People say that ideas are the life blood of the industry. We all have ideas, but those ideas are only worth something if you can get someone to pay you for them. As Steve Jobs observed: ‘Real artists ship’. The challenge we face every day is trying to decide which ideas our customers are most likely to buy.
In my world, the products are animated shows, but the process of what we choose to develop is probably similar to a lot of other creative mediums – at least that we’re all governed by the need to make a profit. Less than one in 200 shows actually make a profit, so we have to try to reduce the odds in favour of ideas which can hit the holy grail of a return on investment.
Often the selection is based on criteria that have little to do with creative merit: is the idea from a freelancer or an existing published book, and if so how much of the IP will we own? Has a show like this been done before? More and more, the determining factor is if it can be merchandised. Does the show contain suitable characters which could become toys? Might a publisher want to create spin-off books from it? Could it be a computer game? However, all of these aspects are ultimately pointless if nobody is looking for your idea.
You need to check market demand. In our case, we review broadcaster commissioning websites to see if our idea is ‘what they’re looking for at the moment’ – is it in vogue? If it’s not then it’s generally back to the drawing board.
However, when all’s said and done we’re creatives working in a creative industry and so when that one brilliant idea appears all of these sensible business rules go out the window! That’s what we did with Jungle Junction, a hit we created for the Disney Channel. Nobody wanted the show but we believed in it. It may have taken about eight years to sell but now it’s broadcast in 150 countries and, yes, the merchandise is selling!
I wouldn’t recommend following a gut instinct very often, because it’s a major risk to both your finances and your reputation. It comes down to being stubborn I suppose, and fortunately I was in the position of owning an animation company where I could just plough on with my idea. I was going to run with that idea regardless of any advice. It was a case of ‘you’re all wrong and I’m right!’
After you decide you’re going to go for an idea, the next stage is to develop a prototype. It’s important to remember what you’re doing this for. This stage is about determining whether the product will work. In animation, we write a script and develop some character models. This normally gives me a clue as to whether my idea might work but the process will also set you back about eight grand.
After that level of commitment, you may be seduced into thinking it’s too late to back out at that stage, but you need to be brutal as this is your last chance to scrap an idea before the whole process becomes phenomenally expensive. On the upside, if like me you ploughed on with an idea despite protest then it’s normally the point when others might start to go, ‘oh, OK maybe he was right.’ Sweet vindication!
Once the idea has developed a tangible shape and built some general support, it’s probably best to go check with a proper, suited professional customer/commissioner for their reaction. Seeking out the views of your potential clients is a good idea and is something I wouldn’t go without. We have found it much better to only ever take our ideas to one client, however, because art is so subjective, 20 potential clients will no doubt give you 20 conflicting opinions. Your head goes in to a spin!
So the process of refining an idea – ensuring it is fit for market, financially viable and, if not, scrapping it – is a long one. Your raw creative is weighed against business decisions and while this
creates the best chance for your product to succeed I don’t know if it necessarily creates the best product. It’s a tricky dilemma. The best creative comes when someone sticks to their guns and produces something completely out there. Problem is, 99 per cent of those brilliant ideas will never make it.
It’s a decision that you’ll have to make early on – do I risk it or create a product designed to market? Despite their being no correct answer your choice will likely come to define your agency, if not make or break it altogether.
If you haven’t heard of Spider Eye then there’s a chance your children will have, as having worked on Horrid Henry and Jungle Junction the team are now a staple of Saturday morning TV.
Illustrated by Sneaky Raccoon
- One Thing I Know