Your Idea Is Nothing Without Execution

Last week I was listening to the peerless Graham Fink on his second episode of Behind The Billboard. If you haven’t had a listen yet, stop reading this now and rectify that scandalous situation. Then listen to episode 1. I’ll wait.

You’re back? Good.

Wasn’t it brilliant? There were many excellent anecdotes, but the part that really stuck with me was an almost throwaway comment at the end where Graham quoted Hugh Laurie as saying, ‘There’s no such thing as great ideas; only great execution of ideas’ (the actual quote and interview are here). Graham went on to say that there was a big difference between having ideas and getting those ideas made exactly as you want, or even better. 

He added that we never really present ideas to clients that are above 8/10, but then you go into execution, and that’s when you crank it up a few notches with great photographers, typographers or directors.

OK. There’a a lot to examine there, so let’s start with the main point; the one that says execution supersedes concept…

Many years ago I went to Watford (West Herts College) to study Copywriting and Art Direction under the great Tony Cullingham. He instills in his pupils the opinion that concept is 90% of the endeavour. The other 10% is the actual writing or art direction bit (the execution).

And he’s not alone in that thought. We’ve all heard those creative department insults: ‘Yeah, but what’s the idea?’ or ‘There’s no fucking idea’, suggesting the primacy of the conceptual underpinning, but you only have to go back to my penultimate post (and this one I wrote seven years ago on a similar theme) to see that we don’t even agree on what an ‘idea’ is. This incredibly valuable currency of the ad agency is… what exactly? 

If we go back to Hugh’s suggestion, and Graham’s agreement, it’s not that important. 

According to the winner of the Commercial of the Year at last week’s British Arrows, it’s ‘Show models dressed in Burberry jumping and dancing around a street while snowballs land on them’. You might say that fashion advertising doesn’t usually have ‘ideas’, and you’d be right, but this is undeniably a brilliant ad. It was liked, shared and awarded all over the place. It might even have sold some clothes:

As far as the concept went, Riccardo Tisci, Creative Director of Burberry, said, ’It’s about that fearless spirit and imagination when pushing boundaries.’ That sounds like bollocks to me, but the end result, like great fashion, is all about emotion and attitude, so it makes sense to skip the logic of a conceptual foundation. This is all about execution, and the distance between ‘People dance around in a snowball shower’ and the finished ad is like the distance between a Cadbury’s Creme Egg and a Fabergé Egg.

So is the idea ever important? Well, Good Things Come To Those Who Wait, Mac vs PC, Beware Of Things Made In October and Write The Future make very effectively the argument that it is. But Burberry, Flat Eric and Whassup are equally powerful on the ‘no idea’ side of things.

So why don’t we just get it out in the open? Sometimes advertising ideas matter, and sometimes they don’t. It’s OK not to bother with a solid concept, but if you have one, great. No biggie either way.

But idea-wise, what really does matter are the thousands of little creative contributions that happen between brain and reality. Let’s stick with the Burberry example: many, many ideas happened even after someone suggested dancing around in the snow would demonstrate the fearless spirit and imagination one displays when pushing boundaries. What kind of street? How many models? What size snowballs? When do they fall? What are the dance moves? Who goes where? Who should shoot it? Who would be a good DOP? 

And those are just the basics. You’ll then have: which lens do we shoot with? How heavy should the greens be in the grade? Should we shave three frames off the end of that shot or that one? Four frames? Five? Back to three again? How far should we roll up the second dancer’s cuffs? What expression should the dancer at the back have at 1:23.06 seconds? Should the camera move this far to the left? Another inch? Three inches? Three feet?

And even then there will be another thousand questions that pivot from those answers, but you get the idea. (Yes, I said ‘idea’. That was deliberate.)

So many ideas happened to improve this ad, and yet there was no discernible ‘Watford’ idea underneath it all. Then they made something similarly idea-less a year later and it was just as loved:

And it was all in the execution. So Hugh and Graham were right. Kind of.

