21 Tips for Selling Creative Ideas

All the tools covered in this book can play a role in helping you sell your ideas. Of course, there is a great deal more to selling than just the Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy tools in this book. And although I don't profess to be an expert on selling in the strict sense of the word, I do have some valuable tips to pass along that just might help you raise your creative sell success rate.

Are They Really Your Best Ideas?

The first tip for selling your best ideas is to make sure they are your best ideas. I see so many people wasting their energy—exerting their brilliant sales effort or even their lousy sales effort—trying to sell bad ideas. That's like building an elaborate restaurant business around a lousy chef.

So the first tip to help you sell better ideas is to actually have better ideas. Sounds pretty basic, doesn't it? Well, I can tell you that I've had a good many corporate clients, including ad agencies, ask me to help them with their sales hit rate when in reality the first thing they need to do is improve the product they're selling.

When It's Time to Sell, It's Too Late to Sell

Many years ago I facilitated an international forum of top managers in one of the major service industries. We covered a plethora of topics: attracting and motivating the best people, defining and articulating corporate vision, and so forth, all kinds of issues that top managers typically focus their energies on. We also covered selling, which of course is the lifeblood of any business. When the dust settled on three days of exploration, the major concept that kept resonating within this group was summed up in these few words, "When it's time to sell, it's too late to sell."

To a person, we all agreed that the biggest part of selling was the relationship the company had with its clients. If they had a great relationship prior to the sale, even a shaky, less-than-perfect sales presentation usually resulted in a fair degree of success. But if the relationship was rocky ... if the relationship was grounded in anything less than great trust and respect, the sale was invariably a bloody, unsuccessful venture.

With that brilliant deduction said, there are still some things you can do beyond relationship building to help others embrace your new ideas. Some of them follow.

The Tao of Setting

A major mistake many people make when trying to get others to embrace their ideas is doing just that—trying to get others to embrace their ideas, and trying too hard. This is one place where most people use 180° Thinking almost without thinking. And it's not always a good thing.

Here's how it usually works: Someone shows resistance to a new idea, and what does the parent of that idea usually do? What any proud parents do when their offspring is criticized. They resist.

The Tao Te Ching, that book of ancient Eastern wisdom, teaches that resistance meets resistance and surrender meets surrender.

Yes, it's natural to push back. But if that's not usually going to help your cause, why are you doing it? Sure, sometimes we have to stand firm for our ideas, but if you make that your first defense, it may be your last.

A number of times when I was a creative director, I helped young advertising people get this point, often while they watched in open-mouthed disbelief. When clients expressed resistance to an idea, I would often say, "That's interesting. Would you explain that to me?" I didn't defend the idea. I didn't remain neutral. I just softened to their point of view and gave them some credence. At that point, clients knew I was listening to them, and guess what happened most often? They listened to me. Oh, I didn't sell the ad every time, but I had a very high batting average. And, importantly, I didn't make a mortal enemy of someone who had a great deal of influence on the outcome of my agency's ideas.

Have Clear, Written Objectives

When working on a project that requires creative thinking (are there any that don't?), before you even start the work, set clear objectives between yourself and those you need to sell the idea to, whether they be people inside your company, outside your company, or both. And not only should you set clear objectives, you should write them down, because then it's not a matter of "I like it," "you like it," or "you don't like it," it's a matter of "does this satisfy the objective?"

Yes, there's still some room for interpretation there, but clearly defined objectives remove most of the wiggle room that so often causes misinterpretation and disagreement.

Believe me, this is very valuable, the writing-down part. If the objectives are in ink before work starts, then both parties can't suddenly have dramatically different recollections of earlier events.

Have Clear Roles. Written

Another thing to do is have clear roles in advance. It's pretty simple. Before you start the project, know who's going to play the role of coming up with the idea and who's going to play the role of reacting to it, providing guidance or buying the idea.

