How do you sell your ideas? A Creative Director’s perspective

One question I get frequently asked is, “How did you convince the client into rebranding?” or “How did you get approval on that idea?” when the client appeared to be conservative or rigid or needed education about design. 

And the truth is, I never convinced them because they didn’t need convincing. So I’d say that if you’re approaching a client to persuade them to do something, that’s a missed opportunity. 

Don’t worry; I’ve been there too. I asked the same question fifteen years ago, fresh out of college. What I learned and did is what this article is all about.

The art of selling your ideas.

This article is split into four parts. In the first part, we’ll visit Northpoint to give you a frame of reference. 

The second slice covers why no one gives a shit about your ideas. So, how do you get people excited and interested in your ideas? And, why do you need to be thinking like a pickup artist? 

The third bit dives into having the right attitude, mindset, and common mistakes people make when sharing their ideas with an illustrative example. 

The final breadth is about coming up with relevant ideas that make an impact. We’ll also talk about the pitfalls of assumptions and generalizations with a fantastic story the President of Media Planning, MullenLowe shared with me.

–The First Part 

A trip to Northpoint

In 2007, I was enrolled at Northpoint (an offspring of Mullen Lowe Lintas Group), studying brand, marketing, advertising, media, and communications. 

An institution (overlooking the Western Ghats) designed to address the lack of preparatory grounds transitioning young professionals from text-book to the playing field.

Northpoint had zero on-campus faculty (except for a Director of Programming), relying solely upon visiting practitioners from the industry. A rare sight at the time.

“Show me your friends, and I’ll tell you who you are?”

For a year, Northpoint put us face-to-face with Presidents, CEOs, CFOs, VPs, Heads of Creative or <put almost any agency department here>, Directors and Senior Management (including the client-side) — exposing and expanding our minds on a daily diet. 

Never a dull moment. 

These people brought, to the table, their experiences, learnings, and live case studies — giving us a first-hand account of what they were working on and what challenges they were facing. These conversations built our mental models for how shit got done in the real world and, most importantly, how they sold their ideas (on some occasions worth millions of dollars) day-in-day-out. 

Beyond these “boardroom” sessions, we were thrown into the meat-grinder, working in the different departments of an agency. 

I was carrying a bag full of soap, working my way from shop to shop in the sultry summer of Mumbai, and reporting back to Unilever HQ with findings and observations as part of working at the client’s office. 

By its immersive nature, the Northpoint experience hardwired these real-world problem-solving practical skills into me, leaving no chance for guesswork. 

Anyone caught faffing was at the wrath of Siva sir (Northpoint crew knows what I’m talking about). We took our shit seriously, son.

I spent the next decade applying those skills in an agency and later in a brand consulting firm I founded with a friend. The findings and results of the application and practicing those concepts are what I’m sharing with you today.

–The Second Part

Why you need to be thinking like a pickup artist

“Whatever you’ve learned till now is fucking wrong! It doesn’t work in the real world. So we’re going to unlearn everything.”

There I was, front row and centre, on day one, at Northpoint, and the first thing to come out of Suraja Kishore, VP, Lowe’s mouth (sporting a French beard and bright floral shirt) were those words. 

His statement intended to disrupt our thought patterns and open our minds to new possibilities and a different worldview. Pickup artists and great salespeople use a similar technique when starting any interaction. 

By the way, I’m not suggesting the VP is a pickup artist. However, having the undivided attention of a room full of restless-opinionated minds within fifteen seconds of making an entrance was a technique worth elucidating. 

Here’s the psychology aspect.

As people walk through life, over time, they tend to form secure belief systems; view of the world, view of themselves, view of how things work, opinions of who they are, what they stand for and what they believe. In the case of companies, what the process or culture is, what they can or cannot do etc., becoming set in their ways. 

I get caught up in the hype too. No kidding.

“I’m not creative,” or “I’m an analytical thinker,” or “I’m not outgoing,” or “I’m not a dancer,” or “I’m an atheist,” or “This is how we’ve (or I) always done (do) it.” “We don’t need a rebrand,” or “We don’t need a new website,” or “That new app user flow isn’t for us,” being close relatives of the same mentality.

Some people, clients, brands etc., don’t like change. They like living in the neatly designed shell of their self-image because it’s harder to adjust their view than maintain it. Change is hard, seriously. 

And at the slightest chance of someone changing that reality or offering a different view, “No, thank you, I/we don’t want it,” becomes the gut knee-jerk reaction.

Laziness and fear are the culprits.

Opening up your audience to become receptive to your ideas begins by making the interaction personal and relevant, as the VP had done so successfully by questioning and challenging a bunch of BBA freshmen. 

Being a figure of authority in the room was another factor going for him that day despite the floral decoration. 

Offering an alternate or contrarian view is not about coming from a hostile place or attempting to put others down. I’d be worried if I were in a room where that was acceptable. Instead, aim to inspire and present an alternate reality of success to a client, person, company or business. Remember, you’re not trying to negate other ideas but only bring more perspectives to the table.

The second part of presenting an alternate worldview to someone is freeing yourself of the outcome. Do not be worried about failing, rejection or falling flat on your face. Being able to walk away at any time works in your favour. 

Here’s why. 

You don’t come off as needy (when talking to a hot girl) or trying to be “salesy” (trying to win business). 

On winning and losing countless pitches (in my personal and professional life), I traced the failure to the lack of applying these simple traits.

–The Third Part

Sharing Mindset

Having someone other than yourself listen to your idea- not hear it passively but listen attentively and remain engaged till you stop talking can be a nerve-racking and daunting scenario to some.

In your case, it could be a business case that needs approval, a partner/stakeholder that needs to be “convinced,” or someone from procurement that won’t budge. Who knows what this may entail for you?

