Become a Member
Proudly Sponsored By
articles / advertising know-how and fearless opinions
IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles >  How to Train Ideas to Come When They’re Called: Notes and Advice for Young People in Advertising PART ONE


How to Train Ideas to Come When They’re Called: Notes and Advice for Young People in Advertising PART ONE

Posted on September 7, 2009 and read 6,775 times

How to Train Ideas to Come When They’re Called: Notes and Advice for Young People in Advertising PART ONE thumbnail

suzannepopesmallpic How to Train Ideas to Come When They’re Called: Notes and Advice for Young People in Advertising PART ONESuzanne Pope
Assoc. Creative Director
john st.

In this article, I’m hoping to impart some useful information about advertising ideas and how one arrives at them. I’m hoping this information will bring comfort and peace and a touch more confidence. Not to you, of course, because I know that you personally have no particular anxiety about your ability to produce great ideas on demand. No, the advice that follows has been prepared so that you might pass it on to some deserving friend or colleague or classmate.  Perhaps you have someone in mind already. Perhaps it’s the young woman of your acquaintance, the one who is certain that she’s a hack, who knows that the two decent ads in her book were flukes that will not be repeated. Or maybe it’s the young man who studies old show annuals like the Torah because he privately knows he has no interesting ideas of his own. What I hope to do for these friends of yours is to persuade them that there are practical steps one can take to generate ideas that are good and maybe even great.  I want them to understand that, yes, there is magic involved in creativity, but the magic is accessible to even the most discouraged among us, even if we’ve never won an award and don’t think we ever will.

Before we talk about how to come up with advertising ideas, let’s take a step back and understand what people mean when they speak of advertising ideas as being good or bad or nonexistent. Every creative brief provides information that needs to be conveyed. But no matter what your account folks or clients tell you, conveying that information should be regarded as the least of your duties. Because unless that information is CURE FOR CANCER or FREE SURF ’N’ TURF DINNER, people aren’t likely to care about the message in its unadorned state. Every day, most people face a tsunami of detail. They learn to tune most of it out, because letting it all in would lead to a psychological breakdown. Our job as ad people is to embellish or interpret our raw information in such a way that it turns into real communication. Notice that information is not regarded as communication here, because we don’t yet have the confidence that people will notice or retain it – surely two prerequisites for saying that something has been communicated. So, for our purposes, let’s agree that an advertising idea is anything – a theme or rhetorical device or graphic element – that changes the selling message from mere information to persuasive communication.

But how do we know when that change has happened? How do we know when we’ve changed SIX GRAMS OF FIBRE PER SERVING into something people will actually want to buy? We can’t know for sure, because advertising will always be more art than science. But we will have our best odds of success if we’re able to show that we’ve found an intersection between the things our consumers care about (namely, their lives) and the things they don’t care about – by which I mean our clients’ products.

An intersection. A point of emotional connection. A moment of overlap, however fleeting, between the offering of some product and the private yearnings of people who just want to feel understood and respected.

Ad people try very hard to reach that intersection through comedy.  This is because ad people understand that the average person loves a good laugh, especially if he’s spent the entire weekend locked in a room judging an awards show. Comedy obviously works brilliantly when it works, but the most insightful ads tend to be the ones that don’t also labour under the burden of trying to be funny.  There’s a 1996 Adidas ad (from Leagas Delaney, London) that still makes sense today because it found a pure and perfect intersection between running shoes and how people really feel when they’re running. The ad isn’t funny in the least, but it still feels deeply true.

adidasdelaney How to Train Ideas to Come When They’re Called: Notes and Advice for Young People in Advertising PART ONE

Seeking a deeper point of connection can help us even when our subject is already packed with emotion.  One such subject for most young women is that of date rape.  There are many excellent websites on the topic. Here’s a screen grab from one of them:

watchdrink How to Train Ideas to Come When They’re Called: Notes and Advice for Young People in Advertising PART ONE

This website gives a ton of information on date rape drugs and how to avoid having one slipped in your drink.  Any woman with a sense of vigilance about her safety and dignity will probably pay close attention. But if this were an ad, we could rightly say that it lacks an advertising idea, and that its inherent impact would be significantly increased with the use of such an idea.  The website’s information is certainly relevant, but it’s still abstract, still probably somewhere outside the reader’s immediate experience. TBWA\London turned this information into a brilliant ambient idea: little cocktail umbrellas that were taken to nightclubs and popped into women’s drinks when their backs were turned:

drinkumbrella How to Train Ideas to Come When They’re Called: Notes and Advice for Young People in Advertising PART ONE

As helpful as the website’s information was, it could not match the power of a simple advertising idea to make the core message immediate and personal and terrifying. The women driven to the website had more reason than ever to take its advice to heart.

