Saturday, May 02, 2009


So often in advertising we talk about "the big idea." It's the traditional brainstorm session kickoff question: What's the big idea? What is the concept that's going to sell this product or service? What is the angle here? How are we going to get noticed? What's going to make people say, "Aha! I totally get it...that's cool"?

In my experience, the big idea always starts out as a page or two of small ideas. Silly ideas. Stupid ideas. Ridiculous ideas that "they'll never go for." One of those ideas, of course, becomes the big idea.

I've always been the idea guy. Working at small creative agencies my whole career, I've been responsible for coming up with thousands of ideas. Television and radio concepts. Dimensional direct mail campaigns. One-off print ads. Outdoor campaigns. Promotional themes. Interactive presentations. Communications and contact strategies.

Most of my ideas were never executed. That's just the way it works. And the ones that ARE executed are seldom the best ones - at least in my humble opinion. But that doesn't matter so long as clients are pleased with the creative product, and that they work - driving awareness, interest, desire, and action. It is all about client satisfaction, after all. In that sense, the "best" idea is the one the client buys.

When a good idea doesn't work, it's seldom the fault of the creative. It's usually under-funded, watered down, or paired with a poor list. A lot of clients don't understand that about creative marketing. Just because you have a great idea doesn't mean it's going to work. It needs to be supported financially. That means spending the money to have it professionally produced and properly promoted. The integrity of the concept needs to be protected. That means resisting the urge to make sweeping, often unnecessary changes that compromise the appeal and effectiveness of the idea. And a good idea needs to be paired with sound marketing data. That means having a clean customer list, a solid media strategy, and/or the benefit of current market research to give your good idea a great chance to connect with your top prospects.

Coming up with a big idea can take 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days, or 5 weeks. It's hard to provide a reliable estimate since it's impossible to know how long it will take. When I'm about to start a project, people ask me, "So, when do you think we'll have something to look at?" The answer, of course, is sometime between now and never. I usually error on the side of now. It's better for business. But clients always want a firm date, so I give them one as a stake in the ground. Still, it's important to recognize that building ideas is not like building a deck. You're not assembling material pieces in the physical world. You're trying to herd thoughts as they run wild in your imagination. It's not like picking up lumber at Home Depot.

If the stars align properly, I may just stumble upon something brilliant before lunch. If my creativity is blocked, on the other hand, it could be a few days before I have anything to share. That's the nature of the work. I always have something, though. Even if I know it's not the world's greatest concept, I know it will be effective. And that's the line we have to walk sometimes: profitability in the creative department is often the difference between good and good enough.

Which is tough for me because I'm a perfectionist. At least when it comes to creative ideas. I am never satisfied with my concepts and usually spend way more time than the budget allows for in concept creation development. Creative thinking is the fun part, and I like presenting options. My approach is to come up with as many ideas as I can instead of focusing in on one or two. I've found that it's not safe to get attached a couple of ideas - you need to start with a handful of solid possibilities and let the cream rise to the top. Plus, you need to pump out a few mediocre concepts before you can get to the really good stuff.

The final phase is collaboration. This is where you gather people in a room (or on the phone) to brainstorm. We talk ideas. We discuss options. We consider alternatives. We play things out in our minds. We vote. We marry concepts. We eliminate the impossible and the ridiculous. We vote again. The collaboration process eventually gives birth to what will become the big idea. It is still an infant at this stage. It needs nourishment and a lot of attention. But before you know it, there it is: the big idea.

If you ever need a big idea, I recommend starting with a page or two of small ideas. Silly. Stupid. Ridiculous. This is where big ideas begin, planted small in the fertile fields of an endless concept garden.