'But They're Cows. Don't We Sell Chicken?'

Nurturing Ideas That Make You Nervous

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Tom Denari
Tom Denari
Imagine the scene when the creative team presented a billboard concept to the Chick-fil-A account team.

"Ok, so we have these cows. And one is climbing on top of the other so that it can write 'EAT MOR CHIKN' on the billboard."

How would you have responded to that idea? Would you have supported it?

Or would you have said, "But they're cows. Don't we sell chicken?"

Be honest with yourself. What might you have said?

Whether you're an account director, creative director, or even an assistant to the associate account executive, you're in the business of ideas. Even if you're the agency CEO, you're in the business of ideas.

"Wait a minute," you say. "I'm in the business of selling products." Yes, but what we too often forget is that the idea of that product is actually more important -- more powerful -- than the product itself. If it weren't, we'd have grocery stores full of unbranded commodities with white labels that said, "Baked Beans" or "Paper Towels" or "Laundry Detergent." We wouldn't have any "beautiful bean footage," no "quicker picker-upper," no Tide.

Ideas aren't just about advertising concepts. New products and even product categories are simply ideas. If they weren't, we'd simply have cars to move people, vans to move lots of people, and trucks to move stuff. Without ideas, we'd have no sport utility vehicles, and, of course, no crossover vehicles.

The idea is what's important.

Innovation is about finding new ideas. Execution makes ideas real.

Without ideas, nothing exists.

We're presented ideas every day. How do you know how to sort them out? How do you know if you're seeing the next "Bosom Buddies" or the next "Seinfeld"? Your job is to make sure that the best ideas don't die, because the ground-breaking, industry changing ones are fragile -- living somewhere between crazy and impossible -- and will probably keep you from sleeping some nights.

Ultimately, you may be the person that stands between the life and death of an idea, which is why it's important to understand how to make sure that the great ones do in fact, live.

Killing an industry-changing idea is really easy, and requires little thought or energy. It's easy to pick apart a new idea. Why? Because in their earliest stages, innovative ideas have lots of flaws and hurdles that might even challenge your view the world. Plus, if a new idea was so easy to pull off, it would have been figured out already.

One of my favorite quotes to illustrate this comes from former Congressman and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who once said, "Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one."

My advice to young account people is that they shouldn't be the one to kill ideas. Instead, it's their job to build them up. I tell them that most bad ideas die on their own, caving in on the weight of their own folly. If they've planned properly, they should have plenty of time for the bad idea to die, making way for a better one. Unfortunately, though, a great idea can be killed in an instant.

Sometimes the best way to nurture an idea is to simply keep your mouth shut. If you're presented with an idea you think is just ridiculous and you're not sure what to say, stay silent. Listen. Unconventional ideas need room to breathe. Every once in a while, with the right care and feeding, ridiculous turns into remarkable. Inserting doubt too early in an idea's development can suck the air out of the process, suffocating productive energy that helps ideas thrive.

One way to evaluate what you think might be a crazy idea is to actually try to make it work. Think about the astronauts who traveled 238,000 miles -- with less computing power than what's contained in an iPhone -- and landed on the moon. This kind of ingenuity should inspire you to remember to bite your tongue when someone presents an idea that you think is completely nuts. It's natural to hear a voice in your head that's telling you, "That will never work." (This is when you stay quiet.) It's OK to think about every single reason that the idea will fail. But here's the secret. Go through that list in your head and try to find ways to solve each problem, each reason, each rational thought that makes you want to squash the idea and end it right there. You might be surprised by what happens.

And finally, remember that the best ideas don't usually fit into the nice tidy box of your expectations. If it doesn't make you just a little bit uncomfortable -- a touch nervous -- it's probably an OK idea, but not ground-breaking. The fact that it falls outside your expectations is the first sign of being something special.

One last thing. The next time you encounter a "good carpenter" presenting you with a "barn," keep your mouth shut and offer him a hand -- and let cows sell chicken.

Tom Denari is president, Young & Laramore, Indianapolis, Ind.
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