Take a Gut Check in Your Next Creative Meeting

May 21, 2021

The following article by Amber Chenevert is PhD, group director, strategy & insights and culture studio lead at VMLY&R, was published by Adweek. Click here to read the article on Adweek's website.

Have you ever had that feeling of dread deep down inside that warns you something’s not right, even if you can’t put your finger on it?

That’s the Ick—that feeling in your gut when you’re in a creative meeting and wonder if what’s being presented could be perceived as the greatest idea known to (wo)man or so off-putting that your brand will surely go up in flames and die by the end of next quarter.

According to Psychology Today, there’s growing evidence that your gut serves as a second brain. There’s an entire ecosystem of bacteria and a vast neural network operating in our guts, giving our brains more coded fight or flight signals than we realized.

Throughout our careers, we’ve been taught to ignore that icky tinge—to trust logic rather than feelings. We’re told we’re paranoid, that all our feelings are where good ideas go to die. We’ve become so data-driven that we’ve forgotten our gut is important too. We need to balance data with gut to make better decisions.

Here’s what the Ick could be telling you, and what you can do about it.

Déjà vu

You might be looking at an idea during a presentation that gives you flashbacks to a meeting gone wrong. Trust that feeling, but don’t be the idea killer. Address what went sideways in a previous meeting with creative brief-related questions that could steer the idea in the right direction. If it’s been done before, determine if there’s an innovative spin you can take that’s a wink and a nod to your customers. While it might be true that there’s nothing new under the sun, considering a thoughtful remix is always a good idea.

Misalignment

Is the message you’re sending in line with what customers value and their relationship with the brand? Perhaps the Ick is signaling you to consider—or reconsider—your customer. If that happens, go back to the brief. The key insight may be buried. If you’re missing it, then your customer will, too. The brief is the foundation of the promise you intend to fulfill as a brand.

Not working

Can you look at an idea and confidently say that the tone or expression is wrong for the brand? Are you thinking the idea doesn’t move the brand forward, or worse, it could take the brand backward?
When it comes to brands, we must take care of immediate business needs while setting the brand up to withstand the test of time. Ideas should evolve brands, not take them off track. Make sure the brand values, mission and vision represent the brand’s current and future state, which makes creative easier to judge.

Competitive edge

Does the idea go after competitors in ways you can’t defend? Does it take your customers’ values and beliefs for granted? In either case, your competitor can swoop in like a hero and steal your share, which you may never get back. The marketplace is as competitive as ever. With lower cost of entry for competitors and easy, direct communication with your customers, it can literally pay dividends to take a second look.

Misunderstanding

Have you ever seen slang used in creative and thought to yourself, “I don’t think that means what you think that means.” Or maybe you’ve seen an icky creative use of cultural icons like religious artifacts, symbols or mascots with controversial histories. Don’t wonder without acting. Investigate. If you don’t have a mechanism internally to check on such issues, research the issue using credible sources. You’ll be amazed how much credibility you can gain through a simple web search. Many universities have great public resources for such investigations.

Overall, great ideas should withstand the team’s critique. To do this, we have to create a gut-friendly environment. It’s not only essential that you listen to your gut, but also that you enable psychological safety within your team to create a place where others feel empowered to speak up and know they will be listened to and not judged. Recognize the power of difference on teams, whether it’s background or personality. Double-check on your introverted team members. Teams multiply our experiences to get to better, less icky work. Trust your team, empower those around you—and trust the Ick.