Thursday, September 6, 2007

Selling ideas

“These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air…”
-- The Tempest, IV.i

Agency people are always lamenting (e.g., here and here) the fact that we give away our truly unique offering--our ideas--for free and charge for the commodities--color copies, overnight packages, production facilities etc--that anyone can provide. As a former planning director at an agency, I know the pain. Particularly at pitch time, when you give up your life to give away your best ideas, along with a half-dozen other agencies for nothing but the promise of future work.

As a solution to this vexing problem, some of us have gotten into the business of trying to sell ideas rather than advertising. It sounds good on paper. Particularly to planners, who, sooner or later wonder about their value proposition in an ad agency. And a lot of smart people have tried different approaches: brand consultancies, research companies, start-ups of various stripes, including the one I’m at now. Rob White and Adrian Ho have recently invented another new version (Zeus Jones), which is focused on providing added-value utility to brand communications, what they call “marketing as a service. I know Rob and Adrian have thought hard about the value of intellectual property and I’m sure they’ve come up with something new and interesting.

But in my experience, re-positioning the offering from work to idea (whether it takes the form of strategy, service, advice, etc.) doesn’t really answer the question so much as displace it. No matter what you say your selling--no matter how well-defined--most clients aren’t comfortable buying just an idea. They almost always need something tangible they can point to and say: I’m buying that.

In the case of brand consultancies, this usually means “a process” (which is often a bunch of research plus a conclusion); for more design-oriented firms, this means some kind of branding elements like logos and taglines and style guides.

But can you really blame them? Are good ideas really so rare? Haven’t we all had great ideas that others have had the will, courage and determination to execute and thought, “I should have done that.” But didn’t. What is an idea without an execution or at least a plan for execution? Do clients really need more good ideas? Or do they need people who can take an idea and bring it to life?

I spent most of my youth in the realm of pure ideas. It was called graduate school. The product was a dissertation. I am here to tell you that while it might be very satisfying to create, in most cases, it isn’t worth very much money. At best, you can barter it for a job.

When experts laud the value of “ideas:” comparing how much more “intellectual property” is worth compared to material goods—what they are usually talking about are patents, and these days, technology patents. These aren’t just “ideas” in the marketing sense of the term, but actual blueprints for technological applications that have concrete value in the marketplace.

Our ideas—marketing ideas—usually aren’t products. They are the raw materials for dreams. These can be very valuable indeed, but not until someone puts them on stage.

No comments: