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True&North’s David Clayton: take your creative idea on a near-death experience

Even in the age of AI, our industry lives and dies by its creative ideas. But if a big idea never sees the light of day, was it ever that big in the first place?

The CMO role has hugely expanded. Clients are accountable for profitability and identifying sources of future growth, and agencies need to support CMOs to sell an idea to the C-suite. Agency partners must provide the ROI of their ideas, mitigate risks, link creativity to business outcomes, and talk in a way that makes the C-suite listen to and fund an idea.

For any agency, idea generation is just the beginning, the hard part is selling and delivering it. But many creatives and marketers just aren’t equipped to provide the support and data insight needed. So, too often, a fantastic idea, a game-changing proposal and hours of an agency’s best talent go to waste because they fail to get the client on board.

To get the backing of the c-suite and to ensure a project is robust enough to withstand myriad challenges down the line, big ideas should be interrogated before being presented.

This requires an industry mindset shift from ‘coming up with the big idea’ to ‘making big ideas happen.’

Instead of carrying out a post-mortem on what went wrong after a project fails, agency leaders must flip their approach entirely and pre-empt what could go wrong from the outset.

A Pre-Mortem is a highly effective strategy

I suggest a Pre-Mortem. This exercise asks teams to imagine that a project has failed, and then work backwards to determine what potentially caused that failure. Instead of asking project team members what might go wrong, the Pre-Mortem imagines it’s already over, and everything went as badly as you could ever have feared. It then asks why.

The process gives permission for everyone to think pessimistically without the fear of being dismissed. It flips failure from the elephant in the room to something that teams can talk about transparently and collaboratively.

The Pre-Mortem is about seeing things from the client’s perspective. The idea hasn’t failed because of anything you did, or didn’t do. It failed because it was too complicated, risky, lengthy, or expensive for clients to buy into it.

Anchoring your big idea into your client’s reality can change that. At True&North, we use a tool called a Pre-Mortem Map that follows a few simple steps.

By following the Pre-Mortem process, ideas can be protected and risks mitigated.

It helps teams to boost confidence when pitching and delivering big and bold projects. It also increases the chances of predicting future events. University of Colorado research found that prospective hindsight—imagining that an event has already occurred increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30% (Harvard Business Review).

How to apply the Pre-Mortem:

Set up the scenario

Before you send a proposal to a client or, for bigger projects, together with the client, set up the scenario using these thought-starters. Ask who were the people that killed the idea, why, and what were the risks they were not comfortable taking?

Map out all the elements

Map out all the elements of the project, pinning down the stakeholders, the budget owners and all the tasks that need to happen for the project to be delivered. By taking a holistic view of what it takes for the idea to come to life from beginning to end, it will help you identify stakeholders you hadn’t considered and the potential areas of tension. Is there a team or person who is essential for this project to go ahead? How does this project fit within their overall workload and priority set?

Kill the project

It is important to state that the project is dead, rather than just imagine hypothetically what could go wrong. This forces you to find flaws and come up with risks. There’s no “get out of jail card”. Look at all the stakeholders involved and jobs to be done that you mapped out. What are the risks? What could scare someone into backing out?

Brainstorm potential solutions

Once you have identified all the possible problems and risks, go back to the drawing board, look for solutions and question what has worked in the past. Is there an obvious solution to that problem where you haven’t seen a solution before? You can then guess and wonder if.

Optimise the creative and delivery process

The Pre-Mortem comes in before you are ready to share your big idea with the world. It can be done internally, but you can also bring clients on the pre-mortem journey with you. It can also be used during the delivery of the big idea or a project as well, especially if there is a change of course or significant deviation from the original plan. Maybe a new CEO has joined, or the business priorities have shifted and your idea is once again at risk.

Introducing the pre-mortem as standard practice in the creative process enables teams to sell and problem-solve much more effectively. This human-centred innovation gives everyone, including those who don’t identify as sellers – like creatives, technologists and consultants – a route into sales that feels more intuitive and connected to their work.

Big ideas that can change the world require vision, bravery and imagining the impossible. Yet, to make them happen, they need to be anchored in reality. This is where Pre-Mortem comes in, broadening perspective, seeding possibilities where initially there were obstacles and risks. By going through this process, Big Ideas become even Bigger, and are far more likely to succeed.

David Clayton is CEO and Founder of True&North.

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