The common thread I noticed by observing and working alongside clients, colleagues, and bosses who inspired, motivated and excited me to do my best can be explained simply with this mental model.

When great leaders, people I admire and with whom I go out of my way, share their ideas and invite people into a dialogue (identify whos). They are at the cause being proactive, are open to consideration, and are willing to share ownership (how vs who) with people around them. And finally, they are receptive to worldviews different from their own and can channel their team’s energy towards their vision while welcoming and embracing negative feedback. 

In stark contrast, clients, colleagues or people I try to avoid exhibit traits commonly found in amateur talent to prove themselves. They behave reactively, fearing their ideas may get hijacked or stolen or have to be shared by other people, acting defensive, trying to protect their ideas by playing bank with cash. They are not receptive or open to feedback or different worldviews—attempts to help come off as stealing or putting down their idea.

It’s the fear of having someone else improve upon your idea. If another soul made your original idea great by adding to it, would that still be “your” original idea? To resonate with the thought of not being the one to have had that better version? Not getting one hundred percent credit or losing the limelight are a few susceptible causes.  

Whenever I get caught up in this feeling, I shake it off immediately, knowing nothing good will follow. 

It takes guts to be transparent and open by putting yourself and your idea out in front of the world, vulnerable to external forces beyond your control. To a certain degree, a level of detachment is required from your idea for it to become a living, breathing dragon indeed. Ha! You get the point.

–The Final Part

Why assumptions are bad news

Premjit Sodhi, President of Media Planning, MullenLowe, started his workshop with a lesson he learned during his days in business school. He recalled his professor putting the class to task with the story of a farmer. It went something like this (this was a while ago, but I’ve got a handle on it).

There’s a poor farmer living in the middle of the Rajasthani desert. He can barely make ends meet; his house is falling apart, the nearest hospital is hours away, there’s no water supply, and so on, describing the apathetic conditions of the villager. How can you improve and make the farmer’s life better?

The students, including Premjit, assembled in teams, spending the day debating and ideating. Then, they returned to class that evening, in time for presentations, with unique ideas. 

From getting the government involved, interconnecting the remote village with satellite towns by road and having a school built, digging a community tubewell, giving the farmer a tractor and supplies (even a laptop), fixing his house to finding him a job and having a municipality setup. 

The professor listened, chiming in on occasions, patiently till the last student spoke his last word. And, when all was said and done, he had only one question, to their dismay, for his hungry-for-praise students. 

“Did anyone bother to ask what the farmer wants?”

Today, product designers are labelling it “User-Centred Design” as if it’s a concept dropped out of digital heaven, wedging the divide between the agency and product world thinking. Maybe we can debate this topic on another day? 

But broadly speaking, very early, we learned to leave our assumptions at the door, question everything, talk to end-users/customers, arrive at true insights by research and observation, and have multiple points of view even if some of those views were conflicting. Lead with curiosity and form opinions by doing the work.

No shortcuts, ever.

That’s why when you approach a client with your ideas early in the conversation (without identifying the problems to be solved or knowing jack shit) for rebranding or app design or recommendations on solutions out of context, the gut knee-jerk reaction of the client is to reject it. The client is busy solving “real” problems and doesn’t see the value. So instead of being salesy, get curious early, ask informed questions and be genuinely interested in the client and their business.

Data speaks

(A pun on deeds speak) 

Instead of wasting time assuming and imagining the needs of a product, client, or user, I learned to dig for insights, do the leg work, and become an investigative journalist.

Ingest and soak in the business, client, or person you will meet. Then, absorb everything you can find on them (and their direct competitors) across any medium you can get your hands on. Get inquisitive and find the pulse.

Research, read, and read some more (bookmark that shit) on what company leadership is saying in blogs and articles, read the annual report, tap into the perspective of thought leaders and opinion-makers, and check out employee reviews on Glassdoor. Put an ear to customer feedback (in forums), and take snapshots of press and media. Engage in social media conversations and comments across the spectrum, and if you have access to the product, take it for a spin. 

Let all the research, data, and findings feed your mental mood board. You don’t have to be a practitioner from the client’s or product’s industry to have an informed opinion. I assure you and promise you these efforts won’t go unnoticed. 

A few things will happen with this approach. One, you’re going to understand the bigger picture at play. You have a context to the client, product, business, or person, throwing light on their vision (or its absence), their problems (your opportunity) and what day-to-day activities they might need help with. 

In love, looks don’t matter. 

Secondly, you’re not pitching pretty designs or (what you assumed to be what the client needed) anymore but having meaningful conversations of “business transformative” ideas that are tuned in with the client’s business outcomes.

Making it personal and relevant.

And thirdly, you’ll be talking to the client about the client, their product, and their customers; excited to share your findings. You’ll be surprised at how many people walk into a room and talk only about themselves. Stop being salesy. 

If one thing I have learned from my travels over the years is people (irrespective of age, caste, sex, religion, or place in society) around the world love it when you talk about them. Listening with genuine interest is at the heart of it. 

Present your ideas, perspectives and pitch with the precision of a meticulous Swiss watchmaking craftsman and be willing to walk away. There’s a slim chance, despite your efforts, you won’t get heard, and you’ll be OK with that because you’re ideas are not meant for everyone. 

Remember, great ideas don’t need convincing. 

Think of a prized possession you own or a person you admire in your life. Did they try and “convince” you into liking them, buying into them or was it voluntary submission to the cause? Occasionally, you take pride in being the evangelist of that idea, person, or cause. Let that thought sink in.

By Paul Syng

Paul Syng is a multi-disciplinary designer based in Toronto. He focuses on a problem-seeking, systems thinking approach that can take any form or function.