Tim Brunelle is
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Tim Brunelle

Useful Lunacy:
Thinking about thinking, creativity and the power of ideas.

How to sell an idea

It’s hard enough to come up with a great idea.

Then you have to sell it.

Sell it to yourself. Sell it to your collaborators. Sell it to your fellow stakeholders. Sell it to a client. Sell it to anyone helping you make that idea real.

There’s likely more effort in selling an idea than coming up with it in the first place. 

The flip side of this equation is buying an idea.

Why do collaborators, creative bosses and clients ultimately buy the ideas we’re selling? Beyond the ideas themselves, what other characteristics, qualities and ingredients influence an idea’s approval and support? 

Late last year I surveyed a gallery of client marketing directors, creative directors, designers, writers and account directors — all with perspectives on the idea selling process. I told them: “Whether you’re an agency leader being pitched an early stage concept, or a client being pitched — we’re all given a moment to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to ideas. I’m interested in understanding what factors, other than the ideas themselves, lead to you saying ‘Yes’ to the ideas you’ve been pitched in your career.”

I received 27 responses from all over the U.S. (59% agency, 41% client — I didn’t break out differences between the two sides in the data below). Everyone who responded has over 12 year’s of experience pitching and/or buying ideas. They’re working with budgets from $2MM/year to $300MM/year. They’re managing teams from three to dozens of people. They’ve pitched and bought award-winning work. 

Here’s a summary of their responses to the process of pitching/buying an idea. Remember, this isn’t about the quality of any given idea. The survey presumes a great idea exists. As one respondent noted, “Finding an idea is genius, selling an idea is a miracle!” 

Why Do You Say “Yes” to An Idea?

Q1. Averaging all of the times you gave an ultimate “yes” to an idea — were the winning presentations…


59% of respondents said they ultimately approved “an average production; nothing extraordinary.” 

It’s important to remember we’re talking about the presentation of the idea here, not the idea itself. I didn’t clarify “average production” for the survey. So we have to assume a general consensus. For me, “highly polished” enters the realm of hard-bound leave-behinds and weeks worth of highly-rehearsed presentation materials — the sort of six-figure experience synonymous with Fortune 100 new business pitches that last an entire year and upon which books are written. “Just legible enough” could be a sketch or just a script, typos included. “Average” presentations, in my view, are mistake-free and well-designed. Just enough. 

The survey results suggest legibility matters, but putting in a high degree of finesse offers less reward. A respondent said, “The world moves too fast now and we need to act accordingly. I’d rather do more and talk less – you learn more that way.” Another noted, “…when I am seeing presentations, they’re all internal, so I wouldn’t want polish. I would much rather my team get me in earlier vs polishing something that has little substance. I say ‘yes’ to ideas that have more legs, more possibilities for integration.”

So if the first question was about production quality of a presentation, the next question had to do with length and depth of the idea presentation itself. 

Q2. Averaging all of the times you gave an ultimate “yes” to an idea — were the winning presentations…


67% of respondents said they ultimately approved “very brief” presentations, versus “verbose” presentations “including lots of support material.” 

“Time needed to present a concept tells me a lot about the idea and the strength of the idea” said a survey respondent. “You should be able to very quickly tell me the insight, the premise to the idea and the close.”

But let’s not confuse brevity with clarity. Another respondent said, “The more I can see the desired result, the greater confidence I have in saying ‘yes.’” Brevity of presentation materials may not also equate to a brevity of the presentation as a whole. 

This question has a lot to do with the quality of the seller/buyer relationship. If I don’t know you very well, I’m going to hedge a longer presentation with more background. Of course, we might know each other really well but circumstances (e.g. your availability to understand context) may suggest a particular presentation merits more information. 

And let’s not confuse salesmanship or meeting theater tactics with brevity either. “A great presenter is fine – but there are tons of great sales people. It is almost a non-factor,” said another respondent. “I care… if the person across the table (vendor, employee, peer) knows their shit. They can show that by being able to answer the hard questions with ease. It isn’t showing your math, it’s showing your depth. Big difference.” For this respondent, candor also plays a big role in being pitched. “I need to trust that [the person/team pitching] will be a good partner. ‘We’ve never done this before but we have a plan’ has won me over many, many times.”

