The Ad Agency Red Paperclip Syndrome

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BART CLEVELAND: Recently the news carried a story about a guy who traded a red paperclip for a house. The guy lives up in Montreal. He had this big red paper clip and he started trading it for stuff until he ended up with a house. First he got a fish-shaped pen then a ceramic knob then a camping stove, before you know it he’s got a house. This is how we should view doing quality work. Don’t settle with a little when you can have a lot.

There is always a better idea that is as good or better than the brilliant one you are now in love with. Why not trade up? But you don’t. You really love your little red paper clip, don’t you? You hold it up in your fingertips and stroke it like Gollum did his Precious. I know because I do it too. I’ve well learned over the years of trying to sell clients great work that sometimes work that doesn’t sell is a blessing from above. So many times when the work gets killed we wallow in self-pity rather than using its loss as an opportunity to trade up. Namely think up something better.

The red paperclip syndrome isn’t limited to only the creative department in advertising. One of the ways my agency is trying to do better work is to engage all disciplines into collaborating more in the strategic stage. Study the classic campaigns done over the years and you see the genius of the ideas came from the genius of the strategy. Planners can fall in love with their strategy as easily as creatives can fall in love with their concept. Account service people can fall in love with peaceful clients. Media people can fall in love with rate cards. We all have our danger zone when it comes to compromising our potential for greatness.

It’s important to risk what you love for something you will love better. It seems unlikely that one can realize a brilliant idea when one deals with limited budgets, short timelines and clients who have trust issues. But there are those that do so anyway. They are the one who know the true potential of a red paper clip.
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