Kill your darlings.
William Faulkner, one of the greatest writers in the English language, when talking about writing once said, ‘You must kill all your darlings.’
I’ve often heard this quote misunderstood as meaning that we should learn to let things go. But Faulkner meant something far more imperative.
I had a tutor in art school who, if we were struggling with a particular part of a painting, would give us a pot of white paint and a wide brush and make us paint out all the parts we thought were working until only the problem area remained. ‘Now start again from here.’ he would say.
This is closer to what Faulkner was talking about. It’s not just that you must be able to kill your darlings but that you should kill them. Being too in love with an idea will bias all your decisions about it and hinder serious consideration of alternatives. Just because it’s your favourite, doesn’t mean it’s the best.
Translated for the world of client/agency relationships: when preparing work to present to clients, beware of falling in love with one of your own ideas so much that you will be upset when it gets thrown off the table.
Granted, we all have to feel passionate about what we do, but go for a Friday afternoon drink with a bunch of creatives, anywhere in the world, listen in to their tales of work-woe and sooner or later someone will always say ‘clients never pick the best ideas.’ Everyone’s bottom draw is full of ‘wonderful’ work that never saw the light of day in the real world.
Good ideas should never be wasted because ‘good’ should be the stuff that works. All the rest is collateral.
If you are going into a presentation with one idea that you love above all others, consider these two possibilities:
The other ideas are not good enough.
You love that idea for the wrong reasons.
For an idea to really work it may be required to stand up against a whole range of criteria beyond the cute, clever and aesthetically satisfying, in which we tend to find instant gratification. That’s why you should always be suspicious of your first, best idea. Your star option may be blinding you with its perfect loveliness and not allowing you to hold it up to all the complex and often highly nuanced factors that will require it to actually do its job and solve a problem.
Client-siders are not immune to this problem. They need to practice regular bouts of darling-killing like the rest of us. I have often seen clients fall in love with ideas early on then pressure the agency to shoe-horn practicalities into something that is clearly not going to work. In the music industry we used to call it 'demo love'.
Your best protection against ‘darling-love’ is to regard all early ideas as potential cannon-fodder. Don’t develop any one idea until you have considered many others. Preferably develop several ideas at once and all to the same level. If you come across an idea that straight away you just can’t wait to start working on, put it to the bottom of the pile or better still, tear it up and bin it.
If the best ideas are the ones that work, there is little value in stuff that looks good in your portfolio but never sees the light of day in the real world. The only people who care about this work — and your sob story to go with it — are other creatives. And they don’t pay your wages.
This is why we need to be consistently vigilant and suspicious of our darlings. They distract us from the real cause.
We are all susceptible and the occasional illicit love affair will always happen. You may on occasion find yourself perversely denying your warm feelings for a particular idea just to try, with Brer Rabbit logic, to spare it from the slaughter.
In this situation, remember something else the great man Faulkner also said – ‘Unless you're ashamed of yourself now and then, you're not honest.’
Kate Leury Nielsen, 2010