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How to Have Creative Marketing Ideas

Graphical brain exploding with ideas

Creative marketing ideas don’t just happen. The kinds of ‘ideas’ we’re used to seeing in marketing – cliched, tired, repetitive – come about because no one is dedicating time to creativity.

What is an idea?

I’ll tell you what it’s NOT: a thought. We’re all guilty of having believed our idle thought was worthy of the title ‘Idea’.

But an idea very rarely appears, fully formed, as a sudden out-of-nowhere revelation.

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Archimedes’ famous bath-time eureka moment about water displacement was the result of years of intense study and much pondering on the problem of calculating the volume of an irregular object. All that thought on the matter had finally turned into an idea.

Archimedes then had to work out how he’d prove his idea worked and apply it in real life. At that point, it turned into a strategy for how to calculate the volume of an irregular object.

How creative marketing ideas happen

For a marketer, creativity is fed in part by your years of experience. Successes and failures, knowledge of the market, customer feedback – musing on these things can often produce creative ideas for solving problems.

But creativity demands space, time and stimulation for that musing. And marketing doesn’t provide an awful lot of spare thinking time. As we saw above, even once a thought has occurred, it’s not an idea until it’s been developed.

So, we have to work thinking time into our discipline. That’s hard, because ‘inactivity’ is often seen as wasting time. Being tough about how creative marketing ideas happen is really important and takes good communication with whoever pays your salary.

A Technique For Producing Ideas by James Webb Young

James Webb Young wrote a very small book about how to have ideas, particularly in advertising, in the 60s. It’s 48 pages long and describes a simple process for sparking creativity.

Five steps (which in my mind demand a pipe and a record player for musing time) and you’ll have your idea. Charming.

1. Gather your materials

  • Specific materials: about your product or audience
  • General materials: unrelated stuff – yes, really (it’s brain-stimulating!)

2. Digest (with pipe, if necessary)

  • Read, interrogate and play with the materials
  • Combine specific and general materials – what do you get?

3. Leave your unconscious to work

  • Stop thinking about the subject entirely
  • Do something else (make a cocktail?)

4. Wait for the spark

  • As if
  • By magic
  • An idea
  • Appears

5. Develop your idea (AKA: the hard bit)

  • Write out the idea
  • Name it
  • Describe it in one sentence
  • Test it on other people
  • Give it hell

Ideas happen when two unrelated things collide

This is why James Webb Young told us to gather both specific and general materials. To get our brain into idea-making gear, we need to trick it into being creative.

And when we need just a quick spark, we can do a cheaty version of the five-step process above by mashing some things together.

Example: I need an idea for an ad to sell my beautiful, hand-embroidered and sequinned cushions

1. I gather materials about my customers: I know from Instagram that they’re 95% women and their average age is 40.

2. I gather materials unrelated to my conundrum: a pineapple.

3. I knock them together to create a new universe of creativity: a classic and darkly dramatic still life with gorgeous fruit and any of my cushions featuring sequinned fruit or animals arranged in between, so they’re part of the still life. BUT the still life is on a scratched wooden table with crumbs and abandoned toys on it just out of focus – the average 40-something mum’s lockdown life right now!

The idea is here: my expensive cushions can be a little glimpse of glamour and luxury in an otherwise earthly day.

I can see this scene so clearly that I actually want to be the cushion seller. Ideas are violent and dangerous things…

So, now you know what an idea is and how to have one, you’re ready to mangle your brain with how to ‘do’ strategy.

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