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The Demystification of Idea Generation

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An advertising campaign or marketing program is only as good as the idea driving it. Unfortunately, ideas can often seem like intangible, elusive specters that are difficult to capture and perhaps even more difficult to conjure.

"Where do your ideas come from?" It's a question constantly being asked of writers and artists. Usually, the answer to the question is a quip. A dodge. A sniff at the poor, unimaginative troll who dared waste the creative person's time by assuming that one could possibly understand the artist's muse.

Science fiction author Roger Zelazny once responded to this question by telling a teenager that the Journal of Crazy Ideas is published quarterly in Schenectady, New York. He went on to suggest that members of the Science Fiction Writers of America can use any of the ideas published in the Journal as their own—Zelazny's explanation for why two different writers will often have the same idea in different stories.

Then there are less abrasive responses that connect the source of ideas to inspiration: nature, friends, other artists, music, and sex—just to name a few.

Harvey Pekar got all of his ideas from his own life. He started focusing on his own pathetic existence with a new purpose in mind and translated what he saw into an underground comic titled "American Splendor" (which, incidentally, became an HBO film that won top honors at Sundance and Cannes in 2003).


But what moved Harvey from a schmuck to a creative genius was not the source of his ideas. It was the re-examination of his surroundings with a new sense of purpose. For Harvey, life was no longer something to fight, it was something to admire. And study. And the more mundane it was, the more it moved him to write.

Numerous people have studied the process that creative people go through to develop their ideas. Most of these students of creativity agree that ideas come from a subconscious process that takes two relatively unassociated thoughts and combines them together to produce a new thought—a new idea.

In the case of Harvey, it was all of the energy that he had been putting into searching for an idea for a comic book (comic book concepts: thought number one) colliding with all of his anxiety and depression about his life (pathetic loser: thought number two) producing the great idea: a comic book about his pathetic life as a loser.

James Webb Young addresses this subject in his short but insightful book titled A Technique for Producing Ideas. In it, he suggests that when advertising creatives are tasked with producing ideas for an assignment, they prepare themselves in two areas. The first area is specific to the assignment; the second is general to the creative person's constant need for inspiration.

According to Young, the first step in the process is to absorb as much information as possible about the specifics of the assignment. For example, if the assignment centers on advertising for a product, the creative person needs to learn every relevant fact that is available concerning the product, the people who use the product, and the people who make the product.

The next step in the process is an ongoing task: the collection of raw information. The source material for this raw information is the world. The creative person must be constantly absorbing new information and experiences from a broad range of sources: movies, books, museums, theater, parks, clubs, Web sites, friends, relatives, music, food... the list goes on.

The third step is a matter of trusting in the power of the subconscious mind. Because our minds are always at work trying to create patterns and make connections, we will unwittingly begin to match information we've collected about our product with our experience at the circus. Or the funny thing our friend told us. Or the way we learned to ride a bike.

And then one morning we wake up... and "poof"! We've got an idea. The problem here is that this happens, all too often, only after the fact. The reason for this failing is, ironically, connected to how desperately we are searching for an idea. The harder we try to come up with an idea, the less likely we will succeed. But once we relax our mind and let our subconscious do the work, we will produce an idea.

And, with ideas, timing can be everything. The most expected and unoriginal ideas that we are capable of are on the surface of our minds. These are the thoughts that occur to most everyone. It's crucial that we spend the time that it takes to dig deep into our subconscious, where we will find more original thinking.

When we make ideas our job, the risk of producing ideas from the surface of our mind is tremendous. Consider the case of KFC's ad agency. It presented an advertising concept to its client based on the old joke about the chicken that crossed the road. Now this is a prime example of the kind of lame idea that comes from surface thinking. And KFC recognized it right away. In 1989, KFC used a "Cross the Road" campaign from its former agency that franchisees disliked. Rival Wendy's International was using a "Why people cross the road" effort for its chicken nuggets at that time. KFC quickly put its account in review following its agency's presentation of the chicken-limping-across-the-road idea.

The burden of producing ideas is great. And it's better handled with the help of others. Too often, though, people get hung up on the ownership of ideas. And this produces narrow thinking that limits the source of ideas. And narrow thinking is just as deadly to an idea as surface thinking.

The truth is that if you're worried about whose idea it is, you'll be left behind in the search for an original idea. Keith Reinhard, former chairman of advertising behemoth DDB Worldwide, observed, "I believe that great ideas are individual acts of inspiration, but that great advertising programs result from a team effort which builds upon an original idea and expands it."

Getting feedback on ideas that challenge our way of thinking is crucial to the process. If we allow ourselves to become impressed with our own ideas, then we will most likely shut down any more thinking around it. Having achieved personal satisfaction, we can miss new revelations that can be used to improve the idea and take it in unthinkable directions. If we're impressed with our idea, this should be the first indication that we should re-examine it. Chances are that re-examination will lead us in a new direction that we are even more excited about.

And if we generate a lot of ideas, we need to be more selective. A large volume of ideas usually contains several versions of a few ideas: ideas that are derivative of one another. And there will certainly be ideas that are not as complete or as well-thought-out as others. It can be a painful process to choose to leave behind ideas, but it is a necessary part of the process.

Developing ideas is a process that requires choice. We have to choose the direction we will take our idea.

Of course, nobody said it was easy. And realizing that is really only the beginning.


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Mike Heronime is new media strategist for Numantra (www.numantra.com), an integrated marketing and advertising services company. Reach him at mheronime@numantra.com.

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