When you sign up to be in the marketing business, you become two people:  a data wonk and a creative Svengali, able to conjure genius ideas on a whim.

My problem is that my creative self is more like a character in the novel Peyton Place:  “Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all…”

This winter, she abandoned me entirely.  And with her went my confidence in selling new ideas.  It forced me to break the rules.  In the process, I discovered a new way to sell which I want to share with you.

Here’s what happened.

After completing a successful campaign for George Soros’s philanthropy to help heighten public interest in privacy, I sat down to work on a smallish piece of business for a repeat client.  I created a brief for what I thought was a bulletproof concept.  The earth shook when I presented it to the client’s team and faced blank stares.

Demoralized, I gathered the team’s feedback and went home to retrace my steps.  I wrote the client and suggested we take a fresh approach, and invited her to my studio for a working lunch.

I was breaking a taboo.

There’s an unwritten rule in the agency world that it’s a bad idea to involve the client in the creative process.  Consider also that classic sales training treats selling as a predatory activity.  Prospects are prey.  Sales people are hunters.  This attitude is not only cynical, but it gets in the way of forging authentic emotional bonds many of us need to do breakthrough work.

When my client arrived, a miracle happened.  I was struck mute.  In other words, I felt no urge to pitch my ideas.  Instead, I invited her in to what we call the “Sweat Lodge,” the room where we cover the walls with images and inspirations for the brand that form the strategy.  Indeed, I showed her how the sausage is made.

Over sandwiches, we talked about the projects she was working on and her challenges with social media.  While describing one experiment that ended badly, I sensed her isolation.  “It sounds like you want to gain more buy-in from colleagues for some of these tactics.”  She brightened.  We sorted out which risks seemed worth taking and hatched a plan to reengage her team.

In closing, we agreed on a much bigger project.  My experiment worked.  So here’s my oddball advice:  If this economy has sapped you of confidence to sell your ideas, consider breaking a rule.  Skittish?  Start here:

1.  Keep things relaxed. People remember more about how you make them feel than anything you say.  Your aim is to make an emotional connection that arises from the ideas you hatch together, which in my experience is the ultimate bond.  Meet across a table covered with butcher paper.  Set out markers, even crayons, signaling that it’s okay to be playful.  Working shoulder to shoulder as you sketch out the problem or map new ideas lends an air of collegiality to the process.

2.  Give buyers “focused” autonomy. Prepare a few key questions in advance to get the person talking.  This is not forced rapport.  It’s less important to ask if they have children and more important to know what new projects or opportunities they’re attacking.

3.  Listen with your soul. This approach won’t work unless you listen, really listen, and maintain unwavering eye contact.  In an age of interruption, eye contact lavishes people with a scarce commodity—rapt attention.  As you listen, glean hints about ways you might be helpful.   “Sounds like you want to leverage your research into something more than whitepapers.”  Then ask them what they envision to actively engage their imaginations.

4.  Become a “happy loser.” It’s a term coined by renowned psychoanalyst Clotaire Rapaille who works with big corporations including P&G and IBM on psycho-social dynamics of persuasion.  Rapaille discovered that great sales people are psychologically wired to see rejection as a challenge.  They don’t try to avoid rejection.  Nor do they equate it with failure.  Instead, they see it as a natural process of refinement.  Eventually, it leads to a deeper understanding of the market’s needs and ultimately success.

If you’re feeling stuck, empower your inner deviant.  See what happens.  It may lead to more business than you ever imagined.


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