How To Tell If Your Idea Sucks
Thoo! This campaign won a Cannes Lion?!
It’s that time of year. Where you begrudgingly discuss all the Cannes winners and talk about how the ‘insight was totally off’ or ‘the execution could have been better’, or how ‘this totally wouldn’t have worked in India’.
The truth is that critiquing others’ work and ideas comes far more naturally to us than critiquing our own ideas. As advertising creatives, it’s an extremely arduous task trying to be objective about stuff we come up with. Our own ideas are like that extremely popular, gorgeous girl you see in your class on the first day of school. You warn yourself not to fall in love with her and to stay as far away as possible. Yet by mid-term, you’re anonymously leaving chocolates under her desk and writing poems for her at night.
Since One September is obviously the greatest authority on advertising in the observable universe, we decided to put together a small check-list that should help you not fall in love with your own ideas and honestly critique them to gauge whether they’re actually solid, campaignable ideas that you should run to your boss and interrupt his game of Candy Crush for, or whether it would be better to just go back to the drawing board.
Remember, this post is referential. At best, it’s a guide you can look to if you find yourself falling in love with your own ideas far too often, much to the chagrin of your co-workers or even yourself for their failure in getting executed. At worst, it’s a rigid, boxed mental prison that you adhere to like a rule-book and that can curtail your imagination. At the end of the day, advertising, like movies, music or any form of art, is subjective. For the almost unanimous disdain for the shit-sandwich that was the Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner, there are still people out there who would argue that it’s creating a genuine social revolution and that Kendall Jenner may actually be this generation’s Martin Luther King. People’s tastes are different. So, use this guide with precaution (and common sense).
Before we get into the specifics about how to check yourself before and during a brainstorm (individual or group), we’ll take a quick detour and go all ad-school textbook for a second:
What makes an ad great?
If you’ve been in advertising long enough, you know that not all your favourite ideas make business sense and not all ideas that make business sense would necessarily make it to your ‘favourites’ list. In that, you could be drawn into the perennial tug of war between the business and creative side of advertising. Of course, the sweet spot is right in the middle of the two, where an idea not only helps your client make a shit ton of money, but also sends people swooning over its impact. But we all know how beautifully rare those are.
Take Govinda’s classic Rupa Frontline ad:
Does Govinda’s flamboyance tickle the same advertising gene in your body that a Nike ad does? Probably not. But business-wise, it did its job for the company. So much so, that after all these years, they’re still refusing to kill it. For all practical purposes, it might just be Indian advertising’s DDLJ.
The truth is, you’re perpetually going to be locked in a psychological battle between the ad critic and the salesman inside you. One wants to create the greatest ad campaign in the history of mankind, never mind the practical implications. The other one simply wants the client to get back the money he’s paying you. Maybe a little more.
The trick is to acknowledge both of them as two distinct but necessary parts to the creative process and make sure you consult both of them before you jump for joy at an idea. Of course, depending on the brand, client, time of year, one might take precedence over the other, and that’s totally fine. Just make sure you’re not perpetually shoving either one of them into a dark, lonely corner of your brain that sees no light.
Running The Checks — Is My Idea Good?
In order to test your latest advertising brainwave and see if stands strong, we recommend remembering the absolutely senseless phrase: Hero Who Easily Emotes. Each word in that cringe-worthy sentence represents a core concept that should help you weigh your idea and see if you’re headed in the right direction.
1) Who’s the hero of the ad/campaign? The product or the message?
Consider this recent ad for the new iPhone 7 Plus:
At the heart of it is a very simple product feature, the new selective focus. As nicely packaged as the story may be, it centers around this particular physical attribute.
Now, consider this McDonald’s ad:
Despite the last five second reel featuring the menu, the hero here is the message of ‘being different together’. People roughly know McDonald’s Happy Price Menu or what to expect from it. But the idea of being different together (and its packaging) is a new take on an abstract concept that may push you to go buy the same old food you already knew McDonald’s had.
Ideas where the product is the hero tend to focus more on physical attributes, while ideas where the message is the hero tend to focus more on abstract concepts like happiness, success, motivation etc. They use these lynchpins respectively to pivot and swivel their stories around in their ads.
Typical examples of categories where the product generally is the hero are:
Examples of categories where the message generally is the hero are:
- Fast food
- Fashion / lifestyle
- FMCG (Looking at you, Axe!)
Of course, this is not to say that ideas where the product is the hero lack any brand messaging, or vice versa. Despite its focus on the ‘selective focus’ feature, the iPhone 7 Plus ad does use abstract brushstrokes to talk about love. Likewise, McDonald’s finds a way to tie in their product offering into the ad narrative.
Identify who the hero of your brand is. It’s a good first step to knowing what you’re going for and what your concept needs to focus on.
2) Who are you talking to? Get a live, breathing specimen of your target. Or two. Or four.
For all the repetitive bumbling we hear in conference rooms about target audiences and dull presentations with comically exaggerated audience profiles, they’re still just imaginary ideas we forcibly project our assumptions of consumer behavior on to.
