Marketing idea generation is dampened by too much analytical thought

Many marketers immerse themselves in the analytical aspects of the discipline at the expense of generating ideas. They should think again, writes Helen Edwards.

Virtual planning costs little
Virtual planning costs little

The most important version of any product is virtual. It doesn’t matter how resolutely solid that product might be, how much it is subject to the laws of physics or thermodynamics, its most significant, seminal expression is weightless, rootless and unbounded.  

Consider a new business class airline cabin, for example. In this virtual-reality version, the cabin can be seen from all angles, move in all attitudes, bend and shift, shrink and grow, change colours, evoke smells and sounds, be viewed with passengers and without, at different times of day and night – before settling to a more confirmed, stable picture.

The system required to run the programme is a 1m gigabyte processor known as the human brain. The name given to this virtual presentation is ‘idea’.

The main idea

Ideas are not merely the definitive virtual-reality form, they are also the principal objective of marketing. Without the idea – whether it’s for a product, service, positioning, pack or price plan – there is nothing but an aim, an opportunity, a space.

It should follow that the most intense activity of people who work in marketing, for which they should leap out of bed every morning, is the generation of ideas. Yet it isn’t. 

Instead, marketers are splendidly active in the analytical stages that precede idea generation, and equally active in the validation stages thereafter. Increasingly, though, the conceptual part itself is outsourced to others – innovation specialists, brand consultancies, communications agencies, design houses. Why?

The answer lies in the marketer’s love of process and algorithm. These offer a reassuring certainty: enter the right inputs, in the right order, and there is a kind of automation to the results. This is not to say that disciplines such as targeting, segmentation and distribution are easy – they are not; but they will, at least, yield to a systemised, step-by-step approach.

All that stops the moment it comes to making an imaginative leap. Marketers believe – and they are right to – that there is no algorithm that will take them, assuredly, across that chasm from ‘analysis’ to ‘idea’. 

But here’s what they get wrong. They take their belief too far, assigning to idea generation the status of ‘alchemy’ or ‘magic’ – mysterious forces that reside in the souls of peculiar individuals who work… well, somewhere else.   

Soft structure

If you have a sizeable department with its fair share of those 1m gigabyte processors, that is a lot of potential creation going to waste. So let’s take a cooler look at how ideas come about.

They derive neither from method nor magic, but something in between. Yes, they can appear to pop up as if from nowhere, but they have, in fact, formed themselves, without the originator necessarily being aware of it, around something we might call ‘Soft structure’. 

There are many constituents of this soft structure – facts, insights, anecdotes – but by far the most important are tensions. It is the effort to achieve their reconciliation that throws up original ideas. 

Some of their ideas will be terrible; but since they are virtual, not built, they can be disassembled without cost

Creative professionals will often tell you: "The problem contains the solution." They instinctively start with the toughest item in the whole brief, the thing that doesn’t seem to fit, and work from there. It forces new connections in that amazing processor that sits in all of our heads, and, bit by bit, that most gleeful of human phenomena – an idea – starts to form. 

The upshot is this: when you want the team to switch to creative mode, you also need to switch the focus from the desirable outcome you seek to achieve to the undesirable forces that appear to be stopping you.

Summon up the tensions in any order you like: between brand heritage and contemporary culture; between sector norms and consumer wants; between budgets and ideals. Then, invite your team to play with them, in their own way, in their own time. 

Some of their ideas will be terrible; but since they are virtual, not built, they can be disassembled without cost. Some will be promising; they can be manipulated and revolved, prodded and reshaped until they become something worth making real.

That new airline cabin – or whatever your sector’s equivalent might be – is as likely to emerge from your
own team as anywhere else. Forget algorithm, forget alchemy. Introduce a little soft structure, allow a little time, give them permission to get it wrong, and you are virtually there.

Where do ideas come from

Here’s what some of the great and the good – from both commercial and artistic disciplines – have to say on the genesis of ideas.

• "Creative opposition: using doubt, friction, opposition and criticism actively as tools for questioning accepted truths and creating better ideas, and not treating them as a disturbance you try to avoid." Arne Carlson, who led a four-year research project into ‘creativity at work’ for BI Norwegian Business School.

• "Remove your headphones – inspiration is all around us and needs to be absorbed." BBH co-founder Sir John Hegarty.

• "There is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must – for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a ‘new idea’, but as a mere ‘corollary of an old idea.’" The late Isaac Asimov, science-fiction writer and professor of biochemistry.

• "Make fucking mistakes." One of 241 snippets of wisdom and profanity on the website Good Fucking Design Advice.

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