Success Rarely Happens in a Comfort Zone

Push Your Clients, Your Employees and Yourself

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Bart Cleveland Bart Cleveland
We all have a comfort zone. For example, people who make ads tend to first create the ad in a voice that appeals to the audience they know best: themselves. This makes for some interesting creative reviews when the assignment is to sell health insurance to geriatrics -- since few of us have geriatrics on staff. I remind my staff that just as a great actor can convincingly portray characters much different from himself, ad makers must be able to communicate to any audience with their voice. To succeed at this particularly difficult task, they must get out of their comfort zones.

We are all familiar with stories of successes that happened after years of trial and failure. Yet fear of failure keeps many of us from trying something new or even contemplating the possibility of thinking of something new.

It is important that an agency help its employees avoid their comfort zone. This means its leadership must ensure its employees do not fear failure. In fact, an agency would be well served to reward those who continually push the envelope. I believe that one observable trait of a creative thinker is a contrarian attitude. People who like zagging because of all of the zigging they observe tend to discover success where no one else has thought to look. They have the perspective that if it has always been done a certain way, there must be a better way that has yet to be tried. These are the employees you hang on to at any cost, because they are rare.

Pushing your clients out of their comfort zone is as important as pushing your employees. In fact, the latter can never happen without the former happening first. Take a look at the work you're doing for your most conservative client. Is it pedestrian or pioneering? If pedestrian, when was the last time you failed to sell that client an idea because it was a little too "risky"? If it has been awhile, you are most likely letting that client lounge in its comfort zone, and one day its management will hold you accountable. That day will happen when a threat, a new competitor, a flat market or some other problem raises its head, and all of that comfortable thinking you've been providing will suddenly seem pretty dull and ineffective.

But before you push your employees or your clients, you need to check the zone where you are residing. When was the last time you had clammy hands before a presentation because you knew your thinking was going to make the client squirm? If it's a short-term memory, your agency and your clients are probably pushing the envelope too.

If you're in your comfort zone, don't expect advertisers who are looking for innovation to take notice of what you're doing. Your agency is not going to attract clients who are looking for innovation just because you have the potential to be innovative. If there is one comfort zone clients have the most trouble leaving, it's when they leave their old agency to hire a new one. They want a sure bet. That means they must see the proof in your pudding.

In some ad shows, there is actually a category for work that didn't get bought. I never will enter that category. It's admitting the idea is dead. Worthless. Without hope of ever being produced. I don't know who thought up that award category, but I bet they think that being awarded for an idea that died is some kind of justification for failing. To be brutally honest, failure is their comfort zone, because even those who are succeeding have the same trouble making great work happen. Those who succeed simply overcome the obstacles. I believe their success comes as a result of wanting it a little more.
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