Judge, jury, executioner. How to approve an idea. Or kill it.

Having been in the business of creating advertising, branding and digital projects for several decades, I can safely say that I have generated somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 gazillion ideas designed to sell, provoke or raise awareness. Most of them were utter failures. This is just the nature of the business we are in. The very best copywriters and art directors in our industry routinely create four or five dozen concepts to get one approved. Sometimes more.

Is it any wonder why we creative people have, as I have written before, massive egos that are as fragile as butterfly wings? Like Babe Ruth, in order to be the home-run kings of our industry, we need to also become the all-time leaders in strikeouts.

The truth. It hurts.

In addition to being a creator of ideas, I’ve also been an approver of ideas for many years. I was a CD at an agency I co-owned in my late 20s. I was a free-agent Writer/CD for a few different agencies and design firms around the country for over 20 years. And today, I am the CD at an ad agency in central Connecticut, Mintz + Hoke. Which means that I’ve likely approved a gazillion ideas and killed 499 gazillion.

While I do use a few of the same mental muscles to create and approve, the two tasks require a somewhat different set of skills and a check-down list of questions that most people within the process often fail to ask. What follows is the punch list I go through in my head when I’m judging the merit of ideas.

How can you benefit from this list?

Well, if you’re a client, you can use the same punch-list to approve the ideas your agency brings to you, or at least have a better understanding of what an idea has gone through before it gets to your conference room table. And if you are a creative person—maybe even one on my team—you can use this list to make the approval process harder for me and people like me. Nothing is more difficult than having lots and lots of wonderful, viable ideas and have to kill perfectly good thoughts in order to arrive at a single execution.

Question One: Will it work?

This is one of the easiest questions to ask and one of the hardest to answer. That’s because for an ad or web site or banner to work, a lot of things have to be working in concert. Can the idea grab attention? Can it stand-out in a crowded sea of messages? Is the response mechanism sufficient? Is the call to action strong? Or clear? Is the concept compelling? (Note, however, that I have not asked, “Is this idea on brief?” That’s because, while it is our job to execute on a creative brief, it’s also our job to go off the brief if we have a compelling strategic reason to do so. Because: creative people are rebels. More on that in a future blog post.) The bottom line here is this: If an idea is not working, and has no hope of working, it has to die.

Two: Is it a concept?

There’s a loaded question if ever there was one. Maybe it’s easier to say what isn’t a concept than describe what one is. A celebrity endorsement is not a concept. A different kind of nav scheme for a web site is not a concept. “Let’s show the product up big,” is not a concept. Buying the rights to a Clash tune is not a concept. Everyone has a slightly different definition of concept. But for me, a concept is when words and images come together to create something new, unexpected, compelling and engaging. It changes the tradjectory of a person’s thinking.

Three: Is it an original idea?

Original ideas are hard to come by. After all, once you’ve been through 500 gazillion ideas, creativity can become elusive, if you’re not careful. How do you keep your brain fresh and ready to accept originality? Well, this blog post I wrote a few weeks ago might help. Another thing to remember is that the human condition is constantly changing, so how we react to ideas is always changing as well. Stay fresh to generate freshness. I once freelanced for an agency whose strategy was to take ideas they had seen executed in the consumer space and apply it to their rather narrowly focused BtoB clients. To me this is not creative, it’s theft. It also borders on creative malpractice. In short: Fail.

Four: Is it “good?”

I’ve seen plenty of original ideas that “worked” but were just horrible, terrible, sometimes repulsive ideas. I’ve come up with a few of them myself. Sometimes the badness stems from the fact that an idea is so outside the parameters of the brand or the industry that it can’t help but stand out. And sometimes an idea is just shocking, gross and provocative without being particularly good. The only reason to show these kinds of ideas to a cleint is to get a good laugh during a presentation. Otherwise, they must die.

Five: Does it have “This?”

“This,” is an elusive quality first introduced to me by my ad professor at BU, Walter Lubars. It’s a feeling you get in your gut that an idea is working on a subconscious level. For more on “This,” read this.

Six: Is it possible?

Budget, deadlines, location and brand standards can all be limiting factors in the creative process. And there are times that ideas surface that are perfect in every way except one. They are impossible. Budget is the most common thing that puts the kibosh on a great idea. Shooting on location in New Zealand with actors, make-up, location scouting and nine different camera angles is just not doable if your budget is less than high six figures. This is not a problem exclusive to young creative teams who don’t yet know what things cost, either. Clients can have eyes that are bigger than their budgets or deadlines as well. In these cases, it helps to have options. Lots of them.

Seven: Is it campaign-able?

If you’ve ever heard someone say, “That idea has legs,” what they mean is, it’s an idea that can be executed many different ways as part of a campaign. While not a deal maker/breaker, a campaign-able idea is always better than a one-off.

Eight: Can it be made better?

One of the most important jobs of a creative director is to see the value in a less-than-valuable idea and come up with ways to make it better. Let’s face it, after you’ve worked on 500 gazillion ideas, you learn a trick or two. It’s not my job to execute the idea, but it is certainly within the purview of the CD to strongly suggest. A new image. A way to shorten a headline. A new first line of a script. A different technique. Good CDs are good teachers.

That “oh-crap” moment.

There are also times when a team will come back with plenty of ideas, and for any number of reasons, they just aren’t working. Some CDs can be merciless in this situation. They yell. They berate. They make their team feel small. My approach is always to give the team a pep talk. Offer some encouragement and suggestions and send them back to the war room. (Maybe order take-out, if the deadline is tomorrow)

In short, I tell them to start working on idea number 500 gazillion and one.


Grant Sanders is the creative Director at Mintz + Hoke Advertising in Avon, CT and when he’s not approving and killing ideas, he is spending judgement-free time with his kindergarten-teacher wife and black dog at home on Nantucket Island. Find him on LinkedIn.

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