‘If you have to explain an idea, it’s not a good idea. Good work should speak for itself.’
If you work in any kind of creative industry, you’ve probably heard someone say this. You might even have said it yourself.
It’s not true.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s a decent principle. But it can lead you astray.
This is particularly true when you’re pitching something. Sadly, a good idea is only half the battle. If you brazenly insist that your work needs no explaining, you’re selling it short.
Context is everything
Imagine this: you emerge from a stuffy Tube train, ride the escalator up to street level with your nose two inches from someone’s pinstriped bum, and see a 40ft poster in front of you. Escape to the biggest place on earth. Visit Canada.
‘But escape suggests people don’t like their lives,’ says the client, who happens to be Skyping in from his villa in the Umbrian countryside. ‘We want talk about how great Canada is, not how bad England is. What else you got?’
Some ideas need to be sold in the right way. That doesn’t make them bad ideas.
Some things take a while
‘I don’t get it,’ says the client. ‘What’s the joke?’
Some of the best ads in history take a second or two. A classic example would be this Economist one:
Maybe a few people move on before they’ve got it. Fine. The sense of satisfaction everyone else gets is worth more to you.
Your audience isn’t your audience
‘I don’t get it,’ says the client. ‘Who’s DanTDM?’
Usually, the people in charge of a company aren’t the people who buy that company’s products. Clients know this, of course. But they often have weird and wonderful ideas about what their customers are actually into.
‘That’s a bit obscure for our customers.’ ‘People in this market aren’t looking for that kind of thing.’ And so on.
Often, they will be right. After all, they’ve spent longer thinking about this than you have. But it’s always worth questioning that assumption.
The coffee’s never strong enough
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best ideas are the ones that come 15 minutes into a 10 o’clock meeting, after a cup of coffee and a nice biscuit, on a Tuesday.
Technology can let you down
A 32-inch monitor is not the same as a 60ft billboard, or indeed a beautifully printed A5 mailer. It’s astonishing how often people forget this.
Cream floats. Unless it sinks.
The idea that good ideas always prevail is attractive for a couple of reasons. It makes us, the creatives, feel clever. We almost want someone in the meeting not to get the idea, so we can explain how ingenious it is.
It also saves us work. We don’t have to research and rationalise. We needn’t bother setting the scene. We can just knock out a few executions, then head to the pub.
‘Good work speaks for itself’ is great when we use it to tweak, refine and simplify. But sometimes, it’s a cop out.
If you think something is good, don’t be afraid to tell people why it’s good. Put it this way: if the world really was a perfect meritocracy, the best products and services would succeed on their own – and we’d all be out of a job.