Why the brainstorm is such a thing as a bad idea

Mark Perkins

I have a confession to make. As I look back upon a long and occasionally distinguished career in developing and activating campaigns, when I look back at the ones that really made a difference, that make me proud, that won awards, something is quite clear. Not a single, damn one has come out of a brainstorm.

God knows I’ve tried. I’ve tried leading them (badly) and I’ve also spent close to 20 years sitting in them feeling frustrated. This includes the occasion at an all-agency brainstorm where a moderator from a media-buying agency beamed at everyone like a presenter from CBeebies and asked ‘Are we all wearing our enthusiasm pants?’ (At which point it became apparent I was most definitely wearing my irritable Y-fronts).

The other week I joined a panel – billed by the PRCA as some of the industry’s most successful and respected creative directors (and myself)  – and it seemed that we all had the same experience. When it came to how we got the ideas and inspiration for our best work we didn’t arrive at it locked in a room for an hour with eight other people, a white board and an unlimited supply of sugar. Nor is it the method used by any decent ad agency, whose creative models and approaches we are moving closer to.

There is such a thing as a bad idea

If there is one thing holding back creativity in many PR agencies it is the creative process itself. Firstly, there is the mantra, peculiar to our industry, that there is no such thing as a bad idea. There bloody well is. The Ed Stone was a bad idea, flashmobs are a bad idea, enforced wackiness is a bad idea. As is buying a QPR season ticket every year. Our industry is littered with very bad ideas that managed to creep through due to a Haribo high and a slavish belief that creative brainstorm techniques deliver the best route to results. But in a brainstorm you can’t (ok, well you aren’t supposed to) point out how and why an idea is bad, dreadful or insane and before you know it you’re clawing back to escape Perfect Curve territory (Jubylimpics anyone?).

If you start the process with a free for all – often dominated by the most vocal if not most thoughtful – with no such thing as a bad idea, you risk working to the lowest common denominator. It’s insulting to our discipline to say there’s no such thing as a bad idea. Try telling your client or FD there’s no such thing as a bad budget. There are bad ideas, ok ideas and great ideas. Let’s only dedicate our time to aim high on the latter and not waste any time on the rest. And don’t even start me on the word ‘workshop’.

Answering the wrong questions

It has always seemed absurd to pressgang a group of people in a room, in-between urgent deadlines and actions on their to-do lists, get them to think about random objects, imagine they were Richard Branson, Cheryl Cole or Jesus and think you can crack the brief.

Ideas do come forth, granted. It just so happens that almost always they are unusable you happen to be Cheryl Cole, the random object is central to the problem you are trying to solve or you really do want to be fired from the account.

Live with the problem

All too often brainstorms deliver a huge volume of ideas, just not many good ones. And when the hour is over people walk away from that problem and go back to their to-do lists without any further thought. Their emotional and intellectual engagement with the process is over.

Creativity is a rigour and a discipline. It requires tricks, techniques, applied research (not TGI but other campaigns, areas of inspiration, looking at completely different fields/bodies of creative work), insight, emotional triggers, and asking lots of questions and most importantly time. Time to think. It requires being always on.

When a new business or client brief comes in it becomes a problem that needs to be solved, an irritant, a monkey on my back. To get rid of it there is a constant churn of thoughts, seeking to find connections, thinking in pictures, prompts that form an idea. It starts when I wake up and it goes on till I go to sleep. You don’t switch off or settle for something that ‘might work’.

One of the key motivations for this comes from personal experience. We’ve all worked on campaigns that didn’t work.  A team invests huge amounts of time, energy and faith in working on a campaign and as a senior professional it’s a personal duty of care to them (not to mention the client) to make sure you deliver the best solutions rather than end up with a crushing disappointment.

For a fully formed idea to come can take days, weeks, maybe even months (if you have the luxury). Sometimes it takes a second. It’s just a case that you can’t plan for when that second is going to happen or what will prompt it.

Because you’ve been living with the problem and going through questions, answers and possibilities in your head at your desk, over lunch, in conversation, on the train home, in the shower – it never comes down to chance.

So what do the team and I at MHP do instead of a brainstorm?

Well, that would be telling. To find out in full you’ll have to join us or hire us.

Suffice to say that no one person lives alone with the problem and the monkey on their back. Everyone gets their share of the primate and they have to live with it not for an hour or two but for days at a time. They also get techniques and approaches on how to get rid of it.

Far from being overwhelming, it is empowering, encouraging entrepreneurial thinking. The result is that some of the very best ideas are coming from groups and individuals across all levels. Recently we won a major pitch where some of the most imaginative ideas came from the most junior, in particular from those who were least vocal in brainstorms. It is a far more productive use of time and it is saving us an absolute fortune in Haribo Tangfastics.