“This is Sonal Mehta, 27, a banking executive in Mumbai who works at one of the most reputed international banks. She loves driving, playing with her pet dog and going for a run in the evenings. Fitness is very important for Sonal so she chooses her brand of oats very carefully…”
You know where this is going.
Yet, things change when you meet real people and find out how they’re surprisingly not as one-dimensional as your pitch presentation claims they are. This especially tends to happen with copywriters and art-directors who’ve never personally interacted with a single focus group and their only real consumer insights come from their mom’s walking partner in the building or their cigarette-wala.
Find real people who are likely to buy your product. Multiple people, not just your friend’s dad. Speak to them, ask them questions. Run your concept by them. Does the idea appeal to them? If all of them unanimously raise an eyebrow at you, it might be a sign to scrap your idea and think of a new one.
3) Can you explain your idea in a short, easy sentence?
We’ve always wanted an excuse to quote Albert Einstein, and this is our moment of glory:
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
At the heart of every great campaign lies a surprisingly simple and lucid concept. Our favourite example for this is Snickers’ ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’ campaign, which they’ve had tremendous fun with (and continue to do so!)
When you find yourself shaking your head in disappointment at someone and saying, “You don’t get it,” at the end of a thirty minute rant about your idea, it probably means that you yourself don’t get it either. The idea at the core needs to be simple, strong and easy to explain. Someone else should be able to explain it without you necessarily having to be there.
Remember, bigger the skyscraper, stronger the foundation (yes, you may use that quote for your next Instagram post).
4) What emotion does your idea inspire? On that same note, what emotion is the competition inspiring?
When I say ‘sports’ and ‘motivation’, what brands come to mind?
If you didn’t say Umbro or Puma first, you’re not the only one.
Every brand owns a certain emotional space and depending on how successful it is, dominates it. Think of it as starting your retail chain in a city dominated by Walmart. Or a hipster coffee chain in a block that has four Starbucks. If your idea inspires an emotion that has already been exploited by an existing brand, chances are, you might struggle to make people feel the same way the second time around.
Now go back to that McDonald’s ad from earlier. In the fast food space (think Domino’s, KFC and the likes), which other brand has touched upon that same space in recent memory? Thus, setting up a strong emotional differentiator in most cases is half the battle won. It might be interesting to note here that one of Puma’s most memorable campaigns was the After Hours Athlete that gave entirely new meaning to the term ‘athlete’. They were no longer competing with Nike and Adidas in the same, clogged space there.
Similarly a few years ago, when Horlicks was ‘aepang, opang, jhapang’-ing around, Bournvita struck hard with their Tayyari Jeet Ki campaign, strumming all kinds of emotional chords with mothers in India.
To sum that up, Hero Who Easily Emotes. If your idea works on all four of these parameters, in most cases, you have good reason to be in love with it.
To add the extra finesse to it and set up a ‘safe’ system to critiquing your own ideas, here’s four extra points that will help you ensure your ideas are put through a rigorous test before they find vocal validation in the conference room in front of narrow-eyed skeptics.
Remember that your ideas are not you. A rejection of your ideas is not a personal rejection of you, the copywriter or ad director or designer. People remember Robert De Niro for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Not Dirty Grandpa. Learn to separate yourself from your ideas. In that sense, it’s okay to be in love with your ideas in the past. But not in the present or the future.
2) Push yourself
For lazy people, we’re incredibly full of ourselves. We know the whole ‘first thought’ syndrome where everyone’s first idea during a brainstorm is stupid and obvious and incredibly common. Yet, we somehow assume that ours is different. That our first thought is that rare, special golden egg in a dairy farm full of shit-stained regular eggs.
And yes, every once in a while, that rare, golden egg does come along and your first thought might genuinely be astonishingly brilliant. But most of the times, your first thoughts are as banal as everyone else’s. Push yourself harder to come up with something better.
A friend once told us about how Piyush Pandey would blankly reject the first seven rounds of ideas his creative team came to him with, before finally even considering the eighth one. Even if that’s just a myth, it’s a great story to tell your copywriter trainee when he rudely interrupts you in the middle of your WhatsApp group-text orgies.
3) Have a ‘safe’ person
You know that one person who’s always got your back no matter what and will stare at you with wide-eyed amazement every time you pitch an idea to them? Yeah, forget about them.
Find someone hard to please. Someone you know will whole-heartedly shit on you if they don’t like your idea but will also high-five you with all honesty if they really like it. Run your ideas by them so that you know you’re getting genuine feedback on it. Extra points if you have multiple such people.
Get some distance between your idea and you. Spend some time where you’re not obsessing over it. Do anything else but think about the idea. Go grocery shopping, play Rocket League, take a nap, flirt with the intern; anything that pushes new thoughts into your brain that are totally exclusive to the idea you’ve been fussing over. If you come back after a prolonged break still liking it, chances are it’s probably good. Remember, longer the break, higher the objectivity you have for it.
So, the next time around when it’s award season and you find yourself three drinks down too many feeling slighted at how your masterpiece never made it to canvas, you’ll at least have a system in place to tell you whether you should be calling for more alcohol, or the cheque, so that you can go back and start thinking afresh.