“I don’t know where big ideas come from. I just pray they never stop coming.” I heard a partner of mine say that once. But it could have come from any creative I know.
In advertising agencies, marketing firms, digital agencies, design studios and corporate offices, much is made of coming up with the big idea, but not enough is written about how it’s actually accomplished. Ask any creative person, be they writer, artist, composer, or designer, and they’ll tell you there is nothing more liberating – or terrifying – than a blank page, or an empty screen. And yet that is where every great idea begins. This blog is about how to get from that nothingness, to something transcendent.
Conceptually, everyone in advertising and marketing understands what it means to brainstorm ideas. But knowing what it is and knowing how to do it, are two different things. It’s the difference between knowing how physics make flight possible and having the ability to actually fly a jet.
The ability to imagine and develop great ideas is a mix of talent, training, process, magic and sheer will. And yes, some people are just better at coming up with ideas than others. For some, that’s just their gift. If it’s not yours, that doesn’t mean you’re stuck. You can get better. You just have to understand the one secret that makes idea generation possible.
ALL BIG IDEAS BEGIN WITH THE SAME SECRET
If you want to master the art of idea generation, there is one secret you have to understand: it’s all about connecting the dots.
Ideas work when they resonate with the person receiving them. Whether it’s a commercial, a song, a story, or a piece of art, no one will notice it unless it connects with something inside them.
- You love dogs? You’ll notice a commercial with a family of dogs driving a car.
- You love funky jazz? You’ll notice a review of the new Snarky Puppy album.
- You love thrillers? You’ll notice when Gillian Flynn, or Greg Iles drops a new book.
- You love street art? You’ll notice when a Banksy painting is in the news.
People connect to what they recognize. That’s why ad agencies work so hard to create focused, strategic creative briefs and “ideal customer” personas with detail down to what our target wears, watches and listens to; what she does in her spare time; and where she lives.
Once we understand the strategy behind the communication and who we are talking to, we can craft communication with tailored words and images that go off like flares for the people we’re trying to reach. Smart, interesting ideas connect with people. Big ideas are the ones that connect with everyone.
The question, is how do we find them?
FIVE EASY STEPS FOR CONNECTING THE DOTS
Assuming you’ve got a strategic direction and know who you’re talking to, here are five easy steps that can add some structure to your brainstorm and help you come up with lots of big ideas.
For the sake of this exercise, consider these details:
We’re trying to sell a better, healthier brand of “gourmet” dog food called BARK!
Our target is dog lovers who would do anything to make their dogs happy including paying more for better dog food.
The medium is television.
With those three things, you have everything you need to concept great ideas. All you have to do is connect the dots!
STEP 1 – IDENTIFY THE BUILDING BLOCKS
In our scenario, what subjects do we have to play with? Dogs, Food, Dog Lovers, Gourmet, Healthy, Quality. What else?
STEP 2 – MAKE A LIST OF WORDS ASSOCIATED WITH EACH SUBJECT
Once you identify your core group of subjects, list all the words you can think of that are associated with each one. Take Dogs – you have all the different breeds and all the different dog show groups like Working, Toy, Herding and Hound. You have the physical characteristics of dogs like fur, wagging tails and wet noses. You have famous Dogs. Funny dog names. Dog toys. Write down everything. Get it out of your head. When you are finished with Dogs, move on to Food and Dog Lovers and Gourmet and Healthy and do the same thing. (This step is particularly helpful for print and outdoor concepts)
STEP 3 – MAKE A LIST OF ACTIONS ASSOCIATED WITH EACH SUBJECT
With your lists of words, you have passive descriptions of your subjects. Now, it’s time to consider those same subjects in action. What behaviors do dogs exhibit? What do they do that’s funny, or endearing? Think about all the great dog stories you know – Old Yeller, White Fang, Benji, Beethoven, Where The Red Fern Grows – and the action scenes that made them great. Likewise, what are some action scenarios surrounding food? Is it being made at home? At a restaurant? For a special occasion? What behaviors do dog lovers exhibit? Baby talk? Treating their dog better than their spouse? Keeping scrapbooks with all of puppy’s milestones? (This step is particularly helpful for TV and radio concepts.)
STEP 4 – LOOK FOR INTERESTING CONNECTIONS
Once you have your pages of observations about each subject, start looking for interesting points of intersection. (FYI – your brain started this process the second you read the assignment). Consider how one subject might interact in another subject’s setting. Experiment with a technique called, “overlaying.” What if you imposed the conventions from one context onto another just to see what that might look like? For instance, dogs exist in their own universe and gourmet food exists in the universe of fancy restaurants. (Suspension of judgement is strongly encouraged at this point.) What would happen if you overlayed the two and dogs were suddenly eating food in a gourmet restaurant? Remember, at this point you’re looking for ideas, not executions. What is a conceptual framework you can use to create a TV campaign that will evoke an emotional response from our prospective customers? For our scenario, let’s use the idea that “BARK gourmet dog food is so good it belongs in a restaurant.”
STEP 5 – PRESSURE TEST YOUR IDEA WITH EXECUTIONS
If you want to know whether you’ve got a big idea or not, start working on executions. If the idea can support dozens of executions and even foster idea offspring, you’re probably on to something big. The greatest strength of the GEICO campaigns from the last decade is that each campaign idea was strong enough and simple enough to support dozens of individual executions based on the same theme. David Ogilvy once noted, “Big ideas are usually simple ideas.” He was absolutely right. The more complicated your idea, the more difficult it will be to find executions that fit it.
In this exercise, our idea is, “Dog food good enough for a restaurant.” Now it’s time to think about executions for communicating that message. We could have dogs literally eating in a gourmet restaurant like humans, doing things humans would do in restaurants. The kitchen staff would be Working dogs. Herding dogs for the waitstaff. A cute Toy dog could serve as hostess. Or, maybe we pull the secret coffee trick and serve BARK! to unsuspecting people in a restaurant. Or, maybe we literally create a pop-up restaurant for dogs in a cool urban setting somewhere, generate buzz and show the product in action.
At this point, there are any number of directions we could go conceptually. But that’s only because we set the wheels in motion with steps one through four. The only other option is sitting and waiting for lightning to strike. The literal odds of that are 1 in 3000 in your lifetime. And when you’re grinding for big ideas, the likelihood of ever thinking of a great idea again doesn’t feel a whole lot better.
Aristotle once noted, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” The key to great thinking is finding the conceptual tools and processes that work for you and trusting them to work every time.
This five-step process is by no means the only way to develop big ideas. Or, even the best way. But it’s one we use methodically because it works. And, you get better with practice. For those who are curious and constantly read, watch, listen, taste, experience and fill their heads with knowledge, it generates a lot of possibilities. It works for a lot of us. And I hope it might help you too in your quest to find big ideas.
TINA TACKETT is the Executive Creative Director at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top ad agency in Dallas. For more about challenger branding, read other posts from our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog
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