In the bottom drawer

Ben CoulsonRejected ideas don’t die, they just end up in the bottom drawer and may one day resurface, as the creatives who spoke to Matt Smith explain in a feature that first appeared in Encore.

Ben Coulson has an extra reason to get along to AFL games these days. While for most the excitement of the sport is enough of a thrill, currently showing on the screen during the breaks in play is an ad celebrating the uniqueness of the game accompanied by the blare of AC/DC.

For Coulson, the chief creative officer of Y&R Australia/New Zealand, the ad represents the hard-earned triumph of an idea that was a failed pitch for six years. Each year for those six years, Coulson presented the idea of people around the world watching a completely foreign sport to the AFL. All it took was one yes to get it made.

“I was really proud of the idea, and every year the AFL knocked me back for different reasons,” he says. “It wasn’t their focus one year, it wasn’t logistically possible the next. It went through more changes until finally the stars aligned, and it all came together for this season.”

For Coulson, the pitch was worth pursuing despite the setbacks. “A great pitch, whether you win or lose, is one that you absolutely freakin’ love,” he says. “You need to walk away proud of your effort no matter what.”

Many creatives have a drawer full of abandoned ideas, some that never get past a note on a page, others that make it to the pitch process but fail, and a few that go even further, being resurrected in years to come.

The creatives Encore spoke to say the pitch process creates great ideas that are often rejected but there’s always a hope that one day an old idea might find a new home. One creative declined to comment on the topic after recently getting a concept up four years after it had been abandoned. Others were reluctant to share tales of specific ideas in the hopes they might one day be salvaged. However some creatives are against the idea of saving concepts. Executive creative director of McCann, John Mescall, says ideas should be specific to just one client or brand. He says: “If you can attach a pitch to any number of brands, then it isn’t really a great idea. It’s true that a good idea will always live, but it needs to be specific to that client.”

“I tend not to have a huge bottom drawer, it feels like it would be cheating,” Mescall says. “Sometimes I’ll come up with an idea while working with something and it’s not right for that brief, and you keep it because it’d be awesome for something else. But recycling ideas isn’t going to work, and I can count the times I have done it on one hand.”

Those willing to reveal the ideas that got away say often a lack of budget on the client’s behalf banished a great concept to the bottom drawer.

Creative director of ArdentDigital, Joe Smith, had a cracking idea six years ago when he was with Nine Pixels, the commercial creative arm of ninemsn.

Smith says: “It was around the time of the relaunch of the Wide World of Sports. There was access to a vast archive of sports footage that could only be used as news clips or in a truncated fashion. I had an idea that there could be a competition where we provide the footage and the public provides the voiceover commentary. They could dub it through their mobile phones, and the audio is uploaded and automatically mixed in the backend. It was easy for them, and they could interact within their licensing. It didn’t go ahead due to funding, as the backend would have taken a couple of weeks of development time that the client didn’t want to spend.”

Smith never returned to the idea, but hopes that others can. “I feel that with the volume of bad parodies, dubbing and lip synching on YouTube, that the idea is right for now. There are bigger ideas I’m still hoping to pull off that I won’t share.”

Budget limitations have also been an issue during the pitching process for Paul Swann, creative partner of The Works, Sydney.

He says: “We thought we had a fantastic idea in the lead-up to the world cup. In Australia, most of the games take place during the night, so why not make a Nike Hotel where hardcore football fans could sleep during the day and watch games all night.”

Despite the idea being well received, it was ultimately turned down due to scale and budgeting.

For Tom Spicer, executive creative director of Arnold Furnace, the idea he left behind was an ambitious plan to help whisky giant Jack Daniel’s launch their newest label. “The Jack Daniel’s brand is all about family, so my idea was a competition with the winner being officially adopted into the Jack Daniel’s family. Not just as an honorary, but name change, certificate and everything,” says Spicer. “It didn’t fly because Jack Daniel’s didn’t want to focus so heavily on family, but more on the product itself.”

While the tongue-in-cheek effort didn’t get picked up, to Spicer it’s all part of the thrill. “I’m a big fan of pitches, but as a creative, 90 per cent of the work you do never goes go anywhere. You’ve got to do what you do because you believe in it, not because it’s going to run.”

The bottom drawer isn’t strictly an advertising creative’s domain. Writer, actor and producer Robyn Butler has, together with her husband Wayne Hope, created comedies such as The Librarians and Very Small Business for the ABC. Their new show, Upper Middle Bogan, will screen on ABC1 later this year. Butler has an entire shelf in her house dedicated to abandoned ideas.

She says: “Back in 2000 we developed a show called Renovating People!, an eight-part half-hour black comedy in which a team of incompetent, damaged celebrities went in and renovated a person over the weekend. I’ve got very nice rejection letters from ABC, SBS, Channel 10 and Channel 7 saying that it wasn’t what they were looking for. They were nervous that the concept wouldn’t last.” Yet Butler hasn’t forgotten the idea and has stashed it on the shelf. “You never discard what you’ve written, it turns up in another form later on,” she says.
Encore issue 12

This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit for a preview of the app or click below to download.


  1. Meg
    7 May 13
    4:23 pm

  2. “John Mescall, says ideas should be specific to just one client or brand. He says: “If you can attach a pitch to any number of brands, then it isn’t really a great idea. It’s true that a good idea will always live, but it needs to be specific to that client.”

    Couldn’t agree more with John on this – and a client can usually smell when an old idea is being retrofitted to their brief.

  3. Dumb ways to comment
    8 May 13
    5:31 pm

  4. Well John, you’d better tell McDonalds their James Dean spot was wrong.

  5. Ummmm
    9 May 13
    6:52 am

  6. @ Meg Did John Mescall really say that? Dumb Ways to Die could have been for any number of clients – pedestrian safety, mobile phone us in cars, the list goes on.

  7. John Mescall
    13 May 13
    10:38 pm

  8. @ 6.52 and 5.31, yes you will sometimes create an idea to a brief which, after the fact, could be applicable to a number of other challenges. Let’s face it, there aren’t that many different briefs in the world.

    But to clarify, my point is that you don’t start with your bottom drawer, and try to retrofit an existing solution. Of course, as in the case of the James Dean spot, that can still work… but it doesn’t mean it’s generally the most responsible course of action.

  9. 5:31
    15 May 13
    12:26 pm

  10. John
    No-one said ‘the bottom drawer’ was the most responsible place to start.