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APG Noisy Thinking | The Art of Persuasion – how do you get your idea over the line?

This question certainly seemed to touch a nerve as over 200 planners and strategists showed up to listen, and the red wine ran out within 15 minutes. It was one of themes that I lifted directly from the feedback you kindly give after these events so it’s good to know that the feedback loop is working as intended.

We chose our speakers carefully to represent different potential approaches to the question and it was interesting that although they all had different points of view, some strong unifying themes emerged.

Our new Chair, Matt Tanter, CSO at Grey London, touched on one of these threads as he introduced the speakers. He reminded us that in client relationships it’s easy to create entrenchment and solidify opposing points of view where in fact we do much better if we attempt to understand our clients as thoroughly as we do our consumers; and seek to create common ground rather than conflict.

One of the things that struck me was that only one of the speakers actually used the word ‘persuasion’; so much so that I wondered if in fact the brief was wrong – is persuasion simply an outdated concept? In fact what our speakers did was to show how persuasion is a multi faceted and subtle tool that can be used in many different ways and to many different effects.

So what did they have to say, and what can we learn from the evening?

Martin Beverley, Executive Strategy Director at adam&eveDDB, came armed with a colossal 69 slides and 10 prescriptions – or ‘tricks’ (which is a bit of a humble brag as they were incredibly useful bits of advice that I wish I'd had at my finger tips from the off).

He reminded us that it’s our job to make things happen and that until ideas are out in the real world, they are nothing. PPT doesn’t count, however beautiful or clever. So here are those tricks:

1. It may be your idea but make it everybody’s. If you have a gang of specialists all working together they should all feel ownership and that they are doing their bit.

2. Nail the problem. If you can agree the objective at the start it makes everything so much easier, including judging the creative work and convincing the client to go with brave work as it’s then a lateral solution to a shared problem. For Marmite, adam&eveDDB agreed that the brief should be challenging and that it was all about trial and getting parents who hated Marmite to give it to their kids for breakfast. The Marmite gene testing kit was born.

3. Beat the research system. Don’t hate clients, hate the game of research and testing. Understand exactly how the test works and then make sure your stimulus is good enough to pass – brilliant music and beautiful boards always help. And beware of false positives like lukewarm reactions. Try and influence the debrief, and if you can avoid doing research in the middle of the process where it becomes messy and executional. Stick to the beginning and the end.

4. Be brutally honest. Honesty builds trust, and arguments can be a good thing. Don’t sell work you don’t believe in and don’t go to the meeting if the work is not up to scratch. (Easier said than done, in my view, but a noble ambition all the same…..)

5. Prey on the weak. That sounds seriously nasty and worthy of the worse excesses of Vance Packard’s scary and ultimately misguided tract, ‘Hidden Persuaders’ but let’s hear Martin out. What he’s getting at is that some clients really need to change something, especially if they have a challenger brand. W+K persuaded Three to adopt free roaming as they didn’t have a lot to lose, and the campaign it inspired was phenomenally successful (see APG Gold Award Winner ‘Three’ from 2015)

6. Find your charisma. Clients buy you, not just your idea. Be yourself and accentuate the best of you. (If you want to find out more on this theme, have a look at Jim Carroll’s inspired guest editorship of the APG website where gives stellar advice about planning leadership and building a successful planning career)

7. Mirror your clients. Create a connection with them and use unconscious bias in your favour. Be a chameleon if necessary.

8. Walk in their selfish shoes. Marketing Directors change jobs every three years or less. What will get your client a promotion or a new job? Play to that. Learn the underlying philosophy that drives their culture like Byron Sharp for Mars or Purpose for Unilever.

9. Get Real. Show and tell can be really effective. If you can mock up your ideas you literally get them into the client’s office.

10. Simple, stealable summaries. They will remember the biscuits from the meeting, but little else. Most of the sell happens afterwards so why not make a one-minute film that sums it up and they can take to their boss?

Above all, see your job as making complicated things simple.

Well done, Martin. You did just that.

Marie Oldham is CSO at VCCP Media, one of the few media agencies embedded in an ad agency, so she has a particularly rounded perspective as she works as part of the core team with the planners (as well as an amazing job history encompassing account planning, working client side and running her own consultancy).

She started off touching on Matt’s opening theme of conflict, noting how many of the covers of Jane Austen’s 'Persuasion' show two individuals facing in different directions. We conceive of persuasion as being about convincing the enemy of our point of view and transfer this to the way we deal with clients, when clients actually want good ideas and are willing you to bring them…

So Marie also had some exceptionally thoughtful and useful advice for us all in how to create positive conditions for getting clients on side.

