Those Brilliant Marketing Ideas

The common perception of advertising and marketing is that it is built on brilliant brainstorming and shouts of Eureka! In reading The Last Original Idea, authors Alan K’necht and Geri Rockstein remind me that in the late 20’s, Allan Odell helped save his father’s company, the Burma-Vita Corp from certain bankruptcy with series of roadside signs. For example:

Are your whiskers
When you wake
Tougher than
A two-bit steak?

Imagine your delight in driving the highways, seeing the first sign, the second, and so on until you get to the punch line. Depression-era consumers thought it was pretty nifty, resulting in over three million dollars of annual revenue at the height of the depression (from $60,000 during the previous decade).

Hollywood has done its share to perpetuate the notion of creativity-driven marketing, with TV shows like Bewitched and Madmen, movies like Cohen’s Advertising Scheme (1904 from the Edison Studio!),  How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and dozens of other films that portrayed the advertising and marketing executives experiencing that great “AHA!” moment.

Many marketing agencies seeking business go into initial client meetings with a portfolio of imaginative ideas, and in turn, many executives have grown to expect those types of presentations. In doing so, however, smart marketing process is usurped, and neither the agency nor the business benefits.  In fact, it can lead to a sort of locking in to a concept before the business requirements have been fully developed resulting in wrong-minded and wasteful campaigns.

One of the most oft-cited campaigns in recent history was also associated with men’s body products. It must have been some exciting brainstorming meetings that led the Wieden + Kennedy creative team’s development of the Old Spice campaign. But even that campaign went through a series of developments, originating with the television ads, the online videos to social media responses.  Even then, creative directors Jason Bagley and Eric Baldwin credit much of the magic to actor Isaiah Mustaf’s on-the-spot humor. A lot of people were involved in a series of online interactions that developed over a small period of time.

We all want to create those magical campaigns as successful as Burma Shave and Old Spice – those bits of marketing that become part of our cultural heritage and win industry recognition and dramatically increase revenues as well.

Instead of leading with the brilliant concepts, marketing campaigns can be developed using a series of steps that help the marketer:

  • Understand goals and objectives
  • Audience segmentation
  • Audience segment needs
  • Influencers

Time must be made in the daily and weekly busyness, though for the creative spark. The time must be built into the process. There are at least two major moments for the creative brainstorming to be considers:

  1. When the project plan is being developed – right then and there, make sure that time is allocated for creative time
  2. When objectives aren’t being met – We were supposed to have 10,000 Facebook fans by this week, and we only have 5,000? Time for a creative meeting.

Creative Brainstorming

Brainstorming will be more effective if you separate your team from the normal distractions of the office, like email and phones.  Ask that all cell phones, smart phones, and tablets be turned off. Even going off-site can help, by changing patterns of thinking.

Our daily work can help reinforce our cognitive patterns, so that when it’s time for creative thinking, it can be challenging to get out of the rut. While they might seem preposterous at the moment, small changes in our collective behavior can get us out of those ruts, and bring in fresh thinking.

Ceremonial Beginnings

Creative brainstorming sessions can be kicked off with a formal announcement of ground rules – such as “all ideas have a place” and “make room for your other team members to be heard”.  Avoid getting fixated on the quality of any particular idea, but move quickly to get a lot of thinking out on the table.

Starting with a moment of breathing exercise, or a game of “what is your spirit animal today” can help to isolate the workshop from the rest of the day, and help to put everyone at ease by changing the pace.

Changing the Pace

Jazz musicians will often take a piece and go into double-time for a few bars, then bring it back to the original tempo. If you feel that the brainstorming is plodding along, do something to change the pace. Ask everyone to write down 3 new ideas in one minute.  Ask them to write down 3 new ideas that someone else would come up with (such as a co-worker, or a celebrity).

Letting Voices be Heard

Liz Strauss shared the concept of “silent brainstorming” (also known as the group passing technique), where team members are asked to write an idea down on an index card, pass to the person next to them, and repeat – and then discuss the ideas.  This allows for less vocal team members to get their ideas out.

Toys and Props for Creative Thinking

Rolls of paper, markers, stickers, scissors and magazines that can be torn up are all excellent items to have in the room.  Abstract puzzles (such as building blocks) can help bring an element of play to the room, and in turn, help change how people think.  Even wearing masks can help dramatically change the way people think, and get the group in a more playful spirit.

