by Kerry Feuerman
After 30 years of presenting creative work, I can now say with a reasonable degree of certainty that in nearly every audience there’s at least one UXB. The more people in the room, the more UXBs you’re likely to find. And find them you must, before a UXB becomes an XB. If you’re unfamiliar with the acronym, UXB stands for unexploded bomb. They come in all shapes and sizes, some being easy to spot, while others are cleverly disguised but no less dangerous. If you don’t identify and disarm them early in your presentation they can go off without warning, mortally wounding your ideas, or at the very least, derailing your well-organized flow.
As a global creative director I presented to all kinds of people from very different cultures, which may lead you to believe I’ve encountered dozens of different UXBs. But actually, whether in Boston, Berlin or Beijing, the UXBs I faced were remarkably similar across the world. They fell into one of four distinct types: Smarty Pants, Grumps, Ball Busters, and Legits.
Smarty Pants are just what the name implies, they’re always trying to show how much smarter they are than everyone else. As kids they’re the first to raise their hand in class, which seems harmless enough, admirable in fact. But once grown up, raising hands turns into raising issues. Smarty Pants usually look for what’s wrong with an idea before what’s right. Unfortunately, wrong is more contagious than right, so their point of view can quickly spread to everyone else in the room. Identifying these folks isn’t easy because they’re often likable and outgoing, so it may take a presentation or two to confirm their UXB status. But once confirmed, they can be dealt with relatively easily. The way you disarm a Smarty Pants UXB is by playing to their all-about-me personality. Example: ask their opinion of something prior to showing the creative work. Example: reference a comment they made in a previous meeting that “got us thinking”. Example: deputize them ahead of the meeting by seeking their advice on selling the work to a larger group. Anything that makes a Smarty Pants feel more important will help keep the damage they can do down to a minimum.
Grumps are by far the easiest UXBs to spot. They look as if they just bit into a lemon. Nothing is ever right. If you filled a glass to the top they’d still say it’s half empty. The odds of getting Grumps to like a creative idea on the first go-around is low, but not impossible. There’s usually a softer core inside that crusty shell and if you can reach it your chances of disarming the UXB go up quite a bit. A good way to achieve this is by getting personal. Ask them about their family or hobbies or if they follow any particular sports teams. Try to find a subject of mutual interest before the meeting begins, something that changes the conversation from business to pleasure. Grumps aren’t used to people being nice to them, so be nice. If you can get them to like you, maybe, just maybe, they’ll like the creative work.
No UXB is fun to deal with, but Ball Busters can be particularly unnerving. Identifying them isn’t an issue because they very quickly identify themselves. These are the people who test you right from the beginning, asking why, why, why. The minute you disarm one issue, they have another ready to go. Oddly enough, though, they’re the least dangerous type of UXB, that is if you’re a well prepared presenter. Ball Busters respect strength and clear rebuttals. As long as you keep your wits about you, their prodding is eventually satisfied, and at that point they can actually become very powerful allies. You disarm a Ball Buster UXB by standing your ground and knowing your stuff.
Last but by no means least are the Legits. They don’t have an axe to grind or a narcissistic personality to accommodate. No, they have something much harder to deal with: a legitimate issue with the creative work. A Legit UXB kills ideas by pointing out a flaw that’s hard to argue with. So don’t even try. Your only hope of countering their issue is by pointing it out first. That’s right, admit the flaw ahead of time. (This, of course, requires you being aware of the flaw and having a good argument for why it shouldn’t be a deal killer.) Typically, this is not a great way to sell creative work but there are some cases when it’s necessary, the most common being campaigns that have strayed a bit from the strategy. In those kind of situations, consider starting your presentation something like this, “We’ve brought you two campaigns today. One nails the strategy, the other is a little off strategy but very smart in its own right. If you don’t want to see it, I completely understand. And even if you do, I’ll show it second, because the first campaign is very good.” That sound you don’t hear is the bomb not going off. That is, unless you only brought the off-strategy campaign. Boom!
Whatever form a UXB comes in, early detection is crucial. Your radar needs to be on long-range scan mode from start to finish of a presentation. And it never hurts to have a good wingman. A smart account guy can spot a UXB miles ahead of many creative people. That’s because account guys are wired for defense. They pick up on early warning signs—a shake of the head, a tightening jaw, whispers of concern— while they’re still in the non-lethal stage. When that happens, a little nod in the direction of the threat can make you aware of a UXB that you’re missing. And that can be the difference between your ideas living or getting blown to kingdom come.