What’s the best approach to get an idea past corporate gatekeepers? Experts from Carat, 72andSunny and Wunderman Thompson weigh in.
At work, we’re pitching all the time – even if we don’t know it. But even if your initiative is perfectly rational, profitable and Novel Prize-winningly brilliant, selling it to the decision-makers – whether they’re a supervisor, chief exec or client – can be another matter.
One person’s epiphany can be another’s gobbledegook, and where one colleague might respond to a logical approach, another might require an appeal based on emotion. There are tricks and techniques to improve your approach, however – call it sales craft, call it managing upwards, call it inception – and we asked a range of agency experts for theirs.
How do you solve a problem like… selling an idea to the boss?
Edd Weller, global head of partnerships, Carat
Working in partnerships is all about how you collaborate – whether that’s with senior or junior, this is a selling skill set. The way that I train my team to find the win is by taking the time to fully flesh out the idea, making sure you’ve connected with the right stakeholders prior and then clearly structuring a narrative with the benefits and considerations and making the time to get their attention. Like all good media, a clear message at the right time will always win. Focus on positives but be open to feedback and builds. And lastly, of course, wait for them to have sat down and had coffee if you’re going to approach them first thing.
Bryant Lambert, vice-president and group acount director, EP+Co
Selling an idea to your boss isn’t so different from selling an idea to your client. It all comes down to making the benefit of what you want to do undeniable. In other words, you’ve got to make the juice worth the squeeze. If you know what you’re asking for (and why), getting a yes will be much easier. First, make your objective clear by outlining the big picture and articulating how the end goal is achievable. Then be direct about any action items needed from the boss – and show them you’ll be there to help accomplish everything.
Chris Arakelian, executive director of growth, Wolff Olins
Moving an agency forward demands thinking beyond business as usual. Like any great pitch, it requires a bold strategy, a relevant idea and a well-devised plan for success. If your idea is born from a pain point or an acknowledged need, you’re halfway there. To gain the blessing of your boss you need to apply these three principles:
Believe – if you aren’t fully aligned with the change you want to see made, leave it at the door
Know what’s needed for a successful outcome, then create a clearly-defined plan that’s respectful of time commitments. Demonstrate quick wins along the way for bonus points
Paint the vision for how your idea will drive impact for the business – help your approver understand how you will improve overall operations, employee sentiment and client satisfaction
The more conviction you bring, the more difficult it will be for your boss to say no.
Morten Grubak, executive creative director of innovation, Virtue
It’s 2018, before the metaverse has hit mainstream marketing. Our client has just referred to our pitch as “the strangest meeting of my life.” We’d just tried to convince them to make a digital clothing collection. Their response: silence.
Two weeks later we tried again. A different approach, with exactly the same idea. That time, they got it. The client slammed his fist on the table and said: “Let’s do it!”
The lesson? Being the first to do something is scary and, ultimately, client buy-in is the only one that matters. Perseverance, confidence in our idea and not taking no for an answer enabled us to build a Grand Prix-winning project.
Emma Harris, chief executive officer, Glow London
Selling is selling – which means whether it’s to the boss, the board or a customer, you have to start with understanding their need; do they want to make themselves look good? Are they risk mitigators? Are they into the big picture or detail? Either way, the trick is in crafting the message so they get what they need out of it.
In a previous life, I had a boss who loved to think that everything was his idea. I would give him just enough information that I knew would lead him to the conclusion I wanted him to reach. He would then present the idea back to me as entirely his own. Of course, my response would be to tell him how brilliant he was and trundle off and deliver it. When it comes to delivering a great idea, it’s by whatever means necessary.
Emily Rule, head of planning, Wunderman Thompson
It’s never going to be easy to sell a truly great idea because, by nature, great ideas make people, clients and your mum really uncomfortable. But there may be a method to make our selling a little bit more effective:
Provoke: force your audience to pay you their undivided attention
Persuade: forget who you are selling to and focus on what you are selling
Persist: great ideas are never bought in the first meeting. Keep showing it to your ‘clients’ until they understand it, buy-in and even love it as much as you do
Protect: with every fiber of your being, ensure that your idea doesn’t fade as it goes through the washing machine of democracy
Danielle Melia, creative director, We Are Social
’If you don’t believe in your idea… then no one else will.’
That’s one of the best bits of advice I’ve been given. As a creative director, you know when you’ve got a good’un. It’s an epiphany. Our job is to ‘be like a bulldog’ protecting that idea. That doesn’t mean being bull-ish. If anything, it is the opposite. It’s about knowing how different personalities work.
Some people, like my boss who is smart and strategic, prefer an informal chat. Some people want an impassioned presentation. There’s never a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It’s about knowing something is great – and then flexing your personality to make it happen.