I remember having a conversation with a colleague ten years ago. He had come up with an idea for a story and he asked me if there were people who would write a book or script based on that idea. He wanted to be an ‘ideas’ guy, who just thought up basic premises, which he would then pass on to a supposed executor.

I told him that if there was something like that I was not aware of it. Sure, there are staff writers, or people who accept commissions from studios (‘We just bought the rights to this biography of Marilyn Monroe. We’ll pay you X to write the script’), but that’s not the same as ‘I just had an idea for a story. Could you spend weeks/months writing it on the off-chance someone will like it enough to buy it?’ For a start, most executional writers have their own ideas for stories, ones that they would be happy to spend hours getting just right. In addition, great ideas are so easy to find, here are 100 of them, left on my blog eight years ago by a commenter, who said ‘Shit ideas are ten a penny. The problem is, so are good ideas’.

The example I always give is, if I came up to you in 1990 and said, ‘I’ve had this idea for a book about a theme park with real dinosaurs that are brought to life by adapting and developing their genetic coding’, would you have thought, ‘Well that sounds like a massive bestseller that will become the highest-grossing film of all time’? Probably not. You’d want to see what the characters were like, how exciting the plot could be, what kind of dinosaurs there were, etc.

I could even say that a man parks his car outside a bank, and that would still require answers to questions like, what kind of car? What kind of bank? What is the man wearing? What is the weather like? Are there any passers-by? How old are they? What city are we in? What year did this take place? Any one of your answers could make the scene better or worse.

So execution is a very large proportion, of the final work.

Which brings me to the second thing Graham said: that we never really give a client any idea that is above 8/10, and usually more like a 6 or 7. And that means that’s the level of what you tell your partner, or your CD. I can tell you for sure that paragraphs of ideas are not particularly helpful. At best they can get someone to say, ‘OK, write it into a script and show me what you mean. Stress test it’. Then, in some form of execution, it can be judged with greater clarity.

There are thousands of rejected ideas for Happiness Is A Cigar Called Hamlet, Good Things Come To Those Who Wait, and Mac vs PC. There is a smaller number of ads that got made, then binned because the execution didn’t live up to people’s expectations of the idea. There are also great ideas, executed to everyone’s satisfaction that then appeared before a public that did not not give a toss. At every step of the process you are dealing with subjective interpretations of ‘funny’, ‘quick’, ‘irreverent’, ‘cool’ and hundreds of other abstract notions. The idea just gets you to the next stage of execution, where it can get better, worse or stay about the same.

Imagine you saw the script for Guinness Surfer. Could you have executed it with the same brilliance as Tom and Walt, Jonathan Glazer, Johnnie Burn, Ivan Bird etc.? Part of the buy-in from the Guinness client must have been the track record of the agency, especially the creative department. Otherwise they’d be looking at a few paragraphs about a surfer waiting for a perfect wave, and have no idea (there’s that word again) if it was going to be worth committing a giant budget to its execution.

The idea stage is where you can change anything for tuppence (your chargeable hourly rate notwithstanding). Changes in commitment are equally cheap and insignificant. A chat over a pint of beer can lead to a joke that doubles the quality of the script. Ten more ideas can appear between lunch and home time. A client’s feedback can alter the whole thing, or be argued with until the idea is better, worse or dead. Then you just go again, for no more than your hourly rate. The idea stage is where you can watch a short film to pass the time and decide that, with the addition of your client’s logo, what you are watching could be the ‘idea’.

But execution is where the rubber hits the road. It’s where the real money is spent. It’s where the commitments are made from which you cannot return. It’s what takes the most time. It’s where specialists form a team that elevates something invisible to something tangible. It’s where you can make something great or something shit, no matter whether your ‘idea’ is great or shit. 

Let’s not say one is better or worse, or more or less noble than the other. The idea is necessary to get to the execution, but the execution is absolutely necessary to make the idea any good.