This may seem obvious if you're the ideator—it's my job to come up with the idea, it's your job to sell it—but if you have it clearly articulated in advance, in writing, then in the heat of a discussion that does not become an issue. If roles are not articulated clearly in advance and you present your idea to someone who starts tinkering, things can get kind of fuzzy and messy. You might say, "Hey, wait a minute, it's my job to come up with the idea. It's just your job to react to it, and if you don't like it then I'll go back and work on it." That's the wrong time to define roles, because then it appears that you're defending your idea, as opposed to defending your role in the creative process.

Many organizations have different roles for what may appear to be the same players. Even within the same industry and for identical titles this is true. I see different companies in a given industry where people with the same titles perform very different functions. So don't oversimplify this. Discuss it openly and write down the roles clearly. This isn't just a title thing, it's a who's-going-to-do-what thing, a professional-boundaries thing. And we all know that good fences make good neighbors.

The most abused title in the advertising business is that of creative director. The creative director should be the person who has ultimate say on things creative, but in many companies that person is not the creative director—it's the person the creative director answers to (the president, the owner, whomever). Whereas the creative director may have the title, the other individual has the authority. Even if I don't agree with the charade, at least roles do not become an issue when selling ideas.

Blowing Your Own Sale

Another tip on getting people to embrace your ideas is to avoid certain terms that can only lead to disaster:

"This is my favorite idea."

"I think this idea is great."

These and other such terms usually mean trouble. People you're selling ideas to really don't care what your favorite idea is; they want the best idea. They really don't care whether you think it's great. Oh, they may ask you, but in the end they want the best idea, the most effective idea, the idea that will produce the greatest results.

Similarly, "just like" doesn't do much in a unique marketing situation that needs a fresh solution. In fact, by definition, it can't be very creative if it's "just like" something. Even saying it's "somewhat like," which you can use for a support point perhaps later, is a bad idea to lead off with.

Yes, some people you're selling to may need the comfort of knowing that someone's been there before, but in many cases "just like" are code words for disaster.

Basically, the best way to sell an idea is not to talk about what's your favorite or what you like, but to talk about the objective and how your idea will help reach the objective. In this regard, advertising creative people are often their own worst enemies. A few years ago I wrote a piece in Communication Arts entitled, "You too can speak like a Harvard MBA." In this tongue-in-cheek article, I gave advertising creative people sound bites to use in front of clients to help them appear to have a clue about business: "This will move the needle" and other such arcane expressions. Creativity in business is not a beauty contest. This is commerce. What you like means nothing if it doesn't make the cash register ring.

Don't Have All the Answers

Here's a tip on selling that I learned early in my career. When I was about to start my ad agency over 20 years ago, I read an article about what the best clients look for in ad agencies. In this very helpful article, one individual said something to this effect:

"I don't want someone who has all the answers; I want someone who will get all the answers."

Ifyou have all the answers, which is the tendency when you sell (you try to have all your ducks in a row, you try to answer all the concerns), you could be hurting your cause more than helping. Even if you literally have all the answers, and even if your answers are correct, people don't always value them when they're just thrown around so readily.

Nobody's that smart. Nobody has all the answers. If you're stumped, or even just unsure and don't have the answer, don't guess. Don't B.S. people. Say instead, "I don't know. I'll get back to you on that." I can tell you from experience that many people find this honesty very refreshing.

Frankly, I use this technique sometimes even when I do have the answers. Why? Because if I have a ready answer and they have a ready objection, they're probably still stuck in their objection place. If I say, "Let me get back to you on that," they may cool off on their objection. If I come back with the answer when they're in a cooler place, maybe I'll have more success.

Another thing about this approach: Not only will they believe you're more thoughtful about it, but, frankly, you may actually develop a better answer in that extra time you allot yourself.

And one last selling secret in this area: You can charge people more if you take more time. (Only kidding. . . . Well, half kidding.)

