Ideation Methods for Creative Inspiration


Think Tank by on March 23rd, 2017

Maya Angelou said, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” Marketers may know this better than anyone, as they are constantly tasked with flexing their creative muscles to come up with the next great idea—and that idea is rarely the first one suggested. They often could use a little help coaxing out and then nurturing several ideas until one becomes something great.

And marketers are willing to try anything to help arrive at these great ideas, so PM360 asked several creative, innovative talents what exactly they do to find the best ideas. Specifically we wanted to know:

  • What are some of the new ideation methods you have used in the last couple of years to try to encourage fresh marketing ideas?
  • What methods have proven to be most successful at uncovering ideas or insights that resonated with your target audience?
  • Have you heard about any methods that others are using that you are now considering trying?
  • When taking part in any new ideation method, what is the key to narrowing down the best ideas and singling out the best ones even before you advance to market testing?

Michael Schreiber

Before you can discuss ideation methods it’s important to understand what ideas actually are. Think about it; ideas are elusive and not easy to define. The best description I’ve heard: “An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” I like this definition because it practically instructs you on how to get an idea. All you have to do is take some ingredients you already know about and combine them in a new way.

To effectively ideate you must combine, link, juxtapose, or synthesize. Robert Frost said it well: “An idea is a feat of association.” So imagine two columns, literally or figuratively. On one side you have the subject of your business (say cancer) and on the other side you have a long list of random things linked to that subject by the word “and.” You end up with a hodgepodge of pairs. Cancer and Games, Cancer and Vacation, Cancer and Machines. Now find a few ways to potentially link the two items in each pair together. Yes, at times the combination will be outlandish but more often than not you’ll find a unique connection and that can spark a new way of thinking about an old subject.

The Worst Possible Idea

Another ideation method often utilized in UX design is called The Worst Possible Idea.

Instead of going for good ideas, lower the bar and call for the worst possible ideas. Doing this relieves anxiety and allows people to be adventurous, since the stakes are so low. Once you’ve collected the best of the worst, flip the ideas to turn them into solutions.

It’s an out-there method but I’ve had some fun playing with it. At the very least, you open your mind to new ways of thinking and that’s what ideation is all about.

Tristen George

The variety of communication channels available today, along with the increased business issues we all face, create a challenging environment where unique and effective content ideas are more critical than ever. One way we’ve addressed these challenges is by bringing together a cross-functional team that extends beyond traditional creative minds to offer a diverse range of perspectives and expertise. Together we ideate through a process which focuses on immersing the team in the world of the end customer. This process allows for collaboration across disciplines and diverse problem solving in real time, generating unique, actionable solutions, focused on the target customer.

Step-by-Step Process

The process starts with group brainstorms, focusing on persona development, which helps the team understand the mindsets of customers—their lifestyles, habits, and potential barriers to adherence and/or compliance. By walking in the customers’ shoes, we are better positioned to discover opportunities where the brand can seamlessly integrate into their lives. The next step moves into developing a content strategy that informs both the tone of the conversation and the strategy of the content. This is particularly important in conversations involving healthcare decisions in which sensitivity is paramount and the nuances of tone and delivery are crucial (think erectile dysfunction or urinary incontinence). We can then start to identify the ideal set of touchpoints and tactics for reaching our customer. Understanding how one brand interaction leads to the next informs our final conceptual ideation phase, where the creative team infuses the emotion and motivation into the final experience.

While the process can take place quickly and efficiently in a two-hour ideation session, there is also opportunity for a larger scale effort through a full-day hack-a-thon. The extra time dedicated to a full-day hack using a wider group of minds can generate a deeper exploration, in which problems and solutions can be discussed and viewed from all sides.

Daniel J. Gandor

At Takeda, one unique idea we’ve implemented is our digital accelerator experimentation program to encourage digital innovation across all aspects of our company: From the earliest R&D, to commercial and marketing, and everything in between. By providing both a safe environment for testing and failure, and independent funds to execute completely new and potentially “disruptive” ideas, we have opened the door to wildly creative concepts. We require experiments to create new learnings for the organization, and in doing these innovative new pilots, the experience gained makes it only that much easier the next time around.

