Way Off the Mark: I’ve Got This Great Idea

way-off-the-mark-logo1by Mark Margulies

It was a hot muggy morning that day in early July, 1863 in the small farming community in Pennsylvania. This historic hamlet, only through the fault of geography, had become the unwilling host of one of the Civil War’s, and indeed history’s, greatest battles—a battle that would change the direction in which the finger of history would point.

It was the third and final day of the confrontation, and still, there was no definite resolution. Two great armies had inextricably marched towards this historic meeting, and despite fierce fighting and hourly shifts in positions, history continued to await an outcome.

History would not have to wait long, for late the previous night, General Lee proposed what he believed to be a great idea. He would ask General George Pickett to rally his 30,000 Confederate troops and make a bold and daring charge against the center of the Union’s line. Pickett’s men would march across a mile and a half of open country, braving natural obstacles, cannon fire, and mini-balls, to drive right into the teeth of the Union forces, attempting to split them and thus win the day and the battle. General Longstreet deferred stubbornly, objecting on the grounds that it was a desperate and ill-fated idea. He favored attacking the flank, as they had done with some success the day before. Lee won the argument. The South lost Gettysburg, and eventually, the war.

Great idea. Wrong time.

General Lee’s situation is one we repeat every single day in our business. Sure, the battlefield has shifted to sales and clients, but the situation remains the same: great ideas are sometimes presented at the wrong time to be executed.

In copy and creative development, it’s an important lesson to learn. Not that any of us will soon be charging across an open meadow braving gunfire. But successful radio commercials don’t usually start with great ideas. Ideas are for decorating a home or building a business. Ideas are for football plays drawn in the sand or hit songs. But starting your creative process with a “great idea” could put you on the General Lee fast track—namely, your idea takes center stage, instead of what’s best to create success for the client.

Creating the best chance for success for your client can be broken down into three important elements. Element number one: what does the client expect the listener to do…write, call, stop in? The commercial must thus be centered behind motivating and INSTRUCTING that listener as to what they have to do to take advantage of the special deal or information they’ve just heard.

Element number two: what does the client expect from the flight? Do they want to move a specific product? Do they want people to call for appointments? Do they just want name recognition? Any idea you develop must be based, subliminally or consciously, around motivating the listener to help fulfill that expectation.

Finally, element number three: what’s the single most essential item that you need the listener to know? Is it a sale item? Is it a product mention? Is it a promotional event? Isolate that item, and drive home the information. Don’t clutter your ad with nonsense information. So much of the information in a radio ad can be delivered when the listener GETS TO THE CLIENT’S LOCATION. So, deliver only the most important message. That’s all you have time to do.

This is a fairly simplistic approach to a complex issue, but remember something—the client hears their radio ad alone, in a room, on a tape recorder. Reality is, the ad plays as one of possibly 180 spots a day a listener could hear on your station. That’s part of a typical day, where the average person is bombarded with around 1300 images that take the shape of commercials, T-shirts, product mentions, you name it. Your client has to stand out in all that. So if you don’t grab the listener’s attention, tell them exactly what to do and why they should do it, you may never get another chance. And what happens too many times is the “great idea” takes on a life of itself, doesn’t affect the audience, and ends up with the all-too-familiar phone call, “Hey, I LOVE the spot but I’m not getting any response. I have to cancel.” We blame the client and rant and rave about what jerks they are, but the fault is ours.

There is one last element to consider: the clients themselves. Many times, they want input. They want to discuss “ideas.” So read this now and let it be a mantra: never, ever get into creative discussions with clients. Remember, clients do not understand the business of creating interest through radio ads. Their idea might be fine for another time, but chances are it’s not right for what they want to do. Never solicit client ideas. And if they suggest them, listen respectfully and take notes, but remind them of the story of General Lee at Gettysburg. A smart client will get the point. And you’ll have gone a long way to winning the war

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