In the late 1950s, David Ogilvy was brought in to pitch for the advertising business of the Rayon Manufacturers Association.
Each agency was given exactly 15 minutes to make their case. Once the time was up, the committee would ring a bell and bring in the next agency.
The client had brought 12 people to the presentations, so Ogilvy asked how many of them would be involved in making the final decision.
“Why, all of us,” was the response.
So, Ogilvy asked, if his agency won the business, how many of the committee members would be involved in approving the final advertising his agency created?
All 12 of them, he was told, representing the 12 manufacturers.
“Ring the bell,” Ogilvy said, and walked out.
He built a reputation around his feelings about committees, and he once paraphrased G. K. Chesterton by writing, “Search all the parks in all your cities; you'll find no statues of committees.”
Now, some of this was purely ego—this was a man who bought and lived in a castle he couldn’t afford—but much of it was a certain type of wisdom.
Marketers especially, but really any type of expert, often have to get our ideas approved by committees, groups, or boards.
That might be a board of directors, an industry association, a management team, or government officials.
Or it might be the influencers and stakeholders your customers require some sort of buy-in from, like their spouse, their coworkers and managers, or their peers.
In any of these cases, we run into the usual problem: Everyone on a committee or in a group has their own opinion and their own mark they want to make.
This typically leads to what Howard Gossage called “disimprovement,” or each committee member “making things worse by trying to make them better.”
It’s become a strange speciality of mine, though, to be able to get groups to agree, and to help my clients get buy-in from necessary influencers and stakeholders.
I work to solve the root problem: letting decisions come down to preference and opinions in the first place.
We’ll always struggle to get groups to approve our recommendations as long as we have no other basis of argument than appeals to our own authority, experience, or expertise.
And our clients and customers will struggle to get their stakeholders to agree with them as long as they’re arguing from a basis of their own preference or feelings.
That’s why my first goal when working with a group is to anchor their feedback around a guiding principle, a rule on which everyone agrees.
I get everyone to agree that our goal is not to please the committee, but to do what’s likely to work for our true audience—our customers, our users, our constituents—based on what needs to be true and the evidence at hand.
For my clients, I advise them to get their customers’ stakeholders—such as managers, partners, and peers—to agree on what they’re trying to accomplish, such as saving money, increasing happiness, or being more productive.
Most members of the group will have no problem taking that pledge, as it’s the obvious objective.
Next, I remind the group that we are not the audience.
As Claude C. Hopkins wrote, “We must never judge humanity by ourselves. The things we want, the things we like, may appeal to a small minority. The losses occasioned … by venturing on personal preference would easily pay the national debt.”
We’re communicating to, working with, or attempting to influence, people who are not us, who do not know what we know, and who do not have the context we have.
That means, before we do anything, we have to understand what they need, know, and understand.
So before venturing on any specific recommendations, the next step is to get the committee, or clients with skeptical stakeholders, to determine or agree to what needs to be true for them to get what they truly want.
We need to establish who it is that they’re talking to, working with, or influencing, in particular.
We need to agree on what they specifically want them to do.
And we need to assess how they’re uniquely able to get them to do that, based on their organization’s strengths, weaknesses, and structure.
Then, we build consensus around where and when the target audience has the problem they’re trying to solve, or is in a state where they might be receptive to messages or instructions.
When getting committees to agree, I often create a flowchart with our measurable metric for success stated clearly and succinctly at the top. That might be “More sales,” “User sign-ups,” “Policy compliance,” or any other objective that the committee has agreed to.
Then, I detail everything that would have to happen, in sequence, to get there, all the way down until we get to the people they’re trying to influence.
The flowchart steps through engagement with their messages, feedback loops for measurement and adjustment, awareness of their organization, channel selection and prioritization, message development, audience selection, and everything in between.
I then develop the necessary structure for working back up through the flowchart, one step at a time, as efficiently as possible. Starting from the ideal audience target, what would have to happen, sequentially, for the committee to achieve its objective.
Only then would I start developing the specific actions or tactics I recommend using—like advertising messages we want the audience to see or the proposals we want them to agree to.
Now, when the specific actions or tactics are presented to the committee, as a group we can feel confident that it’s likely to work, based on the evidence and based on what would need to be true for it to succeed.
And the committee has already agreed, one step at a time, to each component.
That lets me explain why adding a superfluous phrase to the advertisement, targeting too many people at once, making the logo arbitrarily bigger, or diluting the marketing with too many messages is likely to inhibit our ability to get what we want, because it takes us off the track we’ve agreed on.
That approach is more formal and hands-on than when helping a client get approval from their customers’ influencers and stakeholders. In those cases, I advise them to create an easily explainable process that walks through how what they’re selling accomplishes the core customer objective, step-by-step.
For instance, if you’re selling a luxury good and you need your customers’ family members to agree that it’s a good purchase, your website should demonstrate and illustrate the process behind creating your product or experience.
It should show them, step-by-step, what went into it, and why the choices you’ve made are more likely to get the end user what they’re looking for—like increased satisfaction, joy, or status in their community.
Or if you’re a technology provider, and your customer needs to convince their boss that you’re a good business to work with, make sure your marketing materials are extremely explicit about your process. What went into the decisions you’ve made that make you the ideal partner to help them accomplish their objective?
As long as they are able to agree on the core objective, all you need to do is demonstrate how the decisions you’ve made will take them there.
This can feel time-consuming and unnecessary—shouldn’t everyone just trust that I’m the expert and that I know what I’m doing?
No, because the truth of the matter is that expertise and value are in the eye of the beholder.
Following a process, explaining it in detail, and having logical arguments for why we believe what we believe is far more effective than making an appeal to our own authority.
And as Chris Voss pointed out in Never Split the Difference, making statements and arguments that get your audience to say, “That’s right,” are far more effective than “You’re right.”
Plus, it ensures that we do actually know what we’re talking about, instead of having merely convinced ourselves that we know best. As Jack Trout and Al Ries put it, “If you think you need the best product to win a marketing battle, then it's easy to believe you have the best product.”
So if you’re struggling to get your marketing, your technology recommendations, your organizational changes, your products, or your expert advice approved by a group or committee, it’s likely that you’re trying to sway opinion, rather than explaining your viewpoint from a shared perspective about reality.
There will always be someone on the committee that already agrees with you, and your prospective customer may already be bought-in. But if you or they rely on the opinions of others, you need more than emotion and enthusiasm to get you what you want.
You need a strategy—a structure—to build consensus and agreement.
At the end of the day, it’s better to get what we want by working with people where they are, than to fail because we didn’t think we should have had to put in the extra effort.
Of course, sometimes you’ll have people who insist on making their mark on your work, adding in unnecessary details or changes, or simply providing onerous input for the sake of having an opinion, no matter how structured your thinking or your process.
In those cases, “ring the bell,” and walk away.