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Fear and Loathing in Adland

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There’s an unseen entity at work, talking us out of creating truly effective work. We need to trust each other more, writes Graham Stewart.

Yoda, a point he did have, when it came to fear: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” It rings more than a little true sometimes during the creative development process and the client/agency relationship.

Everyone’s full of fighting talk at the briefing. On both sides. We all want to push the envelope, challenge the status quo, disrupt conventions, think outside the box, think inside the box, turn the box inside-out, and all that jazz.

Then, about 2 days, or 2 hours, before the client presentation, when we’re already booking flights to Cannes in our collective heads, Mr. Fear drops in to throw his eye on the work. What if the client doesn’t like it? Is this the best idea we have? Really? Do we not have anything else up our sleeve? Just in case. I think we need a Plan B. A safe option. There’s no harm in that, is there? Safety first.

So into the meeting you walk, with said safe option in your back pocket. But it looks like it wasn’t necessary after all. Because, the client doesn’t just like your concept, they bloody well love your concept. The strategy is out there. Ground-breaking thinking. That idea has never been done before. So original. This is really going to have cut-through.

Then there’s a knock at the door. Oh, it’s Mr. Fear again, arrived just in the nick of time by the looks of things. What were we thinking? An idea that’s never been done before? That sounds risky all of a sudden. Not sure how we’d go about researching that. Speaking of which, would we not rather go with something proven? Something the focus group will get? Something, I don’t know… safer? Don’t want to be cutting through for all the wrong reasons, now do we?

And, with that, Mr. Fear dips his clammy hand into your back pocket and pulls out Plan B, along with a little piece of your soul. Oh he’s much happier now. In fact, everyone’s much happier now. You’re all smiling at each other, chest-bumping and high-fiving again that same way it was at the briefing, ignoring that sinking feeling in your chest.

It’s full steam ahead with the campaign. And Mr. Fear is there, on all our shoulders, looking over all our shoulders, every step of the way. Just in case. Hedging the bets. Playing it safe. Until, finally, the work breaks to much… well not much at all really. It simply joins the ranks of all the other also-rans. Not doing any harm, thank God, but not doing much else.

Fear leads to anger: “Why did you sell us that idea? You are our agency, you’re supposed to be the experts here.”

Anger leads to hate: “I was never entirely happy with that idea anyway. I did say that. I never thought much of the strategy, or those biscuits you give us at every meeting. Don’t get me started on that puddle water you insist on serving as coffee.”

Hate leads to suffering: “I think it’s about time we the account out to pitch anyway. Your thinking’s just a little bit out of touch, a bit stale, a little bit… safe.”

And there’s that word again. Safe. It stems from fear of failure, a fear that, if we let it in, will ripple every creative process, paralyse it to the point that it becomes ineffective at worst, wallpaper at best. Fear of failure, to quote Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, “leads to derivative, unoriginal ideas”. And his antidote to fear? “Trust”.

If agency and client trust each other and almost just as importantly, trust themselves, we’ll all be less afraid. Less afraid to second-guess the stakeholders, the media and the audience. Less afraid to go out and say what some, including some of us, might see as the wrong thing, even when we know in our hearts that it’s the right thing.

It’s not easy, but we need to let go of the fear. As Ian Brown once sang, “Fantastic Expectations, Amazing Revelations”. Oh, and, “Freeing Excellence Affects Reality”.

Graham Stewart is creative director at McCannBlue and Tweets as @mrgrahamstewart

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First published in Irish Marketing Journal (IMJ February Issue 2017)© to order back issues please call 016611660