Do you ever wonder how creatives at ad agencies come up with new ideas on a daily basis? What type of brainstorming processes do they use to stay relevant to attract the viewers’ attention? At its heart, this overused buzz term is essentially that really focused, results-driven sister to daydreaming. Brainstorming generates ideas, challenges conventions, and brings about new perspectives to the status quo.
This is usually the best part of the design thinking process. Everyone involved in the project gets together to harness their diverse viewpoints, knowledge, and interpretation of the research. The team is one supercharged brain of collective intelligence. Now it’s time to unleash their ideas through a structured and repeatable process that drives creative thinking around your users to create more value for your company. Successful sessions should produce multiple options to look at, and from those, you will be able to select a few for further exploration.
While it might seem logical to jump right into brainstorming when presented with a new problem or challenge, the pro’s know you can’t start the game until you’ve warmed up. This is why we’ve talked about How To Start Journey Mapping and Understanding Users Through Interviews in previous articles because they lay the groundwork in your mind to prime it for idea generation. You have probably noticed that when you are Journey Mapping or conducting Interviews, ideas have already started flowing. Now is the time to focus those ideas and harness them into truly productive thoughts that can go on to become viable concepts.
If you have the right research groundwork laid out, brainstorming becomes the Goldilocks equation of creative thought; too early in a project and the ideas are underdeveloped and uninformed, too late in a project and momentum has stalled or information is stale and the world has moved on. Unfortunately, too many executives and founders rush into execution with what seems to be the easiest solution in hand without brainstorming based on the collected knowledge that can guide ideas and flag potential pitfalls.
Starting at Zen
Clear your mind, block out the distractions and focus on your breath. Buddha taught about the philosophy of Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action. This is the ultimate goal of every marketer, so how can we take this and apply it to brainstorming? It’s all about using the right mix, processes, and structure to generate user-focused, research-backed ideas and prevent the whole exercise from becoming a potential idea bacchanal.
Only those involved and immersed in the research and data should be in the room, at the start. If there are stakeholders who will eventually need to sign off on part or all of the project, or you need them to support an idea, bring them in later on in the process so that you establish the right conditions for the later stage idea refinements that come along. This will also give them a chance to have personal involvement in the idea generation so if they need to sell it up the chain, they now have a personal stake in it.
In advertising, we would normally have three to ten people involved – usually the Account Director, Art Director, and Copywriter. Then Strategic Planners, Media Planners, Creative Directors, Production Managers, and other creative teams would join as needed and based on the scope of the project. For small businesses and startups, it’s best to rely on the company leadership to drive the process.
It is also possible to conduct a session with a few wild cards thrown in. Customers, impartial third-parties, the accounting division… anyone that the team has identified who could provide additional value based on their experiences. Cross-pollination can produce wonderful ideas, the key is to keep the group small. Get a large group together and it becomes a party with ideas flying everywhere and eventually the goals of the session end up passed out next to a keg.
Agencies usually have small, whiteboard walled rooms for brainstorming specifically to keep the groups small because they know that multiple small group sessions produce more value than one big group in one session.
Before the group starts, everyone needs to agree on two principals. First is, ‘what are we solving?’ Second is that everyone adopts the mindset of a creator, not a critic.
Everyone should know why they’re there, so agreeing on ‘what are we solving’ should be pretty obvious. But with a brainstorm, our minds get pulled all over the place. Writing the goal at the top of the page will ground the session, and help anchor thinking. This is a good time to write or post key elements from the creative brief, or problem at hand as well. These little management aids can help the team refocus their thinking when they inevitably get pulled down a rabbit hole.
No tearing down of ideas, only structured blue sky thinking is allowed. This is all about turning the little critic inside each of us off, and only listening to the dreamer. In this case, the educated, goal-oriented dreamer. To help keep this on track, simple ground rules should be applied to everyone:
- Don’t judge
- One speaker at a time
- If you see a good idea, build on it
- Everyone is equal
- Show sketches, mind maps, whatever
- Don’t engage in oneupmanship
- Have fun
Rewarding courage is one of the most important approaches in creative brainstorming. Encourage your team to take big leaps with their ideas. If it sounds crazy, it just might work. So don’t be scared of thinking beyond the norm, foster the right type of courage in your team so they are comfortable pushing their perceived boundaries. This could just spark your company’s next big thing.
If only we could jet away to live with our users and brainstorm around their lives. So in place of that, it’s best to create an environment that has all the right stimuli to elicit new ideas from the team.
When you’re preparing for the session, not only is it good to have key lines from interviews, completed Journey Maps and vision boards lining the walls, it is important to have designed the right framework for the session as well. This includes using the right triggers to spark ideas, but keep them within the right box. Basically, this is structured blue sky thinking. Good triggers define the box you’re working within and they focus energies to a specific area.