We’ve also experimented with crowdsourcing tools, like Spigit, to help capture ideas from a broader audience—including whole departments—ensuring even shy people have a voice for their ideas. Crowdsourcing then also helps the whole group refine the idea and ultimately prioritize the execution.

Narrowing Down the Best Ideas

We’ve created a process at Takeda around our experimentation funding called the Digital Accelerator Experimentation Journey to ensure all experiments are high quality. We also focus on a critical approach that makes experiments stage-gated, allowing for agility during the ideation stage, while ensuring we can easily identify those ideas that won’t work. And if an experiment is headed toward failure, we allow it to “fail fast” so we can stop it quickly and pivot toward ideas with a greater likelihood of success. Another way to narrow down the campaigns is by insuring KPIs are identified and agreed upon up front. This immediately helps identify higher-quality ideas versus more ethereal concepts.

Christina Mullen

The first step: Always set objectives for your brainstorm. Is it for big picture brand positioning? An annual planning session? Are you seeking ideas for messaging or a specific tactic (i.e., a website)? Build exercises around those answers. Establishing clearly defined goals can help achieve actionable, relevant ideas.

I often start with “Starbursting,” a five-point star graphic with a question accompanying each point: Who, what, when, where, why (or how). Participants in the room share questions to ask themselves. “Why should patients care?” “Who are we targeting?” “What will we say?” A poster sheet for each of the five main Starburst questions hangs around the room, so as you write down questions, everyone can view them throughout the session. The posters are good reminders of what needs to be answered and how to focus thinking.

Exercises Worth Trying

As a former copywriter, I often use writer’s prompts. Ask the group, “What if?” Then, ideate around the answers. For example, with a group of HR professionals, ask, “What if there were no more resumes?” They will then brainstorm to come up with new ways to review candidates. This process works well as a group exercise, with various scenarios posed to each small group.

One of my favorite messaging exercises is called “free billboard.” Tell the group they have won a free billboard on a highly visible highway. They can use eight to 10 words and/or an image. What do you want to say? This can be a group or individual exercise. Handouts of large 11” x 17” sheets capture everyone’s art and copy ideas.

Finally, simple and modern twists to normal exercises make the group feel more creative. Ask for Tweets or Instagram posts, or a Pinterest board you would create. Fresh ways of asking leads to fresh ways of thinking.

Stephen Minasvand

Many ways exist to inspire ideation, of course. Example: Our physical space and environment directly affects the intensity of our creativity, innovation, and ideation. This has become even more evident since we moved our offices to the Bowery, at the crossroads of Chinatown and the Lower East Side of New York City.

The interwoven cultural forces in the neighborhood itself are a beautiful and dynamic source of inspiration. From the restaurants and food carts we choose to eat from, to the eclectic little pop-up shops and storefronts we walk by on our daily commute, we are energized every single day. For example, down the block from our office is the last original Cash Register Store. They build, restore, and sell original analog cash registers. Simply gorgeous craftsmanship. Simply inspiring.

Feeding the Creative Animal

Part of encouraging a creative environment is allowing the “creative animal” within every person to thrive. At m+a, we feed the ambition to grow professionally. But perhaps more significantly, we encourage individual and personal growth by helping to fund each person’s non-work-related creative passion. Why? Because we see a direct link from individual inspiration to the strength of our collective ideas. Each team member has something undeniably unique to offer and we will always support that.

Finally, we have the privilege of choosing the right client partners—individuals who love a risk well taken. Our clients push for different, new, and better, and that’s what we give them. Best of all, we have fun doing it.

Michael Sanzen

At Concentric, we developed a creative process years ago called the BrandStorm—a multi-day, collaborative ideation workshop with clients, creatives, and strategists working together to help bring a brand to life. In the past, we used the BrandStorm to get a large amount of creative work in a short amount of time. We’d present the brief, discuss, execute, discuss some more, until finally the walls were covered with sketches to refine, execute, and test. Originally, the goal was efficiency and the exercise was typically reserved for crunch time. And it worked quite well.

