Set fire to your good ideas

Get your best piece of unfinished work and set it alight. You may cry at first but will become a better creative for it.

When I started out in advertising, I learned a simple thing. Preciousness is pointless. My partner then, and for the following 17 years, was Matt Waller. Before our first job, Matt and I spent about a year working in a restaurant in Leicester Square, in our spare time grinding out our portfolio. We laboured over it, going back and forth with opinions from the great and the good, tweaking and noodling with words and art direction. Scrutinising every letter and layout – and, after about 18 months, things were looking good. "A few tweaks and we’ll give you placement." 

Now, this was before we owned a computer, so every idea was made with Letraset, pen, twigs and spit. Which meant we only had one book. One. That was it. No copy and paste, save as .pdf, attach, send. Nope, just actual cutting with scissors and actual pasting with glue. So we decided we’d photocopy it and send it to two agencies at the same time. Imagine that. Two!

Anyway, one afternoon, book in hand and hangover in head, I aimed myself for Prontaprint in Covent Garden via the 12 bus and towards a future in advertisingland. Then, halfway across Trafalgar Square, I realised I was empty-handed. I’d left our book on the back seat of the 12. Pillock. I legged it up Regent Street in pursuit, but no joy. In fact, even less joy when the running-plus-hangover equalled puking-in-a-bin. 

We had zero portfolio. Gone. Forever. Our passport to adland lost down the back of London’s sofa. Matt took it well. I felt sick and decided I was jacking it all in. Matt convinced me not to, so we set out to rebuild the campaigns that we thought were worth rebuilding. It was brutal – three of the ten campaigns made the cut. Everything else we left for dead… With no time to be precious, we bashed out five new campaigns and, a month later with our brand new book, we were in Bartle Bogle Hegarty. We stayed for 11 years.

Maybe it was meant to be – either way, it’s had an influence. I’ve never really minded going back to the drawing board, even at the last minute. Of course, fighting for good work is important – no-one likes a dead, good idea – but I’ve never seen the point in flogging an idea to death to the detriment of a relationship. It’s just an idea, there will be more, and sometimes you have to kill things, quick and swift, and go again. 

Ripple dissolve to a few years later at BBH. We were three weeks deep into a pitch. The big, juicy idea was done, everyone was high-fiving, the deck was in studio and the work was slick. The weekend before the pitch, a young planner turns up to a meeting. It was a Saturday. The big guns were poised around the table ready for chat. Young planner-man piped up nervously: "Erm… I think we’ve got the wrong strategy." After a good half-an-hour debate, the big chiefs agreed: he was dead right. The work was binned and we started again. It took some balls to do that. But I’m so glad he did. We won the pitch.

More recently, I was presenting work to a well-known newspaper. The senior client was great but had a subtle "tell" when she wasn’t feeling the work. It was great work, but I could tell that it didn’t fit with where her head was. Things had shifted internally – she didn’t need to tell me – so I put her out of her constructive feedback misery: "Right, let’s not tweak this stuff, let’s kill it all. We’ll come back in 24 hours." She was relieved. We didn’t have time to faff about – we had to be on-air in six weeks. Twenty-four hours later, the work was better. Lots of shiny things followed and it did our relationship the world of good. She trusted we were in this together.

I still think about losing that portfolio a lot. It reminds me never to get too precious, to waste time in laborious pointlessness, fighting for the wrong things. Preciousness can be evil. It can ruin ambitions, destroy relationships. I’ve even seen it kill a cat. I also think it’s never too late to find something better, whether it’s a massive global brand pitch, a go-again-er, or a line of copy. All the best creatives I’ve ever worked with embrace the death of a good idea when it needs to make way for the right idea. But it takes the right kind of person. Fill your agency with these types of people. This breed are the best. They’re the most infectious people to be around – and if you are one of them, you’ll be more than welcome at 82 Baker Street.

Dave Monk is executive creative director at Publicis London

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