Many brainstorming sessions are not as productive as they could be, typically because they are poorly conceived, planned or managed.

Here's a proven way to trigger imaginative solutions. And although we use marketing and advertising examples, this method can work for any creative endeavor.

If you find it too structured or time consuming, just take the wisdom, leave the workings, and make it work for you.

1) Write a clear, focused objective.

Write a one sentence focus statement that defines what you want to accomplish. Be specific. If your focus statement is too ambiguous, too general, people won't know where to start. Print this statement as large as possible, then stick it on the wall or easel so everyone can see it during the session.

Some examples:

"What events can Fila sponsor to position the brand as fashionable athletic wear?"

"What are some inexpensive offers that will get college students to open an account at Bank of America."

"What are 3 ways to bring the Whizz Mints brand personality to life in our ads?"

"What are some simple ways we can communicate the idea that is the best portal for small businesses?"

2) Select participants for the team

One team leader. That's the person who writes the focus statement, gets everything organized, and leads the session itself.

Two to three people who are familiar with the project. Invite people from creative and account servicing. Even media and planning.

Two to three people who don't know a thing about the project. This is a good way to introduce fresh ideas. Pick smart people. Imaginative people. People who are in the target audience.

Don't exceed seven people. If more people want to be involved, then plan more sessions.

Don't invite company heavyweights who might inhibit expression or dominate the flow of ideas.

Send a memo or invitation to all participants specifying the time and date. Encourage casual dress. Include the session focus statement, creative brief, and any additional background information they might find helpful.

3) Prepare for the session

Select a location that's conducive to creative expression. Perhaps away from the office, certainly a place away from interruptions and noise.

Set aside a reasonable amount of time, anywhere from two hours to all day. Four hours, from 10:00 to 2:00 p.m., with lunch brought in, works well.

Get your tools together. You'll need bold marker pens, big sheets of paper, and tape or pins to fix the ideas you generate to the walls or easels.

Get some toys. One ad agency had a box of masks and drums. They'd start each session by putting on the masks and playing the drums. A great way to get the creative juices flowing.

Bring "idea starters," such as:

  • advertising award books
  • stock photo books,
  • magazines,
  • a computer with an internet connection,
  • a TV set with a stack of award winning commercial reels - which you can run during the session with the sound turned down,
  • toys

4) At the session

The team leader should start the session with a word of welcome, and an overview of the project, including a review of the brief.

Next the leader introduces the "Rules For Brainstorming." Point out that this brainstorming session is one place and time where anything goes. Where crazy ideas are encouraged. But where negative comments are not, as in "No, I don't like that idea." Or "That concept will never fly with the client." It's a good idea to post these rules on the wall for all to see during the session.

Rules For Brainstorming
o Weird, wild, wacky and off the wall, ideas are welcome.
o Negativity is not.
o Build on ideas.
o Don't shoot them down.
o No interruptions from outside allowed. (That includes handphones.)
o We will take a short break every hour.

The team leader then reads the focus statement, encourages some preliminary ideas, and writes those ideas on the posters for all to see.

The team leader:

  • Should contribute to, but not inhibit the flow of ideas. Don't be too controlling.
  • Encourage participation from everyone. And don't let one person hold the stage.
  • Bring the discussion back to the focus statement when it wonders.
  • Introduce thought starters when energy or enthusiasm falters.
  • Introduce "creative games" when appropriate.

About half way through the session, the leader should call a "time out" to review and evaluate the ideas that have been generated.

  • Take a vote, thumbs up or down on each idea.
  • Toss the bad ideas.
  • Then look at each of the good ideas and ask if there are ways to improve them, or come up with ideas that are similar.
  • After the leader has covered each of the good ideas, it's time to generate more new ideas just as you did at the beginning of the session.

5) Assign 'next step' tasks

10 to 15 minutes before the end of the session it's time to summarize what's been accomplished and assign 'next step' tasks.

Typically you'll ask art directors and copywriters to take some of the ideas and work up concept sketches or story boards.

Be sure to specify WHO will do WHAT by WHEN.

Finally, you should issue a memo to all participants, thanking them, and summarizing the session.

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image of Steve McNamara

Steve McNamara is a freelance ad guy and the publisher of He has been a creative director and copywriter at JWT, BBDO, and, on the client side, at Capital One. Reach him at