Genius or Process? How Top Creative Directors Come Up With Great Ideas

Strategies for making magic

Headshot of Tim Nudd

It's a bit of a pointless exercise to ask creative people where they get their ideas. (As if they know.) What they can reveal, more reliably, are the processes, environments and strategies that have worked for them as they pursue that mysterious eureka moment.

Five top creative directors discussed their personal approaches to idea generation Tuesday at an Advertising Week panel moderated by Fast Company's Teressa Iezzi—debating the role of everything from brainstorming sessions to pool tables to complete and total panic on the long road to a big idea.

Amy Hodgins-Carvajal, creative director at Publicis Kaplan Thaler, spoke first—and bluntly called it like it is. The most creative people in the world are children, she said, and so advertising creatives should be treated like children. (Not in a bad way.)

"Kids aren't self-editing," she said. "They have a very fresh perspective. They're proud of their ideas. They want to share them. We come up with our ideas in the same way that children play. It's a playful environment, and we make it a really fun atmosphere, where people are encouraged to share and aren't overly criticized."

Sam Cannon, executive creative director at Razorfish, said he finds the best way to be creative is to introduce constraints and work within them.

The creative brief, if it's good, will constrain you and lead to insights about the target audience that go beyond the superficial, he said. Another useful constraint, he added, is to force yourself to recognize your crutches and step outside your comfort zone.

"If you tend toward comedy, stop yourself with the next assignment and try to do something a little more serious," he said. "If you tend to start with a social idea, or TV, or whatever it is, don't go there. Take a different turn, and see where it takes you. It also applies to the teams you work with. It's natural to want to work with the same people over and over again. But I think it's really refreshing to find different people to work with."

Another good constraint, though an unpleasant one: good old-fashioned desperation. "The budget gets cut, or the people you wanted to work with aren't available," he said. "In those moments of panic, your adrenaline kicks in. You're forced to think of things differently. I'm not asking for more of those desperation moments, but you can welcome that and take it as an opportunity to try something new."

Conor Brady, chief creative officer at Huge, offered an array of strategies for jogging the creative mind: Get away from the computer; get out of the office as a team; socialize together; hash out problems over a beer; be open to being lucky; do things outside of digital (if you work at a digital agency like Huge); go see a film or a play and learn how those people solve problems; post your work on the wall and let the entire agency critique it; and finally, bring passion to every project, and get out of the way if it isn't there.

Gary Koepke, chief creative officer for North America at SapientNitro, said he values the notion of "connected thinking," and invites all sorts of people from across the agency to come to brainstorming meetings—even people not with the agency.

"Ultimately what I like is the random molecule idea," he said. "Invite someone who maybe has nothing to do with anything. Maybe it's an artist or a musician. Maybe it's my mom. Anybody to say, 'Why are you doing that?' or 'What's this?' or 'You guys always do the same thing.' I believe everybody is creative, so it doesn't matter who's in the room, as long as they've been briefed properly and somebody is managing that process."

Koepke likes to use whiteboards—ideas there can feel less permanent, he said, and thus, less intimidating—and tries to dispel the fear that comes with the creative process. "There's a lot of fear involved, because you feel a lot of pressure to come up with a brand new idea," he said. "In reality you're just putting pieces together of a puzzle that many people have put together in the past."

You also have to listen—really listen—Koepke added. "Ideas hide within a sentence somebody says, or a phrase, or a combination of words they write down that you might not be paying attention to," he said. "These ideas are very fleeting as well. Always write these things down so they don't get away from you. Keep them close to you."

Finally, Koepke added, give your ideas room to breathe.

"Just when you think you have it, put it aside and start over again," he said. "Let the ideas grow. I don't know if it's like bread rising or good wine maturing. Ideas mature either in a positive way or a negative way. Always be willing to destroy your ideas. Good ideas will stand up against any test. And we should test our ideas and make sure they can withstand the test. Try to break them down. Try to make them invalid."

Reid Miller, ecd at Taxi in New York, the final panelist, spoke about his agency's move from a linear process of ideation (client -> account -> strategy -> creative -> idea) to a more circular one, where staffers from all disciplines surround the idea and add to it. This helps make the idea bigger across the different media (TV, print, digital, out of home, etc.) rather than having small cookie-cutter iterations of the same idea mindless tailored to each one.

"What a consumer doesn't want to see is the same idea done 16 different ways," Miller said. "Instead, come up with 16 ways to make that idea bigger."

At the core of idea generation, he added, is curiosity.

"Everybody in this circle has to be curious," he said. "And what curious means is three things: You have to be curious and doubt what you know. You want to learn and take in new information constantly. Curiosity also means collaboration—a desire to work with all these different people who have a completely different point of view on the problem than you do. And last, curiosity also means being able to change—change what you thought you knew, change what you thought worked, and add to that. Take what you've done in the past, and put all the little pieces together and build a bigger idea."

"We used to talk about peeling the onion," Miller concluded. "Today it's about building—layer upon layer upon layer upon layer, until suddenly you see you have a big idea."

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.