into creating the work all worthwhile. It’s the moment of truth, like you’re a gladiator in the Roman Coliseum. A thumbs up or thumbs down depends heavily on how well you’ve performed.
By definition, creativity is a risky thing to buy. Which means the more creative the idea the more persuasive the presenter needs to be. The problem is most creatives, especially those at mid and lower levels, don’t have much account executive in them. Often the first words out of their mouths are “We open on…” These otherwise bright and talented people don’t realize how important a brief business setup can be. They’re not looking at the presentation through the eyes of their audience. They’re not aligning their goals (great work) with the goals of the client (effective work). And so what should be a thumbs up frequently turns into a thumbs down. Especially on days when Caesar is in a cranky mood.
Advertising has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. What hasn’t changed, may never change, is that no matter what form it comes in— traditional, digital or social— creative work has to be sold. First to creative directors, then to planners and account management, and finally to the people forking over the dough. Each one of them has a different set of criteria for judging the work. Each has a different attention span, from “tell me more” to “just show me the damn ad!” Knowing who wants what can be the difference between an okay presenter and a really good presenter.
Then there’s the great presenters. The ones who consistently have higher batting averages than everyone else. Some say it’s a gift they’re born with, but if you ask them they’ll tell you the truth: they work at it. They read and reread the creative brief. They all but memorize every piece of work. They spend hours organizing their thoughts and presentation materials. Only then do they relax. That’s when the magic happens.
Unfortunately, there are no silver bullets to eliminate reconcepting altogether. And, frankly, sometimes the work is just plain wrong. But even when it’s right it’s not always obvious to the audience. That’s when a skilled presenter is worth his or her weight in gold and morale and relationships. Just imagine if an agency could reduce reconcepting by even twenty percent. How much money would it save? How many “gotta work late” phone calls could be prevented? If an agency could sell an additional twenty percent of its most brilliant ideas (usually first-round work, instead of the more cautious second and third-round work), how many more awards could it win, how much more glory could it bask in? Most importantly, how much more effective could the work be in the marketplace?
Solve this one issue, even partially, and everyone wins. There may even be a martini in it for you.