Q: Sadly, I recognize that there’s no switch to flip to turn on creativity. Are there techniques you find the most helpful to generate ideas?
A: Here’s the big surprise: you really can turn on your creativity, on demand–whether your business card has the word “creative” on it or not.
One of the luckiest days of our partnership as a writer-art director team was attending a Tom Monahan workshop put on by the Art Director’s Club of Canada in the 90’s. Tom, a “creativity coach” at Before & After, explained to the big room full of Toronto agency people that the reason we don’t have tons of fresh ideas all the time largely comes down to editing ourselves prematurely in the idea generation process, and staying close in to the familiar.
We gravitate to what’s already worked for others (it’s no coincidence wave after wave of advertising bears a resemblance to the most awarded work of any given year) because it feels safer than striking out for new territory. And we worry about failure if we dare challenge something that’s already considered a success. We had lots of experience with the latter, with quite a few big, older brands that came with spoken and unspoken rules.
You can generate a ton of ideas to solve your problem by creating a chain of Post-it notes, with one idea per note.
Before we worked on Dove for the first time, it was a successful brand built on 7-day tests and testimonials. We’d seen the classic “pour shot” a thousand times: moisturizing cream filling a clear Dove bar-shaped container to make the point that this was the secret to better skin. Countless teams before us had conformed to the winning formula, that kept selling boatloads of Dove.
It was only when a very bold CMO demanded something different to confront a new business challenge that we broke open the box and gave ourselves permission to let everything and anything pour out of our heads.
This is the basic idea Tom promotes in his “100 Mile an Hour Thinking” exercize: dump out everything you can think of, good and bad, without editing yourself and as fast as you can. In creating a huge pile of ideas, you have the raw material to get to the best ideas.
Here’s how to do the best brainstorming technique ever (and we use the word “brainstorming” knowing most people HATE them. What a waste of time, how uncomfortable, and how unproductive. Take a leap of faith, this one is different). It uses quantity to get to quality. By hunting for any idea, instead of the precious big idea, you take the pressure off, automatically making it possible to access a bottomless pit of ideas. And by making your objective as many ideas as humanly possible in just a few minutes, you make it impossible to judge, to feel fear, to feel stupid, or any other negative emotion that often comes with a slower process. The high tech devices you need to do this are a pen and a Post-it pad.
We’ve found this method to be something of a miracle. It banishes forever the fear of the blank page.
You can generate a ton of ideas to solve your problem by creating a chain of Post-it notes, with one idea per note. You can work with up to 5 people to do this. In just 2 minutes, create the longest chain possible. (Multiple pairs or teams can make this into a contest to see who can make the longest chain, if you want.) No discussion, but say your idea out loud (which could spark someone to build on it). Considering the way to win at this is to go very fast to make the longest possible chain, no idea is too silly. Go go go. After you’re finished the chain, as a group, decide which idea is best. Only take a minute to make the choice. A big part of why this whole exercize works so well is that there’s no chance to overthink anything. You’ll see something, out of the dozens, that sparkles. Or a real turd could make you suddenly think of something that’s actually good. (For instance, if you were looking for a way to generate sales for an airline that has to increase fares because of higher oil process, and someone wrote down “all flights go to Hawaii”, maybe that sparks the thought of a lottery on every flight, where a passenger will win a free ticket to a fabulous destination).
The next step is to kill everything. And do it all over again. But go for twice as many Post-its, and no repeats from the first round. WHAT?! Yep. Then after 2 minutes, again, look for the best idea in the chain. You’ll find this round of ideas is suddenly more bizarre, more silly, more creative. And the outrageous ideas easily spark “real” ideas. Where the pair, or group, feared they couldn’t possibly have more ideas, they came. And more easily, because you got the hang of it. But also because if the idea is to generate a ton of ideas with no pressure for them to be good, there’s no limit to how many you could have. You could do it all day. And they’ll keep getting better.
We’ve found this method to be something of a miracle. It banishes forever the fear of the blank page. It means you don’t get attached to your precious ideas, because you know from now on you can have way more in minutes after your idea died in the presentation. You’ll find you have way more, way fresher ideas. And you can do things like spend more time on fine-tuning, expanding on the idea, or maybe even deciding you want to go back and start over because you’re inspired to try another angle.
A summer intern won a Grand Clio for birthing “Diamond Shreddies” with this, in 20 minutes. We used it to kick start projects with the whole team, agency and client side. It sometimes flushed out great strategies. Line extensions. Campaign platforms. You could use it at home for a wedding theme, to solve virtually any problem.
It’s also fun, naturally team building and great for people who might normally tend to be less assertive in a group. It levels the playing field in a wonderful way, because when people tap into their right brain (as this enables you to) literally everyone can have ideas. We’ve used it with architects, fashion retailers, marketers and creative people that number in the thousands at this point. You can teach it to anyone who needs ideas. (And who doesn’t?) Your co-workers, your clients, your teenager.
Run don’t walk to order Tom’s Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy. We’re eternally grateful to him for changing our careers; sparing millions of Canadians from dull ads, handing our clients better sales, and winning the odd award. You could be the next Tesla when you crack open your brain. Have fun.
Nany Vonk and Janet Kestin of Swim have 13 years as Co-Chief Creative Officers of Ogilvy& Mather Toronto. They have worked with global brands including Unilever and Kraft and were leaders behind the Cannes Grand Prix winning work on Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.