Armando Potter, strategy director, 72andSunny Amsterdam
If you’re coming from a place of ‘what’s the trick?’ you’re already coming at it from the wrong place. To convince the boss to believe in the idea as much as you do, it needs to come from a place of genuine conviction, not pulling strings.
The one simple rule I use to sell an idea to anyone, whether it’s my boss or my brother: don’t underestimate the power of your own passion. How can I land on an idea that I believe in so fervently that I can’t help but spread that excitement to everyone else too?
Will Ferguson, senior vice-president and managing director of addressable solutions, Dentsu Media
We’re all in sales roles, whether we signed up for them or not. In my experience, the key to wielding influence, internally or externally, is in democratized ownership. Your idea may be objectively ‘right,’ but to win leadership’s support you must identify their internal motivation, adjust your narrative to highlight how it advances that agenda, and present the benefit in a way that compels leadership to adopt the idea as their own.
People can be too protective of sole ownership of an idea. Good leaders will ensure you get your credit; first, make sure there’s something to get credit for.
Andrew Godley, managing director, True
Of course, the golden adage is to make it feel like their own idea. But it’s more complicated than that. For me, it’s ensuring the idea aligns to bigger objectives – company, scorecard and personal goals (and passions). You need to understand how they make decisions: are they emotional, excited by the big idea, the end game, the fame? Or are they more rational, needing to understand the detail, the specific steps? Top-down versus bottom-up? And everything’s a pitch – it needs to be concise. Try it out on others first. Remember always: professionals practice, amateurs don’t seem to feel the need.
Ben Kerr, managing director, Somethin:Else
Selling ideas doesn’t happen like in the movies – there aren’t many successful ta-das. They happen over many conversations. Your boss probably isn’t even waiting for your idea – they have eyes on all the other shit in front of them. So sell them the problem, the strategy, the idea and then how it’ll be easy to deliver. That’s at least four conversations. Don’t rush it – each is a chance to modify your proposal using their perspective. If you try and do it in the 60 secs in a lift, you don’t know your boss very well and the idea is going down.
Frances Dennis, chief commercial officer, Brandwidth
People don’t care what you can do – only what you can do for them. Harsh maybe, but this reminds us to be relatable. Be explicit about how your idea helps your boss – whether it’s efficiency or opportunity – and be clear about how it will benefit them.
Pick your moment. I remember reading that parolees tend to receive harsher judgments when they are being heard just before lunch, where the board would be hungry and tired. Being human, bosses are influenced by external factors that affect their state of mind. Consider when they’ll be more receptive, having headspace to process your suggestions.
Rachel Segall, chief operating officer, NBZ Partner
Some of the highest-stakes buying and selling moments of an idea happen in a pitch environment. And those principles of persuasion can be applied to almost any circumstance. It requires a shift in thinking away from a ‘big reveal’ and thinking of it as micro-moments of buy-in.
It’s about psychologically bringing your boss along the journey and engineering moments for your employer to feel some ownership over the idea. It’s much harder for people to reject an idea that they helped arrive at.
Katie Streten, head of creative strategy, WRG
The key is to understand how your idea fits into your boss’s objectives. There’s no point going with a brilliant idea that meets none of their needs. If it’s not an obvious fit, find ways to demonstrate the value by choosing just one of their interests and linking it to your idea. Also make sure you prepare the ground before your conversation by chatting to other interested people and getting them onside so that your boss has already heard about your idea from other people they trust before you even get in the room.
Carsten Glock, creative director and founder, Glock
My advice? Be direct. Whether they’re good or bad, bosses always want to hear your ideas. I’ve never experienced pushback to a straightforward “I have this idea…” – even in my early career.
From experience, people need structure and encouragement to approach their boss with a new concept. Everyone talks about open-door policies, but 90% of the time this doesn’t work. No one ever comes knocking on your desk.
So we introduced ‘Calibration Sessions,’ which are open forums with a couple of questions for people to think about in advance – eg ‘What do you need to be more successful in your role?’ – and come ready to share.
And it gets great results. One of our team suggested evolving our shorter ‘Summer Hours’ program (which ended in October), instead using this time for more training and proactive briefs. This was a brilliant idea that gives our team a better understanding of client challenges and allows them to proactively propose solutions and take ownership of them. We put it into practice straight away.
Andrew Fatato, co-founder and creative director, Major
Selling to a boss is like selling to any other human – you need to figure out what they want, deep down, and show them how your idea gets them exactly that. So put yourself in their shoes. What are their challenges? What are their fears? What are their goals? What are their dreams? Or, simply, what will get them their bonus? Then work to frame your idea as a way they can get one or all of those things.
Want to join in with our weekly discussions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.