Roundtable: Generating Creative Ideas
"Creative" and "innovative" are communication buzzwords that are closely linked. Marketers are ever searching for creative new ways to position innovative new offerings. But with so little that is genuinely "new," finding either innovative or creative ideas can be challenging – even in the best creative brainstorms.
Here, some of the most creative minds at Ketchum (including Ketchum Pleon and Zócalo Group, Ketchum's word-of-mouth marketing group) share how they generate creative ideas for clients.
Gianni Catalfamo, Chairman, Pleon, Italy
Perspectives: Where do you get your best ideas?
Gianni Catalfamo: Although I do carry a moleskin notepad with me at ALL times, the random idea dropping on me out of the blue is rather uncommon. I usually need pressure and focus to "push" everything else out of my mind and think freely. People I work with hate me because my creativity comes out best under these circumstances – which means at the 11th hour. A well-planned creativity session well in advance of a client deadline rarely sees me contributing in a meaningful manner.
That said, the Internet is fantastic for exposing me to torrents of fresh creativity from which I pick ideas. It is usually visual content that gets across to my left-side brain the quickest. I recall an instance where I dropped out of a management meeting because I had seen a video that suggested to me a radical change in style for my presentations and I just had to start working on it right then.
Cynthia Chan: Blogs, tweets, podcasts, music, pictures – all sorts of things inspire me. Sometimes even a cab driver or a doorman can bring on inspiration. For me, this day-to-day interaction is like collecting matches; at an appropriate moment they will come together and spark.
Darryl Chu: Ideas often manifest themselves at the least expected time and place – in transit to and from home, cooking, showering, exercising, watching TV, etc. Creativity does not flow between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. only; it flows all the time. The best ideas come from observations of our everyday routines, current events, nature and environment, and the motivation of problem solving.
Rosa Fernández Conde: There are two "moments" when I love to get ideas, and both are really different. The first one is in brainstorm meetings, anywhere, but always with people who like to create, to think positive and different, to listen to others, and to let ideas come in. The second one is when I am alone, generally at night and in silence. This gives me time to think and leaves my mind totally open to create.
Tera Miller: I believe people who absorb the widest variety of experiences have the best ideas, which come from cues in everyday life. You stash all of those cues away in the back of your mind for a rainy day (or the next brainstorm) to come along. Of course, this means you have to leave your office once in a while. Take a class, read a new book – it doesn't need to be directly related to your business to take you down a path that ultimately leads to a great business idea.
I typically get my best ideas in two very different ways. The first is through collaboration with small groups. It could be three or four people or just one other. Kicking around a creative challenge is fun for me. There's usually a lot of laughter and possibly a heated argument before you get to a great place. If you are willing to experiment and just try ideas on for size before accepting or discarding them, you'll end up in a better place.
Second, once I have a germ of an idea, I need some quiet time to let it grow. This could look like chicken scratches in the margins of a creative brief or a draft PowerPoint that I return to several times throughout the day. Expressing a concept in the form of a story, playing with different words to capture the right feeling – these are all things I do to help take a thought from clever brainstorm idea to full-blown concept.
Ryan Rasmussen: I've found the best method for catalyzing the creative process is immersion. Identify what it means to belong to a target audience by joining their online communities, learning their language – and essentially "going native." Tom Kelley, general manager at design and innovation firm IDEO, referred to this as taking on the role of the anthropologist in the creative process.
Understand the nature of the community by reading the history of its members. My favorite tool for doing this is Del.icio.us. The history of an influencer's bookmarks tells a detailed story of what factors influenced them and how those inspirations connect with one another in a narrative that unfolds across time.
We all leave a trail of digital breadcrumbs. By analyzing a small handful of these, it's possible to unearth a wealth of critical understanding that leads to some of the best ideation. When approached in this way, the best ideas aren't difficult – they're second nature.
Petra Sammer: I get my best ideas while drying my hair. I know it's a cliché, but it's true. I need the incubation time. I go home, sleep, rethink it in the shower, and dry my hair with the hair dryer. Bingo. Then it comes. This is how creativity works best for me. I think hard about it. Then I step back. Consider it "active forgetting" or whatever you want to call it. My brain plays in the background, and while I do something else, a creative idea will come. If people would have more confidence in their own creativity and in themselves, everyone would be creative.
Ruth Yearley: There is a nice quote about creativity that says: "A good idea doesn't care who has it." I extend that to "A good idea doesn't mind where it was copied from." Copied, borrowed, derived, an homage, a reference to, influenced by . . . however you put it, it's the same: A good idea simply comes from another good idea. So to have great ideas, to think creatively, to have breakthroughs in strategic thinking or surprising and exciting ideas in brainstorms, the secret is to surround yourself with as much stimulus and creativity as possible in your own life. The ideas can come from anywhere. My personal sources are television, specifically The Simpsons and, of course, the commercials; art; talk radio; and the cinema.
