Is there such a thing as a “Bad Idea”?

Creative professionals know how to spot good ideas. We wallow in them all day long, swishing idea droplets around with our toes and twirling long strands of them around our fingers, until we find the a-ha moment when we see it, we get it and then we nail it with the right creative execution. It’s a skill, a muscle that we’ve been pumping up for years.

It’s also what makes it easy for us to spot an idea that can’t be executed–or shouldn’t. Maybe it’s not the right idea. Maybe it’s an overcomplicated idea that won’t work for the medium. Maybe it’s offensive or simply not in line with your brand strategy. The same way a mechanic listens to your engine for trouble, a good creative professional can listen to the pitch and know it’s not going to work. It’s a blessing and a curse.

I’m not talking about the drudge, that first round of ideas that pop into your head, the ones that you have to get out of the way to get to the really good, fresh stuff underneath. A lot of what comes out of the first round is notoriously bad, stinks to high heaven.  It’s hilarious good fun to play around with the drudge ideas, have fun, mock yourself.

Like today, when I was brainstorming by phone with my design partner Susan, a conversation that ended with “And then we photoshop an image of a fish wearing a band-aid…with his fins tied!” I’m sure the IT guys a few feet away thought I was talking crazy. But if you hang out with creative folks long enough, you get used to hearing crazy-talk. It’s the sound of good strategic ideas trying to be born.

The point is, when you work with ideas for 20 years or so, you learn that the thrill of a new idea can seduce you into thinking you are the most brilliant creative genius who has ever graced a cubicle. But after enough humiliation–say, when you walk into the creative director’s office or a room filled with senior executives and say with serious enthusiasm, “Let’s show a picture of a fish wearing a band-aid with his fins tied!”–you learn your lesson. Your first batch is simply a necessary evil.

But there are times when I am handed someone else’s idea, first or otherwise, and expected to execute it no matter what. That’s not a bad idea, that’s a bad situation. As a freelance copywriter, you can’t always talk your client into doing something different. As a full-time employee, you can’t always talk your boss out of an idea that you know is not right or is not based on a solid strategy. They want it. They don’t care how you do it. Now it’s your problem to make it work. Make it fantastic. By tomorrow. No pressure!

Listen, I’m a professional. So when my back is against the wall, I’ll do my best to take an idea that can’t be executed and find another approach. I’ll ask questions: “How does this fit with your brand? How did you see this happening on the page or in the video? What happens next?” I’ll make statements: “If you even remotely think your audience will be offended by this, don’t do it.” In the end, sometimes you have to get behind an idea and run with it, set your ideas and opinions aside and just do what you’re told.

One thing I try to remind myself in these situations is that I know marketing, but my client knows their business. They may have just forgotten their audience, or they may just be too caught up in the excitement of the idea. Everyone has ideas, but not everyone is used to phase 2, which is: that’s great, now execute it. It’s my job to capture the best of their energy, creative vision and business knowledge and find a way to make it work in a way that makes sense.

In the end, a strong creative execution is just one piece of the marketing puzzle–the lists, the timing, the price, the relevancy of the messaging, the medium all play a role as well. So even though I may feel a nagging sense that with more time or freedom to brainstorm other approaches, the idea could have been stronger, better, super-sized–I know that I did the best I could with the time I had, made the client happy and hopefully, the proof will be in the response rate.


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