Saturday, May 27, 2006

Ideas - from a trickle to a flow


Some thoughts, from personal experience, on making ideas happen more easily


In the “good old days” of advertising, the whole process was carried out in a leisurely fashion.

I remember vividly having a week to 10 days to gently mull over a brief before I even had to show a single idea to anyone.

Then, once I’d calmly talked it over with my Creative Director, I’d quite possibly have another four or five days to hone and polish my little communication gems.

So, where did it all go wrong?

Well, I believe that isn’t the question so much as: what’s changed?

Obviously, the rise of the internet/email and mobile phone technology have vastly sped up our ability to communicate and increased clients’ expectations of how quickly we can respond to their requests.

In parallel, profit margins have shrunk so it’s simply less financially viable for most agencies to spend luxurious amounts of time on individual jobs.

Which is all very well and good, but what about those of us who haven’t committed suicide or gone off to open up a postcard shop in the Outer Hebrides?

What about the people who’d still like to believe that advertising is a fun and fulfilling way to earn a crust?

What hope is there?

Well I believe it’s this – for agencies who are fleet of foot and develop smarter and more efficient ways of coming up with ideas, the future looks very promising.


As a young somewhat cloistered Catholic-raised lad, I was amazed when I first entered a friend’s Orthodox Jewish household.

There I found, everything to do with meat and everything to do with dairy products were kept entirely separate.

They had two different sets of plates.

Two different sets of cutlery.

Even two different dishwashers.

Erm…I am actually going somewhere with this. I’ve since discovered, in a very real way, that there are two sides to the creative brain and they should be kept every bit as separate as my Jewish mate’s steak knife and cheeseboard. On the following pages, I will explain a bit more about this theory of mine and how I’ve put it into practice.


To me, this is the best way to start the creative process. This is where you (hopefully) come up with loads of ideas and where you activate the lateral thinking/brainstorming part of your brain.

I find it really useful to have a place set aside for this part of the process. What works for me is coffee shops – neutral, slightly buzzy places with a gentle hum of non-intrusive conversation.

When I’m about to start on one of these idea sessions, I find it useful to set aside any preconceptions about the outcome.

If I go into it thinking “we’ve got come up with something really brilliant or ”let’s do something like (insert name of award-winning ad here)” I guarantee I’ll freeze up quicker than a car engine in Alaska. I find myself sitting there tensed up, having rejected any idea that isn’t brilliant to the point where I end having no ideas at all.

So to kick off I prefer to start from a point of – ‘let’s sit down, try out a few ideas and see what happens.’ By not imposing any preconceived notions of outcome I find it frees up my thinking.

Then, the important thing to do is get yourself into the right emotional state. Someone once summed up the ideal state for coming up with ideas as – O-A-R – which stands for Open, Alert and Relaxed. And I certainly found that when I‘m closest to being in this state is when I’m best able to come up with ideas.

Now, to get cracking on the actual job. Imagine that you’re sitting in front of a rolodex that is full of creative possibilities and you’re just flipping through it. You’re just exploring options not necessarily looking to find a conclusion more trying out different things.

Remember though, you need to execute each idea you come up with - I usually find by doing around three press ad executions. It allows you to see the idea on paper and start to explore it without getting too wedded to it. But don’t stress about the executions – just put down the first three evocations of any idea that you come up with.

The way to get through the rolodex successfully is to use role play. Enable yourself to get into different frames of mind.

Try ‘alternating strategies’, like this:

You’ve had an idea that’s predominantly words based.

Try a route that’s predominantly visual.

You’ve done something that’s soft and emotional.

Try something that is based around a strong call to action,

There’s one mantra that should be going through your head while you’re doing this: “what else is there?” it’s a way of reminding yourself that you’re not trying to settle on one idea, you’re merely exploring options.

So. ”what else is there?”

Try a route that’s based on your client’s company philosophy.

Create a route in the style of an agency you admire.

Create a route in a medium you haven’t been asked to explore.

Create a route that’s extremely well-branded.

There’s one rule of the rolodex – when you have flipped through all the possibilities you can think of – walk away. In the same way that you wouldn’t carry on endlessly spinning through a rolodex once you’d exhausted all its options, don’t bang your head against a brick wall trying to come up with solutions when you’re mind has grown tired of the problem. You can always give yourself a break and go back to it. The rolodex is all about creating flow – when it becomes painful or a struggle either park it and come back to it or take your ideas in their rough form and go on to:


For the second part of this process you should ideally be in a totally different frame of mind. Predominantly by activating the left hand, more analytical side of your brain. This is the part of the process where you begin to engage your inner critic, your inner creative director and really start to exercise your creative judgement.

To begin with, you should be in a totally different environment from your rolodexing location. Ideally, somewhere with a big clear space, floor or desk where you can spread out all your initial thoughts.

Again, you could involve role play in this. Spread all the work out and do this – pretend it’s not your work. Pretend you have no emotional involvement in it and have nothing to prove by any of it being bought or sold. The object is to approach your rolodex ideas with a cold and impartial eye.

Be ruthless (after all, they’re not ‘your ideas.’)

Ask all the questions you’ve avoided asking up till now.

Is the work on brief?

Is it challenging?

Would it stand out in the sector? (A good idea is to look at it in a room filled with competitive work.)

Would it make people buy stuff?

Is it motivating?

Is it compelling?

Are you proud enough of the work to tell your mates in the industry about it?

Does it really move the brand forward?

Would it make the client famous?

Would it win you awards?

If you do it properly and you’re not viewing it through the distorting lens of your ego, it’s interesting how clearly you can view your own work. You’ll also find that you’re better able to add to and progress the ideas when you’re not trying to protect what you’ve done already.

Once you/your Creative Director have decided on the most productive angle, simply stay in the finesse mode. Interrogate the route and make sure you start to come up with executions that really match your expectations of your initial idea.


To creep up on your subconscious and surprise yourself.

To come up ideas that you wouldn’t have come up with initially and to end up with an eventual outcome that’s robust and well thought through.

It’s all about getting both sides of your brain to work as efficiently as possible by giving them clearly defined roles.

This process is not:

a) Infallible (no process is - it may work brilliantly for you it may nor work at all.)

b) A surefire way of winning awards.

It’s simply something I’ve arrived at through a process of trial and error.

I’ve tried many different ways of working over the years. Banging my head against a brick wall, working all the hours God sends, torturing myself, getting drunk, ODing on caffeine and generally suffering for my art.

The way of working I’ve described here has not only made me more productive but it’s done so without being ruinous to my health.

I hope it helps you.