Perspectives: What do you see as the relationship between creativity and innovation?
Catalfamo: Are creativity and innovation NOT synonyms?
Just kidding – innovation, whatever the area you're looking at, requires pushing the envelope of what everyone else is doing. And this is an exercise in creativity.
Creativity, for me, is always applied to something. I do not have the gift of "artistic" creativity, but I can "see" things – metaphors, end results of processes. So my kind of creativity is inextricably linked to innovation in the way I do, say or present – or in the way I do these things for a client.
Chan: Creativity is the seed of innovation. Creativity emphasizes change – that can be either a new concept or a reinterpretation of an old concept. Innovation is more about the end result, how a concept can bring added value to end users.
That said, innovation can stimulate more creativity. Taking Twitter as an example, its founders simply had an idea of an individual using an SMS service to communicate with a small group. Now, there are all sorts of creative uses for Twitter out there. For instance, a woman in Northern Ireland has attracted more than 6,000 followers by tweeting complete recipes in 140 characters. Authors release their new novels via Twitter, sentence by sentence. Someone has even figured out an application that reminds people to water their plants.
Chu: Creativity feeds innovation and vice versa. When creativity combines with technology, social trends or nature, new ideas lead to innovative concepts. This innovation then fosters new inspiration and the creativity continues in a cycle. For example, the observation of prickly burdock plants, which easily catch on to fur or clothing, inspired George de Mestral to invent Velcro, a substance to fasten materials together with a strong bond. In turn, new minds have taken this basic concept and applied it to everything from NASA equipment to common household items.
Fernández Conde: To me, creativity always needs to serve and influence innovation. A good creative idea is always different in some way from other things made or thought before and, consequently, is innovative.
Moreover, a creative idea must be executed with innovation. If not, we are probably not talking about pure creativity, but reapplication, which is also a good option in some cases, particularly if the idea can be given a different "touch."
Miller: I consider creativity to be a way of being, while innovation is a way of doing. There can be creativity without innovation, but there cannot be innovation without creativity. Creativity drives innovation.
Rasmussen: Creativity is the potential for ideation that makes every individual's ideas unique. Consequently, innovation is the result of collaboration among team members that recognizes and amplifies each of the many forms of creativity.
Sammer: Innovation is the top of the hill – striving to "invent the wheel." Creativity has a lower approach. Innovation processes are long and enduring, while creativity is sometimes at its best when it is quick and easy.
Yearley: Creativity is the lifeblood of all success because it leads to innovation and change. Innovation does not have to come from huge, massive, WOW ideas. It can be just little breakthroughs, tiny improvements that alter concepts in small but significant ways. (In fact, someone could massively improve the quality of my life by inventing a button on the mobile phone or MP3 player that would instantly wind in the earphone cord – like the button on a vacuum cleaner. It already exists elsewhere, but reapplied in a different context it could make such a difference!)
Perspectives: Are there specific characteristics or circumstances that make some clients easier to develop creative or innovative ideas for than others? What are they?
Catalfamo: This may not be politically correct, but most clients I work with say they want us to come forward with new ideas, but they can question unbridled creativity.
In my experience, openness to creativity is not a characteristic of the company, but rather of the individuals involved and their abilities build a bridge between a radically innovative concept and the marketing challenge at hand. From an agency perspective, it is our responsibility to present innovative concepts WITH the bridge.
Chan: The corporate culture matters. A lot of clients are bound by their established corporate image and find it difficult to step out of their comfort zone.
Chu: Since each client has its own personality and agenda, as an agency, we must adapt to all situations and face challenges with an open mind. One characteristic that allows creativity to flourish is trust. The client looks for creativity to take its products and goals to the next level, and the confidence from the client opens opportunities and motivations to explore and to be different, innovative and creative. It is up to us to earn that trust from clients.
Fernández Conde: Clients who encourage the development of creative or innovative ideas usually have two really important characteristics in common. First, they believe in our work. They understand it perfectly, and they know how to use our ideas. So they are comfortable taking risks when needed. Second, they trust in creativity as an effective tool for differentiation – for developing a distinctive approach to their consumers or audiences and for positioning themselves as unique in a world saturated with brand messages coming from so many vehicles and companies at the same time. These types of clients not only permit the development of creative ideas, but they also continuously demand creative ideas and even like to participate in the creative process.
Miller: Time. While we technically can turn around great ideas with a moment's notice, it is easier to be creative for clients when they give us adequate time. Clients who activate their PR teams earlier in the process end up with smarter, more innovative thinking. Those clients typically brief their PR team when they brief their ad agency, and they let PR sit in on promotion brainstorms.
It also is easier to be innovative when a client's hunger for "what's next" is paired with tolerance for risk (even a little bit). Sometimes clients will come to us with an innovative idea they've seen executed in the marketplace and say they want that kind of innovative thinking. When you look at that from a planning and execution standpoint, many months have probably passed from the first meeting when an idea was surfaced to the time we read or hear about it as an innovative marketing concept. If it sounds innovative and edgy now, think about how it must have felt in that original presentation. Edgy? Risky? Scary?
