I do not consider myself a creative person. I would be hard-pressed to define what “creative” even means. Despite this, in over more than a decade working in media relations and marketing agencies, I have been a part of teams that have come up with some really great - dare I say creative - ideas for clients’ strategies, campaigns and content.
Most reserve creative thinking for projects that go beyond the usual workframe and flow. You know the drill: gather in a large group to brainstorm, feverishly whiteboarding kernels of ideas in the hope of unlocking that breakthrough idea, and then assign everyone a piece to work on independently. Unfortunately great results do not typically follow this process. Presentations or campaigns suffer from being worked nearly to completion without that singular, powerful idea that separates the great from the good.
In a recent company offsite, we had a moderated session about how to improve the creative process to better generate these ideas. The presenter dissected the process of ideation, from the importance of planning before you begin, to where, how and with whom creative ideas originate. I was inspired. In the past month, I’ve been trying to put this in practice and here are some things that worked for me.
Give yourself some time (procrastinators, rejoice!)
It is human nature to want to jump right in and begin working on a big project. Set the strategy and start putting slides together, right? Wrong. The reality is, most big projects are going to come down the deadline no matter what - so give your team time in the beginning to digest the brief and plan out the approach to coming up with the idea, not racing to the process of doing.
Consume the brief with your team, focusing on the objectives, the ask, audience and desired outcomes. Then have everyone sleep on it. Come back the next day, review the brief another time, and then begin the process of brainstorming. I also found that in this time in between I was coming up with ideas at random times - on a walk with my dog, in the shower or right before bed. Write these down.
Bigger is not always better
Big brainstorming sessions can yield results, but most often they are dominated by a select few individuals while others play on their phone. Instead, we tried breaking out in smaller groups over a day or two with the objective of having meaningful discussions to see if ideas surface.
We regrouped, discussed, and began to collate our ideas. These discussions were richer and more informed than we had expected. Our “big idea” had yet to emerge, but we had a direction that enabled us to begin working around the edges on what the strategy and tactics might look like in practice.
There is an adage in creative circles about not dismissing bad ideas, or being quick to say why something won't work, in favor of exploring why it will work. Unfortunately this is not true - some ideas simply do not fit the parameters of a project. But, these “bad ideas” do have value to the process.
For me, getting to the right answer often involves understanding why all the wrong answers are wrong. By interrogating why something does not work can lead teams to new and interesting ideas. Warning: tread carefully here, because it takes thick skin from your teammates to spend 15 minutes discussing why their idea wasn’t good.
On the flip side, do not settle for the idea that immediately excites the group and unlocks that “aha” moment. What are the reasons this idea will not work, or does not fit the brief? By interrogating ideas both good and bad, it helped us sharpen our thinking to get to a better place.
Go back to the beginning
On one particular project, after having spent a good deal of time planning, brainstorming, interrogating our ideas and putting pen to paper, I revisited the original brief and materials. What I found was shocking - it was as if I was reading an entirely new piece of information.
Informed by all of the above work and thinking, I had a new perspective on the content. This led to new ideas that significantly added to our “big idea” and strengthened our approach to the entire project.
After all of this, I still do not consider myself a creative person, nor will I not be terrified the next time I am asked to come up with “creative ideas.” Applying different processes and approaches to understand the creative process has helped the analytical side of my brain masquerade as “a creative,” if only for a moment.
Jon Brubaker is a director based in New York