Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Want a Great Idea? First, You Need Lots of Ideas

Published in May-Jun 2022

Julian Saunders provides his methodology on how to generate plentiful ideas. 

Just before Covid-19, I was consulting for Amazon. The marketing director had hired a new team of diverse talents – account planners, media planners and buyers, data analysts, marketers, copywriters, art directors, web designers and SEO specialists. She had created a kind of hybrid marketing department-cum-database marketing agency-cum-media agency. Why so? 

Amazon is essentially a data company (combined with a brilliant logistics operation). Data are their crown jewels and the engine that drives all activities and specialist teams. Think of it as the central intelligence from which all other activities (campaigns, personalised offers, loyalty schemes, etc.) flow. It makes sense to put data insights at the centre and gather all the other functions around it. Big tech companies (as well as many other data-rich companies, such as banks, utilities, healthcare companies and all types of e-commerce) are bringing different functions in-house. Expect this trend to grow. 

Diverse teams bring fresh ideas, which is a good thing. It also brings management problems. For example, digital designers and classically trained marketers have different ideas about effectiveness, their own jargon and ways of working. Digital designers test and refine systems that are mostly designed for existing customers – theirs is a process of constant optimisation. Classically trained marketers plan and develop campaigns with a beginning and an end in which new customer penetration is vital for growth. The dangers of mutual incomprehension are high, as many staff are new to the company and have yet to form internal relationships.

My brief from Amazon (then) was to help the new staff ‘meet each other’ and develop common tools and simple frameworks for working on projects together. I chose the Harvard Business School’s approach to case history study. Fortunately, I have a treasure trove of these on hand, in the form of the APG Creative Strategy Awards, which reveal the key pieces of thinking that unlocked briefs. Pictures also help, so I kicked off with a very simple one to explain how pretty much all teams work on projects. They investigate three areas that you might sum up as: 1) Brand or product or offer, 2) Consumer definition and motivation and 3) competitive or cultural context.

To make this easier to understand, I framed this as the following three questions: 1) What promise can we make (about the brand/service offer)?, 2) Who is this for and how can we motivate them (to do or think something)? and 3) What is the opportunity or threat (from competitors and/or wider culture)? – and somewhere along the process the ‘aha’ moment should emerge. 

So far so simple. Case histories, however, do not reflect the messy reality of how teams work. They go back and forth, run up blind allies, wander around a topic, put it aside and come back. This period can be unsettling but a solution will come – it may happen in a meeting, during a casual chat, when in the shower or just walking about. It can take time to come up with a really good solution. Early ideas are considered and rejected. There is often an ‘aha’ moment – an idea emerges that makes sense of all three areas of investigation. It is as much an instinct as a rational process.

All of this I know to be true from my time as an agency planner and CEO. I learned to tell the difference between ‘early thoughts’ (the ones to reject) and ‘likely solutions’ (to be shortlisted and fleshed out before picking a winner). 

For tidy minded folk, this can be uncomfortable. Humans hanker for clarity. They want a process, with planning tools, that is guaranteed to deliver ‘the idea’ as if it was a factory production line. But I have rarely experienced such a thing. Instead, I have learned that it is wise to adhere to this simple principle: If you have lots of ideas you will eventually have a good idea, maybe a great idea. The good news is that you can teach methods for generating ideas. 

Here are three of my favourites. They are easy to understand. You don’t have to have any strategy training to use them.

1. Barriers 
All goals are pursued in a context. Think of these as barriers such as: Competition – how heavy it is and its nature. Consumer – such as entrenched behaviours/beliefs. Environment – media interest and regulation. Brand – such as how you are positioned in people’s minds. Resources – such as spend/infrastructure/innovation. Culture – such as management beliefs.

Write down the barriers for your brief. Now use some mental judo; how can we flip this/these barrier(s) to our advantage? Example from the insurance market – all the competitive noise (especially aggregator websites) was telling consumers that the only thing that really mattered was to get the best price. Direct Line chose to do the opposite and dramatise how their insurance in fact saves people in moments of dire need. This was the springboard for a five-year campaign.

2. Laddering 
Start with basic facts about the product or brand and ‘ladder down.’ Keep asking the question – what’s the benefit of that, what’s the benefit of that, and what’s the benefit of that?  Here is a current UK example from the mortgage market. Fact: We approve nine out of 10 mortgages. So, the benefit is that more people can buy a home. So, the benefit is young people can get on the property ladder. So, the benefit is we help young couples create a family home. A boring fact has been turned into a promise that can lead to the telling of compelling human stories. This is the promise that NatWest used in its advertising.  

3. Moments That Matter 
This was my most used workshop method during my time in an innovation unit at Google. It stimulates ideas by thinking about when people are most receptive and open to influence. The starting point is to build a picture of your audience’s behaviour. We chunked these into ‘micro-moments’ (such as what and where people search online in response to their needs), regular moments (such as standing at a station waiting for a train to turn up or doing the weekly shop, the changing seasons, going to events) and moments of life change (going to university, marriage, first job, new job, first child, divorce, retirement). 

Often, people reveal what they are open to through the signals they send off from their search behaviour, so search analysis is a useful input – but so is just human observation. Having built a picture of ‘moments that matter’, ask this question: What would be relevant or useful or inspiring to your audience in these moments?

The beauty of this method is that it provokes ideas beyond advertising. A personal example: Before lockdown (remember that) I went to music festivals. The battery on my iPhone drained fast with all the shots I was taking. To solve this problem, EE sold mini rechargers which could be swapped for a fresh fully loaded recharger once used. EE saved me from being cut off from my friends due to the death of my phone. More powerful than any ad, it even caused me to tell my friends about EE’s great new service.

Amazon had another challenge that Aurora readers are surely familiar with – many projects to deliver and tight timelines. Ideas are needed quickly. So strategic thinking needs to be creatively fertile. The above three methods are just that. Do give them a try. 

Julian Saunders is a strategist, writer and teacher. Read more about his training courses on his blog.