I certainly don't want clients to be careless, but when a concept feels a little risky, they should relish that feeling. They should roll around in it a little and see what their tolerance is. It could be the "next big thing" in innovative, breakthrough thinking.
Rasmussen: The better we understand our clients' mission statement and culture, the better we can provide them with creative and innovative solutions and strategies that drive meaningful results. We can all think of certain brands that come to mind as innovative, edgy, or risk-taking, and it may seem easier to brainstorm creative concepts for these clients. However, this is less an indication of any specific characteristic of a given client than it is an illustration of our understanding of that client's culture.
The best and most innovative ideas aren't necessarily the most remarkable. They're simply the most meaningful when they amplify the brand's existing mission and culture.
Sammer: I think trust and stimulation are the key words that trigger us. Clients who ask us to surprise them and who challenge, stimulate and trust us to come up with ideas beyond "the normal stuff" are very motivating.
The key is that clients who want creativity should demand it, but they also should navigate. Creativity is very often a tour into unknown country, but it should not be a blind trip. Clients who are brave enough to trust our guidance, while adding some of their own, wind up with the most creative and effective ideas.
Yearley: When creative ideas happen, it is important that they are nurtured and respected. Our most rewarding projects are for clients who understand that to recognize and champion a good idea takes a creative mindset of their own, plus an open mind and the ability to see possibility and to support it. We are lucky to have many such clients and, thus, can constantly push our creative boundaries.
Perspectives: When you're in a brainstorm or bouncing around ideas with your team, how can you tell when an idea hits the mark? Does everyone realize it at the same time?
Catalfamo: Good ideas have traction. When one gets thrown on the table, it starts bouncing from one head to another. It's like the idea has a life of its own.
Chan: To me, the objective of a brainstorm is not to "hit the mark," but to generate broad-base ideas and to stimulate creativity. The "eureka" moment usually comes after the brainstorm, when you summarize the ideas generated from the session and conceptualize them into a plan with legs.
Chu: When ideas appear to have potential either from a buildup or from a brilliant spark, people usually get excited and want to contribute more. In a brainstorming session with different personalities, opinions and backgrounds, it hits the mark when everyone can foresee or project the same positive result.
Fernández Conde: "How do you know when an idea hits the mark?" is a really difficult question to answer. It is like a special feeling, a kind of intuition. For sure, you need to have a clear picture of the briefing, the goals the idea needs to fill, and the strategy to follow, but when you hear or have THE IDEA, you feel like . . . "Got it!"
Everyone knows it at the same time, absolutely. And when this situation comes, it generates such a high level of enthusiasm among the team that people are then able to make the idea even better and bigger.
Miller: When an idea hits the mark, you can feel it like a vibration around the table. The energy in the room elevates, and people naturally pile on with ways to enhance and stretch the idea. The key is not to stop there (especially if the concept is surfaced early in the process). Keep pushing and brainstorming to find what's next.
Rasmussen: There are some ideas that light up a room the moment they are shared. They are served up with enthusiasm, bumped back and forth across the room, and then spiked down onto a page with great speed and precision. However, I think it's the ideas that receive the most prodding, mashing, and collaborative criticism that are the most effective in the end. They don't receive the immediate attention of a well-volleyed zinger. They are tended to and cultivated by a team. They are collaborations.
The next time you hear a zinger of an idea, run it around the room by asking each contributor, "And how would you make it better?" The product will be 10 times greater because of the extra attention.
Sammer: I think there are two kinds of "great ideas." The first are those that everyone in the room immediately realizes are great. That's the moment the meeting becomes really crazy. Everyone is shouting out loud, and everyone wants to jump on the idea and has something to add to it. But there is also another kind of idea – I call them "hidden champions." They are not detected immediately. Sometimes they turn up in the "forming" phase of a brainstorming, at the end when everyone is evaluating good or bad ideas. Or it may even happen after the meeting, when you as a facilitator discuss the ideas with the team. Suddenly an idea or even a thought brought up in the meeting flowers out and develops its real strength.
It's so important to stay focused and to keep listening carefully until the very end of a meeting because even the discussions after a brainstorm are so important to finding good ideas.
Yearley: When ideas are suggested in a brainstorm, it may not be obvious that they are great, but we must all keep an open mind. Sometimes we make the mistake of expecting to see fully formed ideas emerge in a brainstorm when, in fact, what we are getting are seed corns of thinking that need to be taken away and considered and nurtured into breakthrough ideas.
People have different creative skills. One such skill is the ability to see a good idea even in a raw unformed state. Individuals with this skill can see the potential for an idea to be great sooner. Other people need ideas to be more obvious. Either way, a great idea is one that works, and sometimes it is the most surprising things that do. So, it is important to keep an open mind, surround ourselves with creativity, and the ideas will come rushing in!