We’ve now reviewed what an advertising idea is and why it’s important. So let’s move on to the process of generating ideas and why that process doesn’t have to feel scary or beyond our abilities. The wonderfully reassuring news about ideas is that one doesn’t have to be a particularly original thinker to get them. That is because there is no such thing as a completely original idea. All new ideas are combinations or extensions of ideas already in existence.  It’s said that Gutenberg’s printing press was inspired by the wine and olive presses of the day. The fax machine was just the union of a photocopier and a phone. The Swiffer WetJet is nothing more than a diaper on a stick. This same truth applies to advertising ideas as well. The reason we understand an advertising idea is that its elements are recognizable from our past experience. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t get the ad. As an example, let’s look at this much-awarded ad for Stella Artois from Lowe, New York:

stella How to Train Ideas to Come When They’re Called: Notes and Advice for Young People in Advertising PART ONE

Now, we’re all familiar with the idea of discount coupons. We see them every day. And we’re all familiar with the idea that one should expect to pay more for a premium-quality imported beer. The genius of this ad was that it united two ideas that were previously antithetical to each other. This unexpected connection very cleverly delivered the message that Stella drinkers are paying more than they need to for beer, but that the extra quality is worth it.

Unexpected connections. They’re the heart and soul of the best advertising ideas. But as you seek out the unexpected, please be careful, because not all unexpected connections result in good ideas or lasting ideas. Consider, for example, this unexpected connection between Inuit culture and shepherd’s pie:

igloo How to Train Ideas to Come When They’re Called: Notes and Advice for Young People in Advertising PART ONE

I have a jpeg of the recipe if you’re interested, but I don’t imagine you are. Unexpected connections that fail can happen to even the most talented ad people. A long time ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Bob Levenson, the legendary copywriter who worked at Doyle Dane Bernbach throughout the 1960s. He spoke of working on a retail client’s brief to advertise a shoe sale. He had approached Bill Bernbach with a layout that looked something like this:

shoesail How to Train Ideas to Come When They’re Called: Notes and Advice for Young People in Advertising PART ONE

Bernbach looked at the layout but said nothing, so Bob Levenson decided to help. “Get it?  Shoe… sail. Shoe… sail! It’s an idea!” Bernbach answered, “Yes, Bob, but it’s a bad idea.” In these terms, we see that the greatness of some ad people may not be in their ability to make connections (because, after all, unconnected ideas are everywhere). It may be more in their ability to discern which connections are the most powerful and arresting among all the connections that are available.

If unconnected ideas are so plentiful, why do we have such difficulty finding and linking them?  I think it’s because we’re sitting here, taut with distress, not quite knowing how to make it happen. But there are established processes for coming up with ideas, and we have nothing to lose by using them. The immediate result will be more ideas, and even if they’re not great ideas, you will discover that the increased quantity of ideas quickly leads to increased quality as well.

For me, the single best process was outlined in the 1940s by an ad guy named James Webb Young. His book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, is still available today. It spans just 48 pages in what looks to be 14-point type, but it represents the best twelve bucks you will ever spend on your career. In A Technique, Young gives us a consistent, five-step process for coming up with ideas, and in so doing, takes away the intimidation we so often feel when facing a blank page. The five steps are these:

  1. Gather the idea’s raw materials – those would be specific facts about the product, plus knowledge about life and people in general.
  2. Chew on those materials.
  3. “Drop the whole subject and put the problem out of your mind as completely as you can.”
  4. “Out of nowhere, the Idea will appear.”
  5. “Take your little newborn idea out into the world of reality.”

All of us understand the first two steps. We’re also familiar with the fifth step, because it typically results in our being sent back to do more work. The strange and mystical part, the part requiring the leap of faith, is the part between steps 3 and 4. But no matter how paralyzed we feel creatively, we all know we’ve had that experience, that moment when a cool thought has come to us out of absolutely nowhere. You might chalk it up to neurochemistry or you might see it as coming from God, but it really doesn’t matter. We don’t have to know or understand the source to benefit from it.

To be continued here…

Suzanne Pope is Associate Creative Director at john st. in Toronto. She has written copy for TAXI and Ogilvy & Mather, and has taught courses in advertising at Humber College. Suzanne’s work has been recognized by The One Show, Communication Arts, Lürzer’s Archive and several Canadian organizations. Suzanne has been an ihaveanidea contributor since 2003; her An Inconvenient Truth For Copywriters article is one of the most popular articles in ihaveanidea history.

Other Suzanne Pope articles on ihaveanidea include:

The Top Ten Mistakes in Portfolio Development

Glad Tidings for the Young and Terrified

Giving Good Meeting

Life In A Pharma Agency: The Ninth Circle Of Hell, Or Merely The Eighth?






RELATED ARTICLES


    LATEST JOBS

    ALSO IN THE NEWS

    Moving Millennials thumbnail Moving Millennials
    Thoughts from a Cannes Creative Effectiveness 2013 Jury member thumbnail Thoughts from a Cannes Creative Effectiveness 2013 Jury member

    MORE ARTICLES

    Agency Profile: Advico Y&R thumbnail Agency Profile: Advico Y&R

    IHAVEANIDEA ARCHIVE

    Copyright © 2001-2014 IHAVEANIDEA inc. All rights reserved. No material contained in this site may be republished or reposted.
    IHAVEANIDEA™ is a trademark of IHAVEANIDEA inc. Terms and Conditions | Privacy Policy

    Copyright © 2009 ihaveanidea inc. All rights reserved.

    No material contained in this site may be republished or reposted. Terms and Conditions | Privacy Policy