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Make NO Your Bitch

Posted on February 14, 2011 and read 5,038 times

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paul Make NO Your BitchPaul Lavoie
Chairman and Founder

Making No Your Bitch / From the internal ‘No’ that keeps us from exploring the potential of possible solutions to the external ‘Nos’ we encounter as our ideas wend through client bureaucracies and focus groups, accepting the fact that ‘No’ is part of the creative ritual is essential. When our ideas are met with little resistance, they’re probably docile and expected. Too few ‘Nos’ means we should be worried.

Taming the Beast

Garnering the consensus needed to provide strategic focus in an industry in the throes of change isn’t easy. And one of the greatest challenges is taming the beast that is – No. Granted, No has a place and can be put to good use.

No to war. No to discrimination. No, thank you, I don’t need 47 blades from the next-generation Gillette power-razor. Answering No, in these cases, is a passionate motivator because denying them preserves our clear and personal vision of the reality we want to create.

Yet in an atmosphere of uncertainty, such as we have in advertising today, No is often the easiest option. Not surprising, since research on referendums concludes we are biased to say No. This is the bad No. It has the power to hold us back when we believe in something. No can be diminishing and demoralising and keeps us from being the best we can be.

Yes, in contrast, usually represents a new idea, and accepting it takes not only vision but also courage.

Doubting the Conventional

Strategic thinkers play an instrumental role in our industry: a strong planning process and clear brief points everyone toward the same focused goal and not only informs the various and often eclectic media choices but also acts as a glue holding all the pieces together. I asked a group of planners to do an exercise. Give it a try: Mark a black dot on a sheet of paper. Take five seconds and describe that image. Typical descriptions included a ball, a period. What did you write? Kids in preschool saw in that black spot a host of possibility: ‘I see the nose of a seal,’ said one; ‘I see the earth but from the moon,’ said another. ‘An olive’, ‘My father’s nostril’, and ‘My uncle’s head’, came from others. Some experts believe that through years of schooling we’ve been untrained to be creative. We’re supposed to find the one right answer. Over time, kids learn that if they take a risk and share a creative answer, they get laughed at. They stop raising their hands. Author, speaker and creativity guru, Roger Van Oech, who wrote A Whack on the Side of the Head, likes to say; ‘Children enter school as question marks and come out periods.’

Hearing No can be discouraging, or a cue that you are on to something great.

Taming No requires that you hang on to that question mark. It means – this is a belief upon which our agency, TAXI, has been built over the past 15 years – doubting the conventional. It demands, at times, redefining what success looks like. Fifteen years ago, when I explained to my boss I was leaving his agency to start my own, TAXI, his four-word response was: ‘This will not work.’ TAXI was about a different structure, a different attitude, a different product – not advertising, but brand stewardship – and a different business model. I took a lesson from the technology industry’s ability to increase product quality while decreasing costs. I wanted a nimble structure capable of adapting to change, with simple goals: a consistent creative product, a harmonious, collaborative environment and financial health. Most people told me it wouldn’t work, but the more I heard the No’s the more I was convinced of TAXI’s potential. Because our idea was different, we had a better chance for survival.

Here’s another exercise. Write down a current ambition – something elusive, something about which you are passionate. Underneath it, write the word No. Below that, write what holds you back. Is it outside – say, a boss or other authority figure, a restrictive culture, a limit on time or money? Or inside: an automatic reflex, longstanding bad habit or punishing ego?

Embrace No

Much would be lost to us today had No crushed the ambitions and the ideas of a few. I learned this lesson as a 20 year-old watching the then 15 year-old champion windsurfer, Robby Nash. When asked what he liked most about the sport, he responded, ‘Falling down’ – surprising, since falling down on a windsurfer is the one thing I always tried to avoid. A more familiar tale is Thomas Edison, who tried over 1,000 times to invent the light bulb before he was successful. Each unsuccessful design was not a failure, he said, but rather ‘the elimination of a design that didn’t work, so we must be getting close’. Mistakes teach us. Robby Nash suspended ego. In the process he became a champion by falling more than the runners up. I see No not as an obstacle but rather as a creative switch. Learn to flip it to read ‘On’.

when I explained to my boss I was leaving his agency to start my own, TAXI, his four-word response was: ‘This will not work.’

We all admire organisations like Virgin Atlantic or Google whose management takes chances, makes mistakes then moves forward. I’d venture that Richard Branson, Sergey Brin and Larry Page consider obstacles blessings. How do they convince another person to give up No? To embrace their ideas and have those ideas flourish? Is there a practical guide to wrangling the naysayers? Consider the NASA Rover Spirit story. Can you imagine the politics and egos that had to be navigated to get hundreds of brilliant people, experts in disciplines from aeronautics to engineering and physics, to collaborate on a project that was underfunded, overdue, and hung up by various snafus? What made those people take ownership, suppress their egos for a greater good? The answer lay in defining a focused goal that would inspire. It wasn’t just meeting a singular task–to get to Mars–but to answer a more profound question: Is there life out there? There’s a great brief.

Expect to hear No. If a campaign’s first strategic spark is safe and lives in fear of No, everyone suffers. This is why planners are important. Hearing No can be discouraging, or a cue that you are on to something great. Challenging No means understanding that you cannot change the forces outside of you but you can change that inner voice. Go back to what you wrote about your ambition. Suspend emotion and ego and try to understand the root of the resistance keeping you from your objective. If you really want to affect your world and make a difference you cannot be afraid of No. Embrace No and then make it your bitch.

Paul Lavoie is chairman and founder of TAXI. At the helm of TAXI’s integrated approach to creativity across seven offices in Canada, the U.S., and Europe, Paul’s credentials include:
Marketing magazine, in August 2008, named Lavoie one of the 10 most influential pioneers in Canadian marketing over the past century. In 2006, he was listed by Creativity magazine among the 50 most influential creative minds. That year, he also became the youngest inductee of the Canadian Marketing Hall of Legends. In 2007, Paul received the Spiess award for lifetime achievement by the Bessies Awards. Paul is the President of The Art Directors Club Advisory Board, an ex-member of the Marketing Advisory Committee of the MoMA, a board member of the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter and a member of the International Advisory Board of the
École des Hautes Études Commerciales (HEC – Montréal).

Make NO Your Bitch first appeared in Contagious Magazine.




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