How to Do 'Riskier' Work

Or: Who Cares If Your Ideas Are Brilliant If You Can't Sell Them?

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Last week, I gave six speeches in five days in four cities. They varied from a half-day brand workshop in Milwaukee to a tech conference in Northern California, with audiences ranging from venture capitalists to marketing executives. Yet no matter what the industry, the topic or the geography, I was asked the very same question: "How do I sell riskier ideas?"
Sally Hogshead
Sally Hogshead

The question's wording varied, but the point was the same: The client/boss/board of directors kills new thinking that's deemed "risky." Now, these audience members aren't scheming to sell wacky, perilous, ill-conceived ideas for the sake of being creative, but rather smarter, fresher, more relevant ways of finding and connecting with consumers.

On the surface, fear of risk makes sense. American Heritage Dictionary defines "risk" as the "possibility of suffering harm or loss; danger." And when you describe it like that, well, color me risk-adverse.

Problem is, in business, risk doesn't work like that. Business isn't a coin with "risk" on one side and "security" on the other; it's a two-headed coin and that head is risk. Not taking a risk is risky. And if you take a risk, well, that's risky too. The landscape is changing so quickly that we must literally invent as we go. There are no off-the-rack solutions anymore. Today, the opposite of risk isn't security. The opposite of risk is getting run over by a truck filled with a shipment of status quo while you dawdle in the middle of the road.

Johnson & Johnson, longtime patron saint of traditional media, shifted a stunning $250 million to relatively unproven and unmeasured digital media. All bets are officially off. When edge-pushers Wieden & Kennedy lost part of the Nike account for not pushing quite hard enough, The Wall Street Journal declared, "The message is clear: No matter how talented an agency's creative team or how well the client's management likes the firm's executives, the agency is of limited value unless it embraces digital media." Limited value? Agencies are of "limited value" for their strategy, creative product or consumer insight?

Toto, we're not in Kansas any more. We're in Second Life.

Below, a few strategies to help your biggest, baddest ideas stay alive, from the presentation process through execution.

Paint a very clear picture in the client's mind. If your goal is to get the product on "Oprah," how can you help everyone else visualize that? A storyboard showing how that show might work? A letter to Harpo Productions? A mocked-up press clip in a consumer magazine?

Build the most rational possible argument. The biggest mistake I see is selling a risky idea with intangible evidence and ephemeral claims. Abstractions such as "word of mouth" aren't enough by themselves. By removing as many variables as possible, and eliminating unknowns, you demonstrate control. Surround your idea with as much information as possible, including timelines, anticipated costs, potential partners. Hypothetical is OK at this stage, but be as specific as possible. "But look how cool it is" isn't a strategy.

Show how you've succeeded in a parallel situation. Substantiate your ideas with case studies. Build evidence and create parallels. Ideally this validation will come from your own experience, or at least company. If you don't have these kinds of specific examples, start creating them, pronto.

Pinpoint risks that parallel your consumer's behavior. Demonstrate how consumers are pushing into new areas, and how your concept tracks alongside those consumers. Or even better, leads them.

Help your client or boss "sell up." When assembling a presentation, make sure that it can stand on its own, without you, so that the person you're selling it to has the tools to defend it to the upper ranks.

Put your own ass on the line. Risk creates fear. If you can share that risk, you lower the risk -- and the fear. For example, ad agencies sometimes do this with performance-based compensation.

Bottom line: The higher the risk, the more evidence you'll need to sell it, and the greater the payoff must be to justify it. And remember -- at the end of the game, nobody gets points for saying, "Hey, I didn't screw up at all!" At least, nobody not on the bomb squad.

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Sally Hogshead is a speaker, author, and consultant on radical innovation. Read more on the Hog Blog.
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