Former A&G-er and US ad legend Curvin O’Rielly left this in the comments section of a previous post. He originally wrote it as an article for Adweek magazine.
Some invaluable advice here from a true pro who knows what he’s talking about.
“Here’s a confession: During my agency career, I worked at more agencies than most people can list. The places included big agencies, small agencies, great agencies that filled me with joy, crappy agencies that made me wonder why I’d signed up, agencies that have vanished and agencies still in existence, even agencies with my name on the door.
“My record isn’t one that will earn me a place in the Hall of Fame, unless a Ripley’s wing is opened. Nonetheless, working in all those different places gave me a unique view of the one thing that matters in the ad business: coming up with ideas.
“Why are some people so prolific? Why are other people duds?
“The truth of the matter is that some people in advertising – the really, really bright ones – are members of the Lucky Sperm Club. They were born with right-hemisphere dominant brains. They can’t be anything but bright, brilliant and creative. It’s often true, of course, that their ‘luck’ at birth is also a curse; that their brilliance at coming up with wild, crazy yet wonderfully effective ideas so quickly comes from the mild to moderately severe levels of manic-depression that plagues them. Barely one person in 10 has this ‘advantage.’
“The rest of us are stuck with our left-hemisphere dominant brains. Yet when it comes to extraordinary work, we aren’t completely out of luck. With a little training, we can compensate for the biological oversight that occurred at our conceptions. Instead of allowing our left-hemisphere brains the opportunity to plod forward serially, arranging one fact after another in a neat line of orderly, logical piles, we can learn to mimic the childlike, ‘why not?’ thought patterns of those born to be inventive.
“I can think of at least 11 ways that can help lay the groundwork for such a miraculous transformation.
“1. Stock your brain with goodies.
“Those who are truly creative seem to devour all knowledge in their paths and often everything that’s off on all the spur tracks as well. As David Ogilvy suggested, they possess a ‘well- furnished mind’ and are ‘relentlessly curious.’
“Do you read? Go to museums? Go to the theatre? Do you watch movies on DVD and then try to deconstruct them? Have you ever gone to Google, ferreting out details of odd subjects just for the sheer fun of it? Have you ever had long conversations with people considerably different from you – chronologically, politically, economically, racially – in an attempt to see the world through a different set of eyes?
“Try any of them. Creative thinking, after all, is no more than an echo of all your personal perceptions, often ones formed in the oddest ways imaginable.
“2. Learn the difference between fertilizer and manure.
“Hemingway once told a reporter that the most important intellectual attribute a good writer can have is ‘a built-in, shockproof crap detector.’
“You need one of those in advertising, too. Use it with yourself and with others. How much of what you do, say, think and contribute has any nutrient value whatsoever? How much of it just stinks up the place?
“Question authority: A briefing that doesn’t make sense, a strategy that doesn’t add up, research that leaves too many crucial issues unanswered, even a client’s comments on occasion.
“3. Escape from ‘concept prison.’
‘Concept prison’ is the dreary place you occupy when you’ve convinced yourself you have to do things the way they’ve always been done.
By resisting ‘concept prison’ – a term coined by Edward DeBono, the brilliant Cambridge thinker – Phil Knight built a company that doesn’t sell shoes but instead lets you ‘just do it,’ i.e., fulfill your personal aspirations. Then there’s Amazon, Starbucks, eBay and craigslist, the creative offspring of Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, Pierre Omidyar and Craig Newmark, respectively.
“Getting back to advertising, lots of people in the business spend their entire careers in ‘concept prison’ and often seem to get by quite handsomely. But they’re usually called ‘hacks,’ a term you never want to have attached to your name.
“4. Avoid searching for ‘the right answer.’
“‘That’s not it.’ ‘That’s not it.’ ‘That’s not it.’
“Imagine what happens if your brain keeps telling you that your answers aren’t the right answer.
“Here’s the truth: In all likelihood, there’s more than one answer.
“Says DeBono: ‘The purpose of thinking is not to be right but to be effective. Being right means being right all the time. Being effective means being right only at the end.’
“So learn to accept failure en route to success, okay?
“For a good case history that illustrates this point, just spend a little time thinking about Steve Jobs’ ups and downs at Apple. He started the company. He gave us many, if not all, of the wonderful things about computers we now take for granted. He got tossed out in a management shake up. When the company fell on hard times, he came back with business- altering ideas so strong – carrying all your music in your pocket, as just one example – that in the eyes of many he now walks on water.
“5. Get off the monorail.
“The monorail is the train of logic most people feel riding. The best example of a monorail is probably a computer. All a computer does is make a series of yes/no decisions based on previously programmed data. That isn’t creative.
“Try attacking a problem obliquely from time to time. Be haphazard, even a little sloppy. Make your thinking playful. Be less serious, more serendipitous. Surprise yourself. Scare yourself.
“Look for parallels in other businesses you’ve worked on. For parallels in business success stories you’ve read about. Not to mention parallels in art, literature, history, science, nature, etc.
“Set a quota for your explorations: Five completely different ideas by noon, 15 by the end of the day, etc. Reward yourself when you hit your quota – give yourself an extra half hour at lunch, for example, or go home early.
Whatever. Don’t cheat and set quota too low, or make it impossible by setting it way too high.
“When you’ve exhausted the possibilities – or just exhausted yourself physically – put all your ideas up on the wall. Then look for the major themes that emerged from your exploration. They could very well be the beginnings of a Big Idea or even the Big Idea itself. Rearrange the ideas on the wall. Look for holes. See if there are new routes you could take.
“Don’t discard anything. Build a ‘rustle pile.’ Those scraps of paper that were up on the wall as idea fragments during your exploratory thinking are valuable kernels for copy as well as good ways to jump start future idea sessions on the business.
“7. Avoid perfection.
“’Perfection is spelled ‘paralysis,’’ wrote Winston Churchill, who could have become the greatest of all British copywriters given choice lines such as this. (Though if he had entered advertising instead of politics it’s likely England would now be speaking German.)
“Searching for the perfection of artistic detail in the idea-generation stage is like spending your bonus before your boss has presented it.
“8. Curb your ego.
“Don’t be so quick to find the faults in a thought, especially in a team or group setting. Making a definitive yes or no decision early in the game freezes others and makes them hesitant to share their innermost thoughts.
“It’s not only counter-productive, by the way, it’s totally rude.”
“Boil your problem down to its essence. Throw out every detail that isn’t relevant.
“Said Albert Einstein, a man probably a good deal smarter than you are or ever will be: ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible but no simpler.’
“10. Don’t knuckle under.
“Having the courage to think outside the lines is only half of it.
“When you finally have an idea that’s different, unexpected or otherwise off the well-trodden path, count on running into others who’ll whimper and retreat to the land of ‘yes, but we’ve never done it that way before,’ the place where they think it’s good and safe.
“Anticipate them. Build a case and prepare to fight for your baby.
Remember those memorable words from an anonymous sage: ‘Every great oak was once a nut that stood its ground.’
“If those words don’t do it, keep George Bernard Shaw’s admonition in mind: ‘All great truths begin as blasphemies.’
“11. Have some fun.
“Advertising is the toy department of the business world. As are marketing and branding. So play!”
Sorry for such a long comment, Vinny…