The secrets to massive idea generation

Welcome to the second article in KW2’s Creative Management series, made to help in-house managers and supervisors get effective creative work from their content, social media, advertising and marketing teams. Check out the first article in this series, The Secrets to Leading Teams to Creative Success. Andy’s final article will focus on how to make good work even better.

“The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” - Linus Pauling, one of only four people to win the Nobel Prize twice

Oh, the forgettability

Remember the last ad you saw? Yeah, me neither. Too much creative output simply blends into the woodwork. With the volume of messages we’re all exposed to the output of social media teams, content marketers and advertisers has to be very, very good to avoid being forgettable, ignorable wallpaper.

Punching through vanilla forgettability and creating meaningful engagement starts with having a strong, interesting and unique idea. Social media, content, ads—they all need to connect with audiences by having something relevant to say in a surprising, memorable way.

The (not-so-secret) secret: combining

I highly encourage you to blow five bucks on the book A Technique for Producing IdeasBuy it for your whole team. We did. The great ad legend Keith Reinhard of DDB has given away hundreds of copies. And Bill Bernbach, one of the greatest copywriters ever, wrote the forward, saying, “It is a tribute to him (Young) that such scientific greats as Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein have written similarly on this subject.”

This super short, timeless read makes generating heaps of ideas easier. Ad guy James Webb Young breaks down becoming an idea machine into five 6th-grader-simple steps. And the key to it all is combining two preexisting ideas. Lots of combining.

Here’s how I’ve interpreted his methodology over three decades of creating ideas for advertising and digital communications:

1. Make lists of bits

Selling a product or service? Need a concept? Write down as many general and specific features and benefits as you can. Make a list. Make the inputs short bits of info. Here’s an example of “bits” for a tagline assignment I had for a regional craft brewer:

  • Small batches                  
  • Reinheitsgebot                  .
  • German style beer
  • Little brewery                            
  • Brewed in Monroe, WI     
  • German bremaster
  • Super drinkable               
  • German brewmaster       
  • Regional distribution
  • German history               
  • Chicago history               
  • Craft beer quality

(Pro Tip: Use a notebook for this process. You’ll migrate your lists and combinations eventually to a digital format, but using a pen on paper to begin liberates thinking.)

2. Force connections

Next, combine bits and randomly force bits together to see new relationships. Is there anything to combining Chicago and Monroe, or by combining the concepts of small and German? Just review and write down associations, connections and combinations. You’re not looking for big “eureka” moments at this point. You simply want to hustle your way to new, even nonsensical, combinations of idea bits. Resist the urge to edit yourself.

3. Relax

Walk away. Stop. Do something else. Take a walk. Go to bed. The point is to give your brain a break from thinking about combinations, because even when you focus on something else, the backside of your brain will still be working on those lists.

4. Get back at it

You may not have to force combining of bits on your list. A great combination may just hit you. The key is to be ready. A great combination can hit you in the shower, while driving, while grabbing a bite to eat. Conversely, you may be on deadline. In that case, sit down with someone on your team to go back to your lists and get a fresh perspective. Regardless, revisiting your lists and writing down fresh combinations will lead to new thinking and possibilities. Push it.

5. Pick and polish

If you haven’t had the “a-ha” moment yet, it’s time to narrow down your best bits and review them. You might have 100 combinations of bits at this point. Review your assignment criteria. What idea combinations meet your objectives best? What idea is the best springboard for originality and differentiation? What are the most original ideas? Get it down to ten. Then three. Polish the three finalists. Push them around, expanding and contracting the ideas. Bounce the three ideas off a trusted source, as ideas can improve and grow with great input from the right person.

I used this process to create Berghoff’s tagline, Drink a Little Beer. It was right after craft brewing from smaller regional brewers took off, and it perfectly captured Berghoff’s position as the quality smaller brewer that makes quality small-batch craft beer. 

How do you know? 

Evaluating your team’s ideas to determine if you have the best, most effective one is your job as the creative manager. These criteria will help you shake out the best of the best.

The idea is on brand

It reflects your brand equities and guidelines, staying in the lane of authenticity that you’re continually building with your brand.

The idea is surprising and meaningful

The first job of any communication is to interrupt someone in a channel so they’ll stop, engage with the piece, remember it and act upon it. Having surprising or deeply relevant images and headlines will help set the hook

The idea is differentiating

Einstein said, “If at first the idea is not absurd, there is no hope for it.” Make sure you're pushing for and approving work that does something different, which means you’re paving some new path by being arresting, or a little shocking, or drop-dead funny, or gut-wrenching or even out there. With all the distraction in our lives, our work is doomed for inaction if it’s doing nothing new. Smart guy, right?

The idea sells

We’re communicators, sure, but we’re also on the front line of sales. Your communications need to ensure a clear action that will easily allow customers to buy your product or service.

The idea’s the thing

It’s simple: the way to revenue-driving, game-changing ideas is to start with a lot of ideas. To find creative success with a Facebook one-off, a launch campaign, a thirty-second radio ad or a six-week digital buy, the idea is the thing.

What are the essential creative management skills you rely on most? KW2’s President and Executive Creative Director Andy Wallman, would love to hear your thoughts. An experienced creative leader with over 30 years of invention and success in creativity and advertising, he’s on a mission to improve every point where creativity and business intersect. Email him at andy@kw2madison.com