3 strategies to help you recognize a bad idea

1 Aug


Sticking a fork in a plugged-in toaster is a bad idea

It seemed like a good idea at the time. That’s why you championed it and pushed it through.

You were certain, weren’t you. So you bullied your teammates, hoodwinked a skeptical client and foisted it onto an unsuspecting public.

Well, it turned out to be a crap idea.

In hindsight of course. A monumental stinker that should have gone quietly from the tip of your tongue into the heavily-guarded vault of bad ideas that exists in all of us, never to see the light of day or the pages of a newspaper or any medium for that matter, ever.

But it seemed like such a good idea at the time.

Bad ideas destroy businesses, castrate careers, embarrass, outrage and horrify audiences. There’s a lot at stake.

My belief, gained from many years at this game, is that most people know a bad idea when they see it but mistakenly believe that, rather than being simply bad, it is edgy. They think that this edge will get the ad noticed, always the goal of any advertisement,

But it’s easy to get noticed. You can walk down to Government and Fort, drop your pants and void your bowels and you will get noticed. The question is: are you getting noticed for the right reasons?

How do you recognize the difference between edge and stink so that the bad idea never actually becomes an issue for hindsight to have to illuminate in the first place?

I recommend 3 strategies:

1. The overnight test. Smart people love to be right and will therefore defend a bad idea in the face of all reason, until such time as good sense prevails. So you have to create that time. Leave your “edgy” idea on the wall overnight and forget it. Come back the next day and look at it again. If you can’t foresee all the carnage it will leave in its wake, you’re in big trouble mate.

2. Ask someone you trust to evaluate the idea. This is usually a good job for a creative director. Another comforting thing about the CD’s stamp of approval is that her or his job is then on the line when the idea backfires.

3. If you have any doubt, throw it out. If you’ve only got one idea in your arsenal, you really have come to the party under-dressed.  Go back to the brief and come at it from a new direction. There are a limitless number of solutions to any problem. The mark of a great creative person is not their capacity to produce one “good” idea, but many. Chances are they won’t all lead to your ruin!

Some very sorry ideas below to get you in the frame of mind you need to be out of:

Ad for a sports bra

(I suppose an ad that sells sports bras to women under the premise that their large breasts will bounce in their faces and bruise them can be considered a bad idea. Hm?)

a poster for jerk chicken

(You want this one back. You just want it back.)

Love's Baby Soft ad using a sexed-up child

(Well, the world was a more innocent place in the 60’s and 70’s apparently.)


9 Responses to “3 strategies to help you recognize a bad idea”

  1. Melanie Wood August 2, 2011 at 9:34 am #

    I wish I’d seen this before I had toast this morning…
    On a serious note, the bigger the decision the more you need to do this and sometimes all three at once. Roll over the next day and explain it to your spouse. If they don’t get it, chuck it. Like my Dad always says, if you’re the only one laughing, it’s not funny. Are you the only one who gets it?

  2. Doug Brown August 2, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    Good advice Mel. Sometimes when you have a huge smile on your face as you tell everyone about your great idea, it pays to watch the expressions on everyone else’s faces. A healthy internal culture – whether in your home or office – also prevents those massive misfires.

  3. Amy August 2, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    That Love’s Baby Soft ad is disturbing on so many levels. My sister used to wear that stuff! So wrong.
    Yeah, always sleep on it and let someone (or several someones) read it first is excellent advice. I don’t even publish a blog post without letting it sit for a little while then re-reading.

  4. Doug Brown August 2, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    Amy, I remember that Love’s Baby Soft ad from the early 70s! But I was a kid and what did I know. My sister also wore the stuff and she must have been about 8.

    I have never written anything potentially controversial enough on the blog to require letting it sit for awhile…unless you consider the comment about Lisa Simpson giving head in the London 2012 logo controversial. 😉

  5. Mike Fromowitz August 2, 2011 at 6:35 pm #

    I agree with 2 of your 3 points. I don’t think it’s a good idea to ask someone else what they think—that’s your job. Usually asking someone what they think makes the decision that much harder.
    I would put in #4–go by gut instinct.
    I also think the best creative directors are those that have that special knack of spotting the good from the bad. Maybe that is why they produce the best work and make their agencies famous.
    One other point may enter this conversation—that of risk taking.
    The best creative directors also know when the risk taking won’t harm the client or the agency. It’s risk… but not killer risk. Knowing when to take a risk and when not to also helps in the decision making process—good idea, bad idea.

  6. cb1ndustri August 2, 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    All good points. The overnight test works a treat. So does “if in doubt, chuck it out.” The middle one requires finding someone you trust. And that very much depends on your circle of work colleagues. If you ask the CD, most likely you’ll get answers one or three if they’re any good. And a suggestion to look for another couple of directions.
    You can always ask the tea lady too. And if she’s giving you a blank look, then you’ve got an answer.
    Then again, no creative worth his or her salt would turn up with just a single idea. That would stink in itself.

  7. Doug Brown August 2, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    Hey Mike…when I mean ask someone else, I really mean the team vetting their work by the creative director. But as we see with Charlie Blower’s response, sometimes the tea lady also can!

    I wonder about the sports bra ad: A great agency, a respected CD and a concept that just reeked of 22 year old guys giggling at themselves. Do you think they guessed the risk but decided to ride it out anyway?

    Great comments both Mike and Charlie, thank you.

  8. Anonymous August 4, 2011 at 5:53 am #

    Hmm, I never thought of the Tea Lady. Damn, what a lost opportunity.
    Don’t you just love it when the client takes the ideahome to his wife or mother-in-law for an opinion? My acid test was to throw it in the bin and if the cleaning lady removed it and put it on my desk so I’d see it in the morning, well then I knew I had a good one. That was a whole lot better than the stupid remarks that came out of focus groups.

  9. Doug Brown August 4, 2011 at 6:17 am #

    Thanks for comment Anonymous, you almost got me started in on focus groups but I mastered myself. I suppose clients like to have their opinions validated because their asses are on the line too. But taking it home to the spouse? Ugh. I had a telecom client once who used to regularly report what her husband thought as professional feedback. Others put the ad up on the staff-room wall and asked everyone’s opinion. Advertising doesn’t work that way. It isn’t held up for public analysis and criticism. It works subversively, one on one with the audience.
    Looks like I got started in on focus groups anyway!

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