Prepare for Success

Perhaps the greatest college basketball coach of all time, John Wooden, who led the UCLA dynasty during the 1960s and 1970s, said, "Failure to prepare is to prepare to fail." I see so many people go off half-cocked, ready to sell their ideas without the necessary preparation. Being prepared means thinking through how you're going to sell your idea, thinking through how others are going to perceive it, thinking about objections that might arise—again, not necessarily to have all the answers but simply to be prepared. It's utterly amazing how few people really prepare to sell their ideas. Then they wonder why their success rate is so low.

Another part of preparation is rehearsing. The best salespeople rehearse. Most people I encounter in business rehearse their sales pitch very little. The best salespeople rehearse a great deal. Ever wonder how they got to be the best?

Know Your Audience

Whom are you selling your idea to? Whom are you talking to? Your presentation, your preparation, might be very different if you're selling to this person versus that person.

Know the individuals, know their priorities, know what turns them on, and know what scares them. In the advertising business, I worked with a good many very smart people. Most were middle managers, and most had a certain level of fear of their top management. You need to recognize that. I have heard people in the ad business say, "If the idea doesn't make their palms sweat then it isn't a good idea." I say, if it makes their palms sweat, they're less likely to be allies in helping you sell this idea, and they're more likely to be obstacles.

I'm not saying you can't present an idea that might make them a little nervous. I'm just saying that you need to know them, know what makes their palms sweat, do your homework, and do your best to avoid the terms and context that might lead to sweaty palms. Sometimes it means answering the objections before you show them the idea. That doesn't mean saying, "Here's an objection you might have, and here's how I'm going to answer it." It simply means providing the information, the context, and the examples before you show them the idea. That can be quite easily done.

Know What and Who Is Behind Your Audience

If you know your audience, you'll know the important issues and the sensitive places and how to deal with them. If you don't know your audience, you won't know these things and how to deal with them. You are, essentially, operating in a minefield.

I like to know my audience's audience extremely well. Again, if middle managers are fearful of upper management, then I want to know the upper management, too. If I can't get to know upper management personally, I want to know them through speeches, through articles they've written, through the annual report. In fact one of the best selling tools I've used (it may sound like manipulation, but I mean it absolutely sincerely) is the phrase, "In your annual report your chairman says ..." Of course, the annual report! This is the direction the company is headed. I'm helping the individuals I'm working with to align themselves with the direction of the company. wow! when I point out that my idea is based on what their chairman says, it comforts them, takes some of the risk out of a new idea, and in many cases helps them to like it before they've even seen it.

"Two Rabbis Walk into a Massage Parlor. . ."

Have fun when you sell. You know, there's a good reason that old-time salesmen used to walk in and open with a joke, like a regular Shecky

Loman. People love a good yuk. Sometimes what you're selling has serious consequences. So lighten it up. Have some fun.

I'm not necessarily saying walk in with your rabbi joke, but I prefer a light atmosphere come show time. Sometimes that's really hard to do because so much is at stake. But sometimes the more that's at stake, the more nervous energy there is, and then they'll laugh at anything. Have some fun. Talk about something light. Talk about positive things before you get into the heavy stuff. It's like the dancing that Muhammad Ali does before he delivers the knockout punch. I don't want to put this in the context of combat, but it's just a matter of keeping it light before you get into the heavy stuff.

Up Your Curtain

Another method that helps to sell ideas is theater. I like to use the presentation as an opportunity to get people excited, to entertain them. People love to be entertained. People will pay $80 for a theater ticket, $8 to see a movie, $75 for a concert seat, $60 for a ball game. You can give them entertainment for free when you're selling, and it just might grease the skids to help your idea see the light of day. I'm not talking about song and dance in the cheap carnival sense — although sometimes it could border on that if that works.

I got a big lesson in using theater to sell when many years ago the ad agency I was working for lost a new business pitch to a guy who ran a very small creative shop. To neutralize the size advantage and make a couple of other points as well, this daring small agency owner carried a half-dozen mannequins into the prospect's conference room to help make his pitch. Word was the client felt the empty suits made about as much of a contribution to the meeting as the other agency's phalanx of executives, and at a much lower hourly rate.

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