The next survey question focused on the pitching process as a whole. How many times do you need to be presented with an idea before committing to it?

Q3. Averaging all of the times you gave an ultimate “yes” to an idea — were the winning presentations…

HTSAI_Q3-responses40% of ideas pitched were approved after the second presentation. But a close 37% were approved after one and only one presentation. For this majority of respondents, 77% of ideas pitched are approved within two presentations. A smaller 22% of ideas took multiple presentations to achieve approval.

Sometimes persistence is key. While an idea may be great, the initial presentation itself might not be. You have a bad day. The laptop died. Your client just got some lousy news before the meeting. I remember getting up at 4:00 a.m., flying for three hours, driving for another, only to arrive at the client to be told, “Oh — they didn’t tell you they all went golfing this morning? Why don’t you just leave the presentation materials here and they can call you?” (We didn’t leave the materials.)

So relationships matter in the selling process. “A past history of good work makes me bullish from the beginning,” notes one respondent. The same respondent also pointed out the role of timing. “Do we have more time? If not, ‘Yes’ comes a lot more quickly.” (In this context, you might benefit from a constraint in timing-to-launch.)

But what if the relationship is new? Another respondent said, “The recommendation of someone I trust has been the biggest factor [in saying ‘Yes’ to an idea]. If someone has said, ‘This guy/company is the best — we used them and were so happy’ — that is huge for me.” Another respondent cited an ability to listen and adapt. The idea seller’s “willingness and ability to take feedback from an organization” can be integral to saying “Yes” to an idea the second time around. 

In my own experience, trust is often the second most potent factor in approving an idea, after the idea itself. Who is selling matters almost as much as what’s being sold. Ideas are risk, after all. Buyers count on a relationship to help manage that risk. 

But there’s another side of risk when it comes to buying ideas. Another respondent said, “I have seen some amazing ideas/concepts fail to be embraced because the client was not in the frame of mind to do something different.” And that’s the idea buyer’s prerogative, of course. Yet, as this same respondent continues, “Clients need to embrace the speed of the world. Creativity has an expiration date — what is great today can quickly be too late tomorrow.”

Unlike routine commodities, marketing ideas are typically unique to context, culture, time and the people making the idea. Wait too long, remove timeliness from an idea, and it’s no longer the same idea. 

* * *

The survey was constructed of two parts: The preceding first three questions followed by one last question — a ranking of all influencing factors. After chewing on the optional comments, this respondent’s quote summed up influencing factors best:

“Having worked on both the agency and client side of the equation, I’m always surprised by how much the typical creative presentation takes for granted or leaves unstated. We can be prone to thinking about things so much that we believe everyone shares our understanding and has drawn the same conclusions we have. A concise but informative introduction that clearly establishes where the idea(s) come from can be the difference between selling a challenging concept and heading back to the drawing board.”

* * *

Q4. (Assuming the idea you’re reviewing is/was obviously great) Prioritize the first three factors that typically influence you most to say “yes”


“Strategic Setup” was the most dominant factor in influencing an idea buyer to say “Yes,” followed by an almost tie of the idea-buying team’s consensus/confidence and the idea-selling team’s confidence during presentation. 

Presentation length was the fourth most potent factor, followed by Showmanship/Meeting Theater tactics. Other factors ranked but typically at almost half the value of Strategy/Insight in influencing a “Yes.”

As a respondent said, “First and foremost, if [the idea and its presentation] doesn’t align to the brand and strategy, it’s not going through, no matter how cool.” An earlier respondent also said a demonstrated, “ability to understand my [idea buyer’s] point of view” was critical. For this respondent, idea sellers must frame strategy that’s, “relevant to me and my organization before beginning the [creative] presentation.”

We’d be wise to revisit that earlier quote: “We can be prone to thinking … everyone shares our understanding and … conclusions.” I’ve been there, cursed with knowledge. And it doesn’t end well. Better, as stated, to re-set the stage with a bit of narrative before unveiling the idea. 

* * *

In the end, it is the core idea that sells. Without an idea, nothing else matters. 

And yet — other factors and contexts influence the approval of ideas; specifically potent and concise strategic setup and trusting relationships. 

As another new year of ideas and idea-selling begins, we would be wise to consider everything which impacts getting to “Yes.”