Idea Alchemy - Recipes For Success

After recently completing my first semester of adjunct teaching at the University of Central Florida's Nicholson School of Communication, I realized that I personally learned a great many things while teaching others.

First and foremost is that today’s youth aren’t as hardwired as I expected to pursue and adapt the latest technology. I was surprised to see that fewer kids than I anticipated were attached to a social channel. Facebook was the primary platform of choice for social communication, and a few students selected personalized channels such as Instagram or Pinterest. Additionally, I was surprised that more kids were not putting their arms around these channels to get a foot in the door for their upcoming career.

Not only are social media channels a fantastic way to communicate to employers, but also they give you an alternative resource platform to find, research and prepare.

It shocked me to learn that four years of higher education did little to prepare my students for developing conceptual ideas. It stands to reason when you're embracing the idea of advertising, marketing, PR and other initiatives that schools would develop base platforms for constructing concepts. Perhaps this was a bit of a foregone conclusion for me because I went to an art school that took the time to drill in the ideas of foundational principles such as color theory, tone, fonts, layout, emotional context, storytelling and others as best practices to craft a piece of artwork. Though they did almost nothing to prepare me for real-world negotiations and business practices.

Knowing how to develop concepts should be a prerequisite for anyone entering the industry. Therefore, I’m appointing myself as the official online tutor for everyone who needs an orientation or refresher. It’s like you have been invited into the nucleus of an advertising agency during the concept period. We don't simply sit in a room and shout out great idea after great idea. Jesus – if that’s what it took, I think I would be out of a job.

Diving into ideation is by no means a trivial journey. It takes bravery, humility, and most of all the willingness to listen to alternative suggestions outside your own. You need dozens; maybe HUNDREDS of ideas out on the table before you can sift through the creative rubble and find the stone you want to polish.

Let’s imagine you are responsible for developing a campaign to promote the launch of an electric car. Where do you start? 

Big Pond:

Start by e-mailing everyone in your office to find out if they have any background in the automotive industry. And if that mousy girl in accounting pipes up – be sure to include her in the concept meetings. You are missing untold conceptual resources inside your company because they are not in the "creative department." Shame on you. Great ideas come from everywhere and everyone.


One of the first and easiest things you can do is perform a “popcorn session.” This is done with a white board in a group setting. Start by writing down a small idea, question or talking point such as: “What motivates people to buy an electric car?” or “Why do internal combustion engines suck?” Assign a couple people to write down answers from the group on the board. Then attack the issue! Get everyone to yell out any and all words, quotes, ideas or associated thoughts and emotions that apply to the question or goal written on the board. Write down everything. This is a fast and furious moment during which you should be getting a ton of unrelated data – or popcorn. 

Usually when you have exhausted all ideas and the last unpopped kernels are quivering in the bottom of the circus wagon corn popper, your board should look like a shotgun blast of a word cloud. Take a moment to digest all of the data. More often than not you will immediately zero in on the good ideas. Document them. Look for word associations, interesting parallels and tactical applications that can be used in a thought-provoking way. This exercise takes practice. I suggest you do it two or three times for your first round. It will be aggravating. But the better you get, the more fruitful these sessions will be.

Creative Caves:

Create an area in your office where you can comfortably conceptualize. Some tools to have on hand include lots of white and colored paper, pencils, crayons, markers, glue and related objects such as Legos, squishy balls (I know I just said squishy balls), Play-Doh and any other toys related to the idea of conceptualizing around the client. So in this case you want Matchbox and Hot Wheel cars, a couple RC vehicles and other transportation-related toys. This room should ideally have an endless supply of whiteboards in every direction.


Document everything. And remember the No. 1 Rule for Creative Sessions from Uncle Justice:  There are no bad ideas. Even if it's a quick, transient thought that is unrelated, it came about in the context of ruminating over the directive.  Therefore, you should write it down. Take photos of all dry erase boards, and scan all drawings and notes. If anyone built a kick-ass monster truck out of Legos, take a photo of it as well. If nothing else, it will look good in the year-end slideshow at the company Christmas party.

Saturation and Digestion:

In the book, "A Technique for Producing Ideas: The Classic on Creative Thinking" (available from Amazon), James Young eloquently outlines a simple yet highly effective technique for developing ideas. 

SIDEBAR: Buy this book immediately because it is a very easy read and only a few pages. Once you've read it, give it to somebody else. It's unbelievably beneficial.

That being said, the core of the idea is to saturate yourself with as much intensive data as you can think of when it comes to the goal at hand. But in lieu of beating a dead horse, Young advocates that you should retain the data and digest it over a period of time, and do something unrelated outside of the confines of the concept session.

Go see a movie, give it a day, research other factors related to the core concept or just actively pursue an alternative line of thinking. Since you are working on a car campaign, maybe go out as a team and race go-karts for the afternoon. Or have beers and watch a Formula 1 race on TV. That way you have the automotive theme in the back of your mind, but you aren’t actively thinking about the campaign. The outcome, lo and behold, will be a growing set of fresh ideas and perspectives on the original concept.

Anyone worth their salt in marketing will know that hours and hours inside of a “war room” often produce initial concepts, but there is a point of diminishing returns. Let some time pass while those initial ideas simmer in everyone’s subconscious. Then your next session will render a better campaign/product. 

Stop Building Train Tracks:

In this day and age with so many channels that interconnect our marketing messages, we have a tendency to think we must deliberately connect all of the social touch points with the traditional tactics and push it all to a website to make the bitch work!

This is what I refer to as, “The Safe Play.” This deployment will render average results. But who wants average?  It's not good enough anymore to just double, or triple your ROI. Clients are bathed in media that tells them the right tactic will skyrocket their messaging to countless consumers.

So at some point you need to grow a pair and determine a spot between calculated risk and insanity.

It’s fine to have an interconnected thread between social channels and environments that are consistent with the brand, but tactically they do not necessarily all have to march in step. So as you're developing your concepts, start to think about what can be deployed uniquely against a channel. Only then should you attempt to figure out how it falls back into your social graph.

Addendum: One last idea to go with these options is "mind mapping."

"A mind map is often created around a single word or text, placed in the center, to which associated ideas, words and concepts are added. Major categories radiate from a central node, and lesser categories are sub-branches of larger branches. Categories can represent wordsideas, tasks, or other items related to a central key word or idea.

Mindmaps can be drawn by hand, either as "rough notes" during a lecture or meeting, for example, or as higher quality pictures when more time is available. An example of a rough mind map is illustrated."

I find (interestingly enough) this is a great way for developers and creative to work together. The interrelation to items within a concepts make more sense with they have defined linear connectivity. I often find that, over time, and define iconography keys and redundant concepts that this can manifest ideas quickly and effectively.

Have a technique to share? How do you create ideas? What are your secrets? Let's share!

Posted on January 16, 2013 and filed under Design, Process, Strategy.