Taking creative risks: is it worth it?

what is it that is so damn scary out there? what is it that has people so paralyzed?

We’d all like to think we’re risk-takers. Maybe not the reckless, devil-may-care sort, but people who aren’t afraid to — as Robert Frost put it — take the road less traveled.


Who doesn’t want to believe that you’d run with The Big Idea when you see it, or that you’d take a pass on conventional wisdom when truly original thinking is on the table?

The fact is, most of us are more risk-averse than we tell ourselves, especially at work. It makes sense. Making a bold decision can pay off big, but it can also backfire. Plus, we’re only now clawing our way back from the worst recession in generations, which makes a job — any job — a pretty valuable property. It’s understandable that few people have the appetite to stick their necks out when simple survival is the safer move.

A slew of recent articles have chronicled the bunker mentality that’s pervading a workforce traumatized by cutbacks and downsizings. Yet they’ve also noted the efforts of a few forward-looking corporate leaders who have worked to encourage more chance-taking and innovation among their people. In a March 20, 2013 piece, The Wall Street Journal reported on Jim Donald of Extended Stay America going so far as to give his 9,000 employees “Get Out of Jail Free” cards, which they could redeem — no questions asked — when and if they took a big risk for the company.

For most of us, there’s no “Get Out of Jail Free” card. But that shouldn’t stop us from pushing the boundaries and seeking out the roads less traveled. In our business advertising and marketing communications — big ideas and out-of-the-box thinking are the coins of the realm. Even so, it can be convenient to give the client only what they think they want. And it’s easy for the client to green-light just those concepts they find the most familiar and comfortable.

When the opposite happens, however when someone decides a risk is worth a potential reward — the results can be spectacular. The key is making a calculated risk. When it comes to evaluating a creative execution, we work with clients to carefully weigh the potential benefits of speaking in an original way against the potential perils of pushing brand standards to the breaking point. Then we collaborate to decide if it’s worth the chance. It’s okay, desirable even, if creative is bold or unexpected, as long as it aligns with a defined strategic objective.

I’m put in the position of approving or throwing out concepts every day. When I evaluate the creative that’s put in front of me — especially creative that takes an approach I hadn’t anticipated — I ask myself these questions:


That last one is a personal preference, but it also says something about the nature of risk in marketing communications. Sometimes the thing that surprises you, upends your preconceptions and makes you a little uncomfortable is exactly the right thing to do. If it evokes a strong emotional response in you, it’s likely to do the same in others.

Almost all the things in our lives that now seem inevitable started off as risky propositions, from the products and services we take for granted to the bar-raising communications that have helped turn unknown brands into household names. Big ideas are almost never safe ideas.

But being brave doesn’t have to mean being reckless, especially when you know your business and know your customer. The willingness to accept risk is about having the drive to succeed and the nerve to give new, courageous ideas the space and support they need to propel your business forward.