January 6, 2023

You never know when that idea’s time will come


Anytime you find yourself thinking, the client will never go for this idea, you’re onto something.

Because it means you’re thinking big and taking creative risks. You’re trying to elevate your work, not just meet the brief and please people enough so that they hire you again next year.

Truth is, you have little control over whether your idea is loved, liked, or approved anyway. It’s almost always a shot in the dark. Clients are fickle and often unsophisticated, so they reject ideas every day for reasons you will never understand.

Most of which nothing to do with you personally.

But remember, they are the ones paying you. The reason they hired you is because they’re not capable of doing this kind of work on their own.

Why not swing for the fences? Why not walk in the room with several ideas that make them squirm in their seats?

First of all, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate your smarts and separate yourself from all the other mediocre vendors they’ve worked with in the past. Proving that you’re a firm that keeps innovation high on the agenda.

Secondly, taking creative risks is a chance to stretch your client’s mind to the point that it never regains its original shape again. This plants seeds for later in the relationship when they suddenly get an injection of capital or courage, and decide that they’re finally ready to try something new.

Thirdly, when you bring big ideas along with a concrete plan of how to execute them, that has a contrasting psychological impact on client expectations. They will start to think to themselves, wow, if these guys are capable of doing work at that high level, they shouldn’t have any problem with our little project. Think of it as a shoot for the moon, land among the stars strategy.

Finally, here’s one more reason to walk in the room with big ideas. Just because the current client hates it, doesn’t mean a future client won’t love it. There is no such thing as wasted creativity. Everything is usable, even if it’s not in the way, or at the time you think it will be. That’s why you respect, preserve, catalog and organize every single idea. You never know when that idea’s time will come.

What story do you tell yourself when you think that the client will never go for your idea? How quickly you talk yourself and your team out of thinking big?

I remember the pitch my innovation agency made to this global baby food company. Our idea was to take their brand direct to consumer with a subscription program that wasn’t available in stores.

When we presented our concept, their exact words were, wow, you’ve officially scared us, thank you.

They said it was the most creative, daring and disruptive idea they had seen in years.

Long story short, we ended up not winning the business. Which sucks, because it would have been a fun project. But the president of our agency was thrilled anyway. He counted it as a win.

What’s more, now we were able to include that failed idea as a case study during client pitches for the next two years. Because there’s no reason you can’t leverage the great work you’ve done, even if the original audience rejects it.

One way to think about this innovation philosophy is with the following question.

What would you attempt to do if you knew you would fail?

Not if you would not fail, but if you would fail.

Try starting a project with that intention.

You’ll find that once you remove success as a possible outcome, it transforms the way you approach the work. It challenges you to do things worth doing, even though they have no chance of winning.

Writing books became that way for me. In the beginning of my career, back when consumers actually bought and read books, I was writing for the market. Publishing to sell copies and please my readers and impress the media. Which was an effective creative strategy for many years.

But once the digital publishing revolution kicked into high gear, and the number of books published each year went from a hundred thousand to a million, obscurity became a certainty. The market was now fragmented, attention became scarce, and anytime anybody created anything, they competed with everyone.

There were too many podcasts and television shows and other forms of media that were more fitting than boring old books.

As such, my annual sales plummeted from tens of thousands of books a year to a few hundred a year. And eventually my thought was, well, screw it, nobody’s reading my books anyway, so I may as well write whatever the hell I want.

Interestingly enough, that’s when my books started getting better. The work was stronger, longer, smarter, funnier, more provocative and made me more fulfilled when they shipped out the door.

Which was far more important to me than selling copies, being interviewed on top tier media, or being exalted on some bullshit gamified bestseller list.

Lesson learned, the moment you announce that people will never go for your idea, is when the real work begins.

Think big. Take risks. Surrender to the fact that you have no control over the marketplace response, and do something that stretches you.

Shoot for the moon, land among the stars, and feel proud that you had the guts to send your creative rocket into the sky.

What would you attempt to do if you knew you would fail?