It's a myth that great ideas just pop out of your head. If that's how you're hoping to come up with the idea for your ad or brand-communication campaign, you could be waiting a long time.
The excruciating reality is that those effortless "eureka!" moments we fantasize about are rare indeed. Almost always, it's a tough slog to come up with creative ideas that work. Such ideas tend to emerge from an approach driven by real limitations and ruthless discipline.
Oh sure, the idea may pop out of your head...eventually. But only after your head has been squeezed by a plethora of often-contradictory requirements and blue-sky aspirations—all while you're facing crushing deadlines.
The key to overcoming this challenge is to adopt a consistent and disciplined routine. Your first order of business, as I wrote about in my previous column, is to develop a creative brief. This vital document acts as the roadmap to, and yardstick for, your great ideas. Everyone who's at the brainstorming sessions must come prepared to talk about the brief. The brief outlines the challenge you need to solve, and as your brainstorming group comes up with ideas, you can run them by the brief to see how they measure up.
Next, you need to enlist the folks who should join you in the idea-generating space. Assemble a group of people who care about the challenge at hand and who may have already shared some thoughts with you about how new advertising ideas will help grow the business.
Now, where will you and your team do the idea generating? Try a place such as your boardroom, if you have one, or another spot free of distractions. Have plenty of fresh water on hand, but avoid sugary, starchy or fatty treats; they tend to make people sluggish. Great ideas are born of focus and stamina.
One key standard is time. Set a time for your session and enforce it by insisting that everyone shows up promptly. Start the session as close as possible to the pre-arranged time so everyone grasps that this is serious business—not just some gabfest. And set an end time so people become accustomed to the discipline of deadlines.
Another important factor is getting the ideas down on paper, a whiteboard or in a smartphone snapshot. Among the most discouraging outcomes of a brainstorming session is overlooking a good idea because no one took the time to document it.
Let everyone see the ideas and keep them up there as other ideas emerge. Look for themes in the ideas the group is tossing around. Jotting ideas down on large Post-it Notes can be useful to help arrange ideas into thematic groups. This can also be helpful when it comes to assigning an idea to someone for further development: simply copy the idea and hand them the note.
Here's a crucial point: don't be afraid to debate passionately the ideas that emerge, as long as everyone discusses the merit of the idea rather than attacking each other's intellect. That can be hard because there you need to accept the following key truth:
There Are Bad Ideas in Brainstorming
A persistent myth about brainstorming sessions is that there are no bad ideas in them. Wrong. Most of what you'll come up with will be lame. But you have to be careful not to be overly critical or personal in your comments or reactions to ideas.
One of the most grown-up approaches involves the language used in the session.
Whoever is moderating should set an example by avoiding phrases such as "Your idea stinks!", "What could you be thinking?" or "Are you insane?" and telling the group to follow suit. Urge participants to use non-personal language such as "That idea has some merit, but it sounds a bit off strategy", "That idea may be difficult to execute given our budget and timeframe" or "That's a good start. How can we evolve that idea on this key issue in the brief?"
It's essential to be ruthless about whether an idea will accomplish the objective set out in the brief, while at the same time ensuring that people still feel involved and encouraged.
Remember, your mission is to get a breakthrough idea that fully meets the requirements of the brief and kicks ass out in the real world. You're not there to beat up on each other if the going gets tough. But if the group is coming up with nothing but lame ideas, it might be wise to revisit the brief and see whether what you're trying to accomplish is feasible given who you are as a company and what you sell.
If this all seems to be in order, press on. The tough part is about to kick in: knowing a good idea when you see it.
The Truth Will Set You Free
Creating advertising ideas that work to achieve your brand objectives demands that you communicate the promises your firm can and will keep over the long term. Unlike lying, which is a short-term approach, working from the truth of your firm's core values lasts for a long time.
It's always challenging to judge whether an idea, whether generated in-house or by an outside agency, is any good. Even research can fail you, and often does. That's another reason to keep your eyes firmly on what is true about your business so you can leverage its positive attributes over the long term.
Look for ideas based on the key values and brand truths that define your firm's offer to the marketplace. Let's say you run an IT-services company that maintains local area networks for your customers and offers same-day, on-site service from qualified professionals. Creating ads that communicate the problem of not having network service when you need it most might sound smart, but that would be a "category play." In other words, you'd be advertising the need for your services in a generic way that supports the IT-services industry in general. A more compelling approach would be to employ actual case studies that illustrate how your firm delivers excellent service to real clients in real time.
Look for the truth in the ideas that come up in your session and how well that truth might come alive in the creative approach. An advertising idea should command your target audience's attention long enough for them to fully grasp the idea or, at the very least, intrigue them enough to explore the idea further online, in store or wherever. If the idea does not deliver against that unflinching yardstick, scrap it.
Sooner or later, the combination of a smart routine, perfected through repetition, conditioning and professional discipline, will yield the kernel of genius you are seeking. It will capture the truth of your offering. It will command attention. It will work!
Just don't be surprised if it's a lot of hard work, because it's supposed to be.
Wayne S. Roberts is president and chief creative officer of Blade Creative Branding, a firm specializing in strategic branding, creative advertising and innovative online solutions
More columns by Wayne S. Roberts