Hello, Drawing Board

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Over the past decade, Libretto has participated in fundraising-related engagements that have helped raise more than $2 billion for our clients. Much of that work has involved campaign themes.

Presenting themes is one of the most Mad Men-esque dimensions of our professional practice. The presentations are formal; a critical mass of senior stakeholders is always in attendance; a palpable sense of anticipation hangs in the air. Once the full list of individual candidates has been introduced, a monumental moment of silence precedes the ensuing conversation. Candidates are debated, defended, and discarded – a process both fraught and fascinating.

Libretto’s favorite candidate may emerge victorious, or fall by the wayside with barely a whimper. Two or three finalists typically surface. There are (glorious) times when a winner is chosen at the conclusion of the presentation, and other times when the client requests a few days to mull things over.

We recently experienced two instances where our initial list ultimately fell short. In the first instance, certain members of the senior management team were excited about several of our candidates, but the CEO didn’t love any of them. In the second, the client’s committee took four candidates under consideration, then decided collectively several days later that none of them passed muster.

The fact that our first-round presentations aren’t casual affairs complicates situations like these. When we present, we don’t throw ideas against the wall; we only share candidates we feel have a viable chance of emerging as winners. Our first list of finalists represents the efforts of half a dozen individuals with extensive naming experience who have created individual lists, presented those lists to our group, refined them further, and presented additional candidates in a second internal meeting. As a result, the list we bring to the client has been distilled from up to 150 candidates reviewed during our internal sessions.

So what happens when that first list doesn't produce a winner? Here are several steps we follow when faced with a second trip to the drawing board.

1. Take a moment to mourn, and then move on

It’s never easy to watch many hours of collective effort come to naught. When you dig deep during the first round of a naming project, it’s hard to face the prospect of diving back into the proverbial shipwreck in search of new treasures. People should feel free to articulate their disappointment; having done so, they need to proceed optimistically, and without looking back. No, the beloved candidate you dreamed up will not be resurrected on the second list. No, the client isn’t going to suddenly realize that the first-round candidate they rejected last week really should be the winner after all.

2. Make sure client feedback is as detailed as possible

When you’re making a second, high-stakes trip to the well, your client owes you those detailed comments. Statements like “I’m just not feeling it” or “I’ll know it when I see it” are insufficient; a more nuanced conversation about the perceived shortcomings of the work needs to happen. This isn’t easy – no one wants to look at their failed efforts under a microscope – but it’s essential. It’s also entirely possible that a client’s negative reaction to a first list will reveal a clearer sense of the direction they ultimately wish to pursue.

3. Revise your creative brief accordingly

The essence of the client’s feedback needs to be shared thoughtfully and intentionally with your team. You may want to share the revised brief with the client, so that everyone participating in the critical second presentation is as close to being on the same page as possible.

4. Let your mind wander

There are four activities that are particularly conducive to namestorming: waking up, falling asleep, driving, and taking a shower. When crafting a second round, your first impulse may be to revisit terrain already mined, but you need to give yourself the mental space required to daydream a little, unlock new associations, and ponder the criteria driving the revised creative brief.

5. Promote a spirit of trust

Situations like these are easier to negotiate if you work to forge a spirit of trust from the onset of an engagement. Responding thoughtfully and promptly to client needs, maintaining a sense of humor, engaging clients as people rather than just colleagues, erring on the side of over-delivering – all these traits will serve you well if you need to make a trip back to the drawing board. Presenting a second round of ideas is always a high-stakes affair; keeping in mind that your client truly wants you to succeed will help carry the day.

Happily, both of our clients ended up choosing themes based on a second round of candidates. (Unfortunately, since those campaigns are still in the quiet phase, we can’t reveal the winners just yet.) In both cases, creative thinking – combined with the steps outlined above – yielded not only a great theme, but also a stronger client relationship overall.

File under Themes, Brainstorming, Branding, Mad Men, Campaign, Communications

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