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Ideas aren’t like lightbulbs, they’re like trees

by Rory Hamilton, Chief Creative Officer

I’ve been thinking a lot about ideas recently and where they come from. The reason for this is that I’ve been asked to teach the rest of the agency about the way in which I come up with ideas as part of an ongoing campaign to ever improve our creative.  And the honest answer is that I don’t really know where my ideas come from. It’s always been something of a mystery to me. It’s not like I’ve never wondered, I have been a creative for more than 20 years and I have been a keen student of Advertising during that time. I’ve studied writing and art direction and firmly believe that a creative should know every award winning campaign ever made and be able to use that knowledge the same way a lawyer might use precedent. But any of that knowledge of previous cases, usually focuses on how campaigns were made, how they worked rather than where the very first “spark” of an idea came from. When you study advertising, you are learning about craft and execution, and not the precious idea that lies at the heart of any campaign.

Maybe that’s because the place where ideas come from is in your head. Ideas occur somewhere between the conscious and the subconscious. It’s why people talk about “lightbulb moments” and “being struck by lightning”. It’s why most creatives work by inputting all the information they need and then trying very hard not to think about the problem until an idea appears. Tricky when a deadline is looming, and useless if our aim is to find out where ideas come from so we can get better at having more of them faster. Digging around in the subconscious isn’t always a good idea either. A college lecturer of mine in the subject of Psychoanalysis once advised “Don’t go in there (to the subconscious) unless you really have to, it’s fragile and if you poke around you might break stuff”. Which brings me to my last point of caution; a long-held fear that in finding out where I get ideas from, I might break the thing that makes them.

However, by protecting the creative process in this way, by shrouding it in mystery, I think we add to its problems. People mistrust creativity because they see it as a “gift” and not a skill. I have never agreed. Creativity is something you practice, it’s a muscle that grows and strengthens with use. As in every other creative discipline, creatives get better at coming up with ideas over time. It’s the same with songwriters, directors and authors, all of whom see improvement as they practice their craft. They get better. The same can be said for painters who earn the title of “Master” after a lifetime of practicing their skill, honing that craft.  Ignoring this benefit of experience leads to the ageism in our industry which frequently eschews experience to follow a goose-chase for innovation. So how do we exercise that muscle and get better at coming up with ideas. 

The key for me is in teaching your brain to think laterally rather than linearly. Traditionally we use logic to think in a linear fashion. One point leads to another and another followed by a conclusion, leaving a strong chain of logical argument.  A creative mind learns to use each step in a logic chain as a “what if” moment, a jumping off point of possibility. Suddenly rather than a linear stem you have new “branches” forming at every juncture. These “what if” suppositions are each an idea reaching out from a central proposition. Suddenly you have a tree of ideas and, eventually a forest.

Teaching your brain to think in this way has its advantages when it comes to lateral thinking and idea generation. But it’s not without its drawbacks. Firstly, very few creative brains are good at finishing a job. At least in my experience, when you teach your brain to jump at every idea, it can be very difficult to make it stop. Your brain becomes easily distracted by any possibility. An excuse that I use around the house when I start a job and immediately get distracted by tangential things that I find which become ideas of other things to do. It can also be easy to get lost in ideas and forget where you started. The best advertising concepts seem to be a single leap from a proposition, not five jumps in different directions. As a creative you can lose yourself in a forest of your own ideas and it can take someone from outside the process to come in and help you see the wood from the trees.