How to Come Up With Ideas… When You’re All Out of Ideas

Posted by Admin in Blue Briefs 0 Comments

When I was a fresh-out-of-school junior copywriter working on Madison Avenue (well, technically, the office was on Third Avenue), there was an experienced writer at my company named Sid. And while he would often resort to puns, one of Sid’s greatest strengths was that he never seemed to run out of ideas.

The rest of us could be staring blankly at our note pads and CRT (look that one up, Millennials) screens and coming up with nothing, but Sid’s mind was always working. If the creative director didn’t like his first idea, he’d come up with 20 more. And so on. Sid’s Energizer Bunny-like ability to keep generating ideas was — and still is — inspirational to me.

At another job, one of my mentors shared a way of approaching assignments that I adopted and evolved over time, and have shared with various generations of junior creatives over the years. When I’m struggling to think of ideas, using this technique can give me Sid-like powers.

NOTE: this process requires either Post-It Notes or Index Cards…so if you’re interested in playing along, get a stack of either.

Your assignment, if you choose to accept it…

To help illustrate how this process works, I’m going to give a very challenging “Creative Brief”. I use the quotes here because of course, this one sentence isn’t really a brief. But for our purposes, it will do:

Here it is: Sell ice to Eskimos.

If you think that’s ridiculous, keep in mind that one version of the famous J. Walter Thompson “Copy Test” had the challenge of selling a phone to monks who had taken a vow of silence.

Okay, so obviously, Eskimos (or Inuits/Aleutians, if we’re being accurate/politically correct) have no real need for ice. They have an abundant supply. So we really have to be creative in how we sell to them. And here is where those note cards come in.

STEP 1

Start by considering some attributes of ice. And write them down on individual cards. Don’t think too hard, just write. You can edit later.

After approximately 2 minutes of thinking, I came up with the following: hard, clear, durable, can be molded, cold, and slippery. So already, I’m getting somewhere.

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STEP 2
Now that you have some product attributes (i.e., what you can sell), start thinking about the joys and concerns (or even Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) of your target audience. There’s that anecdote about oilman John Paul Getty and drill bits — with the key takeaway being that “People don’t need drill bits, they need holes.” (sometimes attributed to economist Theodore Levitt).

What do indigenous people living in cold and somewhat inhospitable conditions need and want? Probably not more cold, so you can cross that one off the list. But they do need shelter from the cold (and wind, etc.). So you can write down that. They also need food…there’s another one.

Again, to condense things, let’s stop there. And review what we have so far. We’ll discard food and put “durable” and “hard” in the column because they are very similar. Can you guess what the next step is?

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STEP 3

Now it’s up to us to connect the dots between what we have to sell and what our target audience wants. To consider how one relates to the other.

Again, for the sake of brevity, I’m going to limit my scope to “shelter” and the combo of “durable/hard” and “Can be molded”. What are ways those connect?

See below for a few suggestions.

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If this was an actual project, I’d keep going. I’d think of as many connections as possible. And maybe even throw in a few other factors — like if there was any seasonality or a special offer that’s part of the mix. Again, you can always cull things down…so for now, just let the ideas flow.

Once you get to a number of ideas you’re happy with, reorganize the cards to line them up horizontally. This way, you literally have a wide range of directions to go in. And then and only then would I start writing headlines or concepting ideas for ads.

STEP 4

This is where the rubber meets the road. Based on our work so far, here are just a few headline ideas (again, generated in just a few minutes so don’t judge too harshly). All assume that our client sells ice by the block:

  • How to build the coolest house without breaking a sweat.
  • Don’t cut corners (or even ice) when you build your next house.
  • We’ve got ice block technology down cold.

Okay, maybe a little too much of the punny side of Sid in those lines…but hopefully you get the point. What you’d do is keep writing lines in this vein until you had a few you liked. Then move on to the next column, and so on.

Found this article helpful? Let me know by shooting me an email at al@mintadv.com. If you’d like me to do a training session at your company, I’m sure we could work something out!

Tags: advertising, content, creative, Marketing, Mint, Pennsylvania, social


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