Creative Thinking at the Right Time

These are only a few examples of some of the activities you can try in your next creative meeting. The two important takeaways here are:

  1. creative brainstorming is built on the fundamental thoughtful work of marketing – not simply pulled out of the blue, as they portray in cinema.
  2. Time must be built into the marketing process specifically for creative time

What techniques have you used to pull out the creative?

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11 comments on “Those Brilliant Marketing Ideas

Heather Toboika

I really like the “silent brainstorming” concept. To this day driving in the car still lends me my most brilliant, creative ideas though!

Dane Findley

I’ve noticed that my best ideas come to me when I’m deeply relaxed.

In order to get into *that* state, I need to not feel rushed, and I need to step away from “busy work.”

Everything I just said is easier to talk about, then it is to actually do!

{ twitter = @danenow }

    Ric Dragon

    Love the “everything I just said is easier” part :-). You’re right, though, relaxation is really powerful. My hunch is that it’s good to mix it up; some relaxation; some high-volumn high-velocity work, too.

Paul Biedermann

I enjoyed this post, Ric! You speak to some things I don’t see discussed much, but I have a feeling that will begin changing.

There’s so much I could write about here but I’ll reveal one of my personal “secrets” for developing a better idea: building in the time to get away from what was started, so I can come back to it later with a fresh perspective. It is easy to get lost in one’s own vision, and this technique gives me the objectivity I need to either push things to the next level or disregard the original idea completely and begin anew.

But the key is having the luxury of time to do this, which is not exactly practical with the tight deadlines that are simply a fact of life. That’s why I try to create my own “luxury” and begin immediately — then I at least have a chance. Procrastination can be the death of good creative.

Try it some time!

    Ric Dragon

    Love it, Paul. I guess as a painter I’m accustomed to taking time out to do deep focus. What I’ve been thinking about is that with projects and teams, is that even then we sometimes forget to build in that time you’re talking about. I’m going to quote you, now, “procrastination can be the death of good creative”.


Great insights; and it’s absolutely true that having time off to then look back and reflect at things can greatly alter the way you view them.

Traveling to other countries and experiencing cultural immersion is also a huge part of that I believe; and will give you very different perspectives and ideas on how to best approach things.

Great post overall ric!

    Ric Dragon

    Ho! THATS what I’ve got to build into our projects – travel to other countries ;-) True, though – getting into different worlds can help with those big breakthroughs. Thanks so much for coming by, Chris – and really great spending time with you back at the #140 Conf.

Etela Ivkovic

Thank you Chris. I couldn’t agree with you more. This is why I not only love but really need to travel. It feeds my soul, inspires me and gives me the opportunity to see everything with different eyes. As I always say, it should be required in colleges that students spend at least one semester abroad.
Ric, you know I’ll sacrifice myself and go anywhere you send me…

anastasia wasko

well said!! thanks for noting that businesses can get hung on concepts before understanding how the concept will actually *do what it is supposed to*–generate business. i also believe that brainstorming (the act of) is one of the most useful tools any entrepreneur can leverage. (what’s more is that it can be done almost free!! i hear shoestring budgets singing!!) we creatives are married to the process, but brainstorming is the first step to real innovation in any business industry or model.

    Ric Dragon

    Thanks, Anastasia!
    At DragonSearch, we’ve been thinking a lot about why projects sometimes seem to get stuck, or mired – and we’ve adopted the concept of John Boyd’s OODA Loops (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) – in order to have smaller cycles of activity. In other words, If we’re watching our metrics, we know that if we aren’t hitting our numbers, we might ought to stop and re-orient ourselves. Often, that’s the time we hit the brainstorming table. By the way; while writing the following post , I discovered that Twitter itself was the result of a brainstorming session!


I strongly believe that anyone can come up with brilliant marketing ideas if they really put their mind to it. Some ideas might pop up when you least expect them, so the mind does the work for you without you knowing.

I’ve seen some incredible marketing campaigns here in Toronto for a variety of companies. Marketing ideas that inspired creativity, raised questions and provided answers at the same time.

When you get your public actively involved with your product solely trough your marketing, that’s when you know you’ve hit jackpot.

Awesome post, Ric, I’ll be back to read more. Thanks!

Versie Taylor, Marketing Toronto