Building triggers off of ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions can help free your mind, then pad it with the right structure to effectively generate successful new concepts. To help build out effective triggers, consider trying some or all of the following approaches:
- Use catalyzing quotes or stories
- Challenge assumptions
- Push the boundaries
- Switch roles between team members
- Look at trends
- Put yourself in the user’s shoes
- Think to the future, then look back
The session is almost ready. Now is time to prep for your role as the session leader by figuring out how to effectively run it. Keeping everyone motivated, confident and on time are the critical functions of the leader, but the actual tactics for how the session is run is up to you too.
Steve Jobs had a famous technique that was derived from what his friend Lee Clow, the legendary Creative Director at TBWA, Apple’s longtime advertising agency. Everyone in the session would fill the walls with great ideas within a set timeframe. When the time was up, all but three ideas were taken down and the process was repeated. Again, all but the three strongest ideas survived on the wall. After five sessions, the ideas left standing lived to leave the session and move to concept development. This is the technique the team here at Method uses primarily, all taught to us in our junior years in the big agencies.
Quick detour to talk about Apple, Jobs took this process one step further, and it’s not for the faint of heart. When the session was done, and the teams went off to develop the concept and then ultimately the product, he was known for outright rejecting the final product when it was presented. He would send his teams back to the brainstorming session stage and restart, throwing out everything they had done before. If it wasn’t for this process, the first iPod would have looked like the Zune, and if you’re asking what is a Zune, that just shows how well that product was designed.
Back to our brainstorming process, we’ve just completed five rounds of ideation. The first round tosses out the low hanging fruit that has kicked around the team’s heads for a while. Once the clutter is gone, then new ideas start to form. Once the easy new ideas are out, the team is now really thinking through the triggers, the research (stimulus in the room) and goal(s) to dig deeper, not being satisfied with the easy answers. By the time the team has mined their minds, the ideas generated will have depth, backed by knowledge and will be unique AF.
This approach can be done out loud, with one writer recording the ideas on whiteboard walls, chart paper, sticky pad, index cards, whatever can be stuck to a wall that everyone can easily read (ie: use markers and write LARGE). Or it can be done in a quieter version where everyone has their own marker and index cards and they write out ideas within a couple of minutes per round. The main goal is the collaborative conversation that is generated once the ideas are on the wall and the team is able to build upon them.
Using this proven tactic builds the team’s confidence in one another and ensures that the one loud extravert doesn’t end up dominating the process. It has the effect of breeding competition between team members that gets the creative ideas flowing from some of the most unlikely places.
The last consideration in managing a brainstorm session is the timing. Keeping everyone on pace, keeping momentum and staying on track. You’re essentially a creative referee for your team monitoring the time between rounds so people don’t get burned out trying to generate new ideas. If the session runs too long it can have a negative effect causing people to feel anxious and ultimately releasing their inner critic. Switching between quiet and loud rounds can keep stimulation up, as can changing the view. Literally, switch rooms or go outside for fresh air halfway through the session can provide a much-needed shot of creativity to the process.
Mental fatigue will inevitably arrive, but if you’re prepared for it through savvy management you can keep it at bay longer and help foster some really incredible ideas.
At this point, you and your team have generated 50, 100, 200+ possible ideas and/or solutions. There should now be two or three killer ideas left standing that are ready for further exploration. It is important to remember at this stage the ideas are not full concepts yet, nor have they identified what resources and methods will be required to execute them. Sure, you have a rough idea of what comes next, but it’s important to make sure the follow-through is done correctly.
The ideas have the potential to become concepts, but as they stand right now they are simply raw ideas that haven’t been fleshed out. You wouldn’t want to stake your company’s next marketing campaign on a raw idea, there are simply too many unknowns and untested assumptions at this point.
Ideas need to move into the Concept Development stage now, where they are tested against assumptions and the unknowns. This is accomplished by small teams (we use teams of Art Directors and Copywriters) after the brainstorming sessions are complete. Their task is to research the unknowns and start testing assumptions while tweaking the idea to fit the current realities. From there, the right resources, tactics, and methods can be deployed to see the idea through execution.
This is the creative advertising secret sauce. How we come up with killer ideas, regularly and at scale.
To give you an idea of the volume of ideas that are generated by the creative pros in the ad world lets consider the elite level of brainstorming used to create new campaigns for one of the most heavily marketed brands of all time, McDonald’s.
If McDonald’s runs a new campaign monthly, in every region across the globe, that is over 119 different campaigns running at once. Each region has it’s own unique creative campaigns, which would represent over 1400 different sets of ideas that actually make it to production, globally, every year. Now, remember that this brand has been producing this sustained level of advertising for decades. Understanding the process that creates this volume of ideas paints a picture of the challenge ad execs face when creating original, unique creative content.
For every winning idea that becomes an ad, about 50 other ideas have to be born, then quickly die. Globally, just for this brand alone, that equals over 70,000 creative ideas generated yearly. So when you think about Mad Men, Don Draper and all the cool kids working in advertising, you can now see behind the (faux) glamour of the job and understand the mental Olympics that occur every day to keep the ideas coming. Now that is truly Design Thinking.