Start every presentation telling your clients how wonderful they are. Not in a sycophantic way, but find some really positive things about the company and weave them in to your proposals. And simple politeness; thank them for the brief and acknowledge the thinking and hard work that has gone in to it.

Next up, a tip for setting up a successful longer term strategic sell-in. Land a surprise in the first 15 minutes of the meeting. Make it a genuine insight that can help to crack the problem and lead your client into a different world. For example explain why a baking programme can garner an audience of 13 million people, or show how deeply psychologically satisfying it can be for a mum to get the whole family in front of the T.V. for X Factor on a Saturday night – teenagers on the sofa with Mum and Dad….it’s a miracle. That insight is then your touch stone; the thing you keep going back to in order to keep the client on track.

Keep it simple. All our speakers vouched for this. Don’t use spaghetti junction charts, just give your clients a beautiful simple framework.

Don’t forget that most ideas fail, often because they look or become unworkable in the client organisation. So if you sell them an idea, give them the tools to make it happen – a website or an app whatever – make it easy. When you add value you solve the problem. And remember that tenacity is 50% of the job. You have to keep it all going long after they have left the room.

Laura Jordan Bambach is CCO at Mr President and we were incredibly lucky to have her speak as she is also President of D&AD and has a side hustle of co-running She Says, an organisation for encouraging women into digital careers.

Laura thinks it’s all down to relationships. It’s not about persuasion but about shared goals and it’s up to you to be your client’s mate or confidant.

Don’t be afraid to look for the real problem behind the brief. It has a particular shape and objectives but they may not be the real issue you need to solve.

By way of example Laura took us through the Bacardi case study: How do you make a group that don’t give a damn (middle age America young men who are simply not cool enough) get interested in a party Bacardi didn’t invite them to? You can see the whole story here.

Her second example was Come Out for LGBT, an incredibly brave campaign for Stonewall. It was immensely difficult to bring a nervous client along with the thinking as Come Out is such a provocative idea. The aim was to get people who don’t do anything about the issue to get involved. So what they did was to keep presenting work from different points of view, involving groups who wouldn’t normally have anything to do with it, like General Sanders of the British Army.

The campaign was such a potent idea that everyone involved contributed for free, to push it through.

Our final Speaker was Jim Carroll, eternal strategist and former UK Chairman of BBH. Jim chose to headline his thinking as Five Powers. Nice.

1. The Power of Empathy

He began with with three important lessons. As planners we are often ‘right’ but if we only occupy our own corner of rectitude and fail to convince anyone else it’s all a bit pointless. You need to to get to the ‘right’ answer of course, but we are in the persuasion business and persuasion is a precious and rarer skill.

Remember the sales pitch is not about you, it’s about them. So it’s your client you have to really understand.

And finally there is a natural rhythm to a pitch. Most sales follow that rhythm. So use it.

2. The Power of Reduction

We Planners have an unfortunate tendency to try and exhibit our intelligence by making things complex. Great Planners reduce complicated ideas to aphorisms. Jim told the story of the first BBH campaign for Haagen Dazs; how the agency built on the product story of ‘Dedicated to Perfection’ with a brand story of ‘Dedicated to pleasure’ – a brilliant example of a few simple words inspiring years of enjoyably effective advertising. Ditto the Axe/Lynx aphorism which defined years of successful and highly entertaining advertising: 'It’s your best first move, not a guarantee of success'.

3. The Power of Visualisation

It was a pitch for Shell Oil. The planner chose to develop a ‘Strategic Refinery’ for the pitch, using a visual of an actual refinery, showing how different positioning’s worked for the brand.

4. The Power of Theatre

If you can demonstrate theatrically your idea or proposition, it goes a long way to making the sale. In the original pitch for Polaroid cameras, BBH wanted to understand more about the difference between Polaroid and 35mm cameras. So they sent people out to weddings and asked them to take phots with both, and analysed the results. The Polaroid photos were spontaneous and expressive, where the 35mm shots were posed and this helped them carve out a really distinctive poisoning and campaign idea for the brand.

Another theatrical demonstration was on a pitch for milk; so familiar to us all that we never think of it as a beautiful, white, natural drink. So the team re-branded it as KIML and filmed responses to this new drink in shopping centres. That simple reversal created awe in place of boring familiarity.

5. The Power of Persuasion

Finally getting to the nub of the brief, Jim offered a couple of final and immensely useful bits of advice

  • Don’t be afraid to have mature conversations with your clients, even being prepared to calibrate potential risk. Negativity can be a handy tool. It gets them on side and helps them to take emotional responsibility for their decisions.

  • Sometimes we just all care too much. You can be too servile. Be prepared to walk away.

In the words of the great Kenny Rogers

‘You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,

Know when to walk away, know when to run’.

That’s enough advice. Ed.


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