Don Draper, the iconic ad man from the TV show “Mad Men”, once gave this advice to his protégé, Peggy Olsen:
“Peggy, just think about it deeply. Then forget it. And an idea will jump up in your face.”
If you’re familiar with the show, you know there are many times when genius, client-dazzling, creative concepts seem to “jump up” in the face of various characters, seemingly without a lot of methodology behind them. And while these revelatory moments aren’t completely impossible, the fact remains that we, in the real world, are asked to generate ideas too often and too fast. We can’t wait on a random bolt of lightning to save the day.
So how do we accomplish this? How do we, as creative professionals, harness ideas that break through and create an emotional bond with our audience when the clock is always ticking?
An idea in and of itself is a bit ethereal. If you work at a rock quarry you might be asked to move a pile of rocks from point A to point B—a task that’s fairly cut and dried. You’ll know the job’s done when all of the rocks have arrived at point B. Idea generation is a less tangible undertaking and the path to get there can be equally difficult to define. Nevertheless, there are some important things to consider when coming up with ideas for our clients.
1. Always start with a creative brief. This document, developed collaboratively by you and your client, is the lifeblood of any creative project. By asking and answering a series of questions related to objectives, it defines what success looks like, who we’re talking to, what we’re trying to say and the tone with which we need to say it. A brief sets a trajectory that both the creative team and the client can hold themselves accountable to throughout the life of a project.
2. Feed yourself. Be aware of what’s going on in the marketing world. This can take on several forms, but a simple thing to do is visit websites like Communication Arts and Graphis on a daily basis. These sites contain some of the top creative work from around the world. When you come across a poster, print ad or social video you like, don’t just enjoy it and move on. Dig into what made it great. Perhaps you can even reverse-engineer the end product back to the creative brief. Who is this ad targeting? What’s the one persuasive thought this ad is conveying? When you find those paths, apply them to your personal brainstorming.
3. Write your ideas down. As we stated before, an idea isn’t an easy thing to pin down and it certainly doesn’t adhere to normal business hours. You might be walking your dog, having dinner or shooting basketball in your driveway when a thought strikes you. Be prepared to record it. Obviously, this documents your idea for later, but it also helps you get over another psychological hurdle—holding onto it. As human beings, sharing our thoughts can make us vulnerable. Writing your idea down (or typing/speaking it into a note-taking app) is an exercise in letting go.
4. Follow the “Rule of 50.” When I was in art school, students had to generate at least 50 thumbnail sketches before moving on to any sort of computer design. This exercise helped students realize the partnership that exists between concept and execution. Execution of a weak concept will fall flat, as will poor execution of a strong concept. When you have the discipline to push past your initial ideas, you create a better foundation on which to build your creative product.
5. Start small. Clients are always asking for big ideas. Sometimes, to get to that big idea, you have to start as small as you possibly can—with a single word. Read through your creative brief a couple of times. When you’re finished, write whatever word is in your head. Then write the next word that comes to mind—then the next, then the next.
Refer back to your brief. Read about the target audience. Write another word down and repeat the process again. Pretty soon, what was once a blank page will have become threads of thoughts and ideas that can be interwoven. The tapestry is created when we connect the client’s message and audience.
6. Walk. Sometimes the best way to get your brain moving is to start with your legs. In 2014, a Stanford University study revealed that walking boosted creativity by 60% over sitting. This is partially due to the fact that movement reduces stress and enhances focus. In fact, throughout history many great minds such as Tchaikovsky, Einstein and Jobs have relied on walking to harness their brainpower.
7. Leave something for your subconscious to do. Your mind is always working. So if you’ve been laboring over a creative challenge for a while, step away and do something else. Your subconscious will continue working on it. Go to sleep and Mr. Subconscious will still be at it. That’s why it’s not unusual to find a renewed sense of clarity after you’ve been away from the assignment for a while. It wasn’t a lightning strike. It was your subconscious.
8. Live your life. We live in a country that is addicted to work. Being glued to your email or laptop is seen as a badge of honor. But if you don’t ever experience life—being with friends, enjoying meals with your family, going to baseball games, etc.—you’re never going to be able to effectively reflect those feelings to any audience when you’re “on the clock.” Work/life balance is essential if you want to be an effective creative communicator.
It’s safe to say we can add “ideation” to the list of things that aren’t nearly as easy as portrayed on television. The strategies listed above aren’t guaranteed to be so creatively potent that they bring grown men to tears in a pitch meeting (another Mad Men conceit we’ll never live up to). They can, however, illuminate a path that guides our left brains to better, more breakthrough work.
Sean Williams is the creative director for Finn Partners Southeast.