It’s easy! We lock ourselves away in a dark office, drain a Madison-Avenue-sized bottle of single-malt Scotch and then stumble out five minutes before the big, important client presentation with the Eureka moment in hand.

The truth is a lot less romantic and always involves 99 percent Thomas Edison-like perspiration. Big ideas are more likely to emerge when a group of passionate, fearless and creative people – focused on a common challenge – generate lots of smaller ideas that in many cases can add up to something truly unique, remarkable, relevant … and big.

Here’s a real-life example to sip on

To wit: we arrived at a beautiful and relevant campaign solution for one of our long-term clients. It’s a good illustration of what I’m talking about.

After compiling the proceeds of a series of discovery sessions, we wrote foundational brand language to guide our planning and thinking. Then we set our creative flow in motion, launching an agency-wide collaboration on strategies, tactics and campaign elements.

Over a period of weeks, we dumped hundreds of bite-sized thoughts into a dedicated chat channel and into our collective mental reservoir – positioning line ideas, color palette options, headlines, photo style approaches, font possibilities, social media strategies, etc.

Sure, we ended up with lots of irrelevant crap. But, as is often the case in the realm of creativity, irrelevant crap can be fertilizer for relevant and compelling ideas. Our particular pile ended up growing four beautifully conceived campaigns. After presenting the ideas to the client, we diplomatically steered them to the best “right answer.” That campaign is now rolling out throughout the Eastern U.S.

Like the three-martini lunch, this creative process is an agency classic

Without consciously realizing it at the time, our process traced the five stages of creativity laid out in the book entitled A Technique for Producing Ideas written by a Chicago copywriter named James Webb Young. The remarkable thing is that Young introduced his formula to the world in – wait for it – 1939. Which begs the question: How could advice that old and dusty be applicable to 21st century creativity?

Well, it seems Mr. Young articulated a timeless, archetypal formula that modern thinkers seem to recognize as a valid, repeatable pattern in their own creative problem-solving situations. (The steps are Young’s, the commentary is mine):

  1. Gather raw material: lots of it – on the product or service, the audience and its behavior, the competitive context, digging up research, talking to people, etc. Young would’ve typed up all this fodder up on his 1923 Smith-Corona typewriter and sent it as a mimeographed “memo” to his agency colleagues; we usually just make a Pinterest board.
  2. Digest the material: Cows chew cud. We chew the discovery notes, platform and/or brief. Reading, scanning, investigating, internalizing, bathing in minutiae, getting confused, becoming demoralized, experiencing nausea, contracting hives, giving up, falling dead asleep into our laptops with 27 open browser tabs.
  3. Unconscious processing: John Lennon said life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans; Young says ideas are what happen to you when you’re busy making other plans. This is the leave-it-alone, go-to-a-movie, bake-a-lumberjack-cake, play-Twister-with-your-hyperactive nephew-phase. During which time you are thinking about anything but the problem. Then, suddenly, as you’re pulling the cake out of the oven…
  4. The a-ha moment: Boom! The big idea appears! “I wonder how much of a raise I should ask for” is the very next thought that pops into your mind.
  5. Idea meets reality: It’s always helpful to renew your Zoloft prescription before you reach this final stage. Why? The cold, hard “hows” of creative execution smack you squarely in the face and make you realize that your big idea is really just a big, fat flop. Somehow though, via group therapy with your teammates, some refined brainstorming, and a few late nights of migraine-inducing prototyping, your flop just might morph back into something that could end up being a beautiful and thoughtful response to the problem at hand.

For neat ideas, skip the ice cubes. Don’t skip the steps.

Beware: If you short-circuit any of the above phases the work will be anything but electrifying. Sure, you might end up with one right answer to the problem, the client will pay the bill and it will ship on time. But you’ll never end up with the best right answer. Where possible, great agencies who do great work in an intentional way always allow the creative process the room it needs to deliver the best possible solutions.

Allow room for the creative process? You mean room…as in time? What kind of cotton-candy fantasy agency do you work at, Mr. Adkins?

I know. In our world, time is a luxury on par with beluga caviar and not having any weekend plans. That’s why we try to steal extra minutes for mental-marination whenever possible. Here’s a simple technique for doing so: ask the question early.

Translated, this means stating the client’s problem or opportunity to the creative team as soon as possible, sometimes even before the project is organized and kicked off. This gives them time to plant the challenge firmly in the soil of their subconscious minds. When that happens it’s uncanny how relevant solutions can take root and grow – seemingly without any effort at all.

So before you pay the agency’s bar tab…

If you’ve ever gotten an invoice from an agency for a bottle of single-malt Scotch, with the description “Inspiration for the Big Idea”, you just may be working with a slightly delusional and process-averse marketing partner. If that happens, let me know, okay? I just might know the name of a shop that can deliver the Big Idea in a more disciplined and collaboratively predictable way.