“We need more ideas. Let’s have a brainstorm”. Words to strike fear into any creative person’s heart.
‘Brainstorming’ is a word (and technique) loved by marketers who want to get creative, and loathed by most agency people. But we only have ourselves to blame. The term was invented by Alex Osborn, a partner in the advertising agency B.B.D.O. He claimed the agency’s success was due to the use of the technique. Once the ‘secret’ was out it was enthusiastically adopted by people outside the agency world.
The key principle in brainstorming is that all criticism is suspended. No idea, however irrelevant, is rejected or attacked, because this undermines the generative process, and “there are no bad ideas”. It treats every creative challenge as a blank canvas which must be filled up as quickly and completely as possible. It doesn’t matter whether the end result looks like Michaelangelo or Jackson Pollock, as long as every inch is covered. Quantity is prized above quality. And if there are no bad ideas, one creative idea is much the same as another.
At the end of the meeting it is the job of the moderator to sift through the dross and “pick out the nuggets” while everyone troops out of the door congratulating themselves on such a productive session. “There you go – we’ve produced some great ideas. All you have to do is refine them” they say, while you sift through a slag heap of low-grade ore and attempt to turn lead into gold.
Cynics regard brainstorming as a thinking technique for people who can’t think. Brainstorming enshrines a no-judgement approach, but for people who are creative for a living, judgement is the most important faculty they possess. Generating ideas is the easy part, but judgement is critical, in every sense. Every creative person has an internal editor who screens out irrelevant or ridiculous ideas before they hit the page. The alternative is creative Tourettes – spewing out random thoughts with no discrimination between the good, the bad and the ugly.
If brainstorming is the art of splashing paint across a blank canvas, the process in agencies is more akin to sculpture. We start out with a solid block of raw material containing an infinite range of possible ideas. Our task is to cut away everything that isn’t relevant or true, deciding what to keep and what to throw away. There are many different objects that can be produced from the same block, so judgement, based on experience, is vital. And after a while it becomes natural. Like the sculptor who, when asked how he created such a beautiful carving of an elephant from a simple block of stone, shrugged and said “I just cut away all the bits that don’t look like an elephant”.
The biggest problem with brainstorming, however, is that it doesn’t work. Numerous studies have shown that far from unleashing people’s innate creativity, it tends to inhibit whatever creativity they have. As long ago as 1958 a study in Yale University found that students working on their own came up with roughly twice as many ideas as brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more feasible and effective. Brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group, it made each individual less creative. Numerous follow-up studies have come to the same conclusion. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, summarises as follows: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”
More recent studies suggest that imagination actually thrives on conflict. Dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. You need friction to create sparks.
Yet that doesn’t stop people from clinging to brainstorming. And the approach undoubtedly has its uses. John Cleese advocates a free-wheeling, judgement-free approach to idea generation because it yields excellent results if your aim is to produce surreal, anarchic comedy scripts. But if you want advertising ideas, which have to be relevant to the audience, faithful to the brief and rooted in real brand attributes, you need a more disciplined approach.
So what technique do ad agencies use for idea generation, if not brainstorming? The first point is that generating ideas is essentially a solo activity. Committees can brief or block ideas, but they can’t create them. Ideas nearly always come from individuals. But once the idea is out there, developing it is a collaborative process.
At Life, the development of creative ideas is like a jam session. All the members of the brand team sit down together and discuss the brief. Like a group of musicians, we’re on the same wavelength and know each other’s styles and techniques. So when we start to jam ideas, we all contribute our own little riffs until one person presents their solo. Others jump in and pick up the thread, developing the theme or taking it in another direction. They improvise and embellish, and add their own solos. No-one quite knows where we’re going to begin with, but by the end of the session a theme has emerged which everyone has contributed to. So next time we meet we’ve established a solid groove to build on.
Next comes the Crit. This is where we play back the ideas to the toughest audience of all – ourselves – and basically rip them apart. We critique them with reference to the brief, to competitor activity, and to our own creative standards. If the ideas don’t measure up we ditch them and start again. But if it produces something original and true, we refine and polish it to a professional standard. Criticism (especially from your peers) is a brutal process. Creatives are often accused of having big egos; it’s truer to say they have thick skins, and the confidence and energy to keep coming up with great ideas when their initial ideas have been trashed. As long as they are all playing on the same track, they draw inspiration from each other.
The aim of every agency is not just to do great work on every brief, but ultimately to develop their own distinctive style. The truly innovative agencies take their art form into a completely new direction. There are parallels here with music, which puts a premium on individual virtuosity and improvisation. The Miles Davis quintet started out playing fast and furious bebop like all their contemporaries, trying to fit as many notes as possible into a bar. But it took the vision of Miles himself to strip the music down to the bare essentials - and that marked the birth of the Cool. And musicians like Madonna and David Bowie are constantly reinventing themselves to appeal to a new audience.
In the advertising world, every agency has its own groove. Some are more memorable than others. I think of Doyle Dane Bernbach as the Miles Davis of US ad agencies, because they reduced advertising to its basics and produced some of the coolest ads of all time. In the UK I see Bartle Bogle Hegarty (headed by the great adman John Hegarty) as the David Bowie of their time, because while others zigged, they zagged.
Life is in the Bob Marley school of advertising, because we’re always jamming. And we’re always trying to develop a brand new groove.