After years of BrandStorms, we began to see however, that the process could be enhanced by making the client part of the entire creative journey. The journey isn’t just about exploring the brief—it’s about processing what feels right for the brand and what doesn’t. The brief itself evolves.

Bringing in the Client

So instead, we’ve broken the BrandStorm up into several days. Instead of pulling the client in the next day, we pull them in halfway through the same day to show what we have so far and let them react. Everyone is warned: Because you’re part of the entire process, you’re going to see some wild stuff. Ideas, parts of ideas, upside down ideas, really out there ideas. And we’re not just talking the brand leads—this includes everyone from marketing folks to medical and regulatory people. Essentially all of the teams we would eventually have to get buy in from anyway.

All silos are destroyed to create a more meaningful and strategic journey. In this modern world of fast-paced launches, research…well, everything, this creates a unique opportunity for the entire team to put their thoughts, time, and effort into a rich platform for a true brand experience. There’s no going back, as far as we’re concerned.

Deborah Furey

Strong and innovative ideation is grounded in the inputs we bring to the process. And there are a number of inputs we are increasingly working with here at Wunderman Health. Emotion—that is, the instinctive feelings and mood that everyone experiences—has a significant bearing on how customers react and interact with content and creative. Emotion also plays a large role in how patients manage their own health. Assessing the visual, auditory, and contextual cues that fuel emotional responses—especially those that trigger negative, neutral, and hopeful emotions—can help drive content and resources for healthcare stakeholders that are engaging and impactful.

We are currently working with a series of technology, facial recognition, image analysis, and AI companies to explore ways to diagnose emotional response—say from past creative—as well as to predict the response to creative and connect that with specific emotional profiles.

Dynamic Customer Personas

Another key input to our process is moving from the static view of customer personas with which many marketers work to a more dynamic view—essentially understanding how our customers’ intentions, motivations, and interests change depending on where they are (in all aspects) and when they are interacting. While it is challenging to execute on this in the regulated healthcare industry, anchoring our ideation and planning in a vision of the customer that is grounded in reality and recognizes that they are continuously evolving is helping us build richer constructs to engage and serve them.

We believe that emerging data sets from tools such as AI (e.g., Amazon Echo) and Internet of Things devices (e.g., intelligent drug delivery devices) will bring more real insights from customers into the ideation process. Hopefully driving the next generation of compelling, engaging, and personalized programs.

Steven Hébert

I’m sorry to tell you the bad news. There is no secret, no process, no magic bullet to having a great idea. But all is not lost. The good news is that ideas abound. And they can come from the most unexpected people in the most unexpected places. You see, humans are inherently creative creatures. We are born to ideate. The only trick is to nurture this essential human trait and to do your best to get out of its way. To that end, four principles for getting to great ideas includes:

1. Get the right mix of people: Ideas come from anywhere so make sure you include people from diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and points of view. More variables add to the possible outcomes. Traditional advertising art/copy teams are based on this principle and have often been included to bring technology into the mix.

2. Smaller teams = more ideas: Big group brainstorms are wastes of time. Instead, pair up or break into very small groups to ideate as teams. Instead of one group of 10, try five groups of two. You will get more ideas this way and everyone will feel more engaged.

3. Keep it analogue: When ideating, digital tools are often just a distraction. Pens, paper, brains, and mouths are really all you need. You can always Google search something later on. And if you can’t express it in words or with a simple sketch, it’s often not a clear enough idea.

4. Think, share, repeat: While you will occasionally get a lightning bolt of an idea from the very start, the best ideas are often built on an earlier one. So have your teams come back and share their thinking with each other several times and encourage everyone to steal thoughts and make them their own next round.

Bob Hogan

Since we generally seek a volume of ideas, brainstorming remains our go-to tool. I have read about and tried several wrinkles to keep it fresh. Questioning Assumptions is a popular one we have had success with. It involves listing all of the key, common assumptions conventional wisdom holds about a given market, audience, or initiative. We then deconstruct and challenge each, often using a “what if” framework. For example, what if doctors really didn’t care about their patients’ outcomes? Or what if patients really don’t want to get better? We then play out these new, counter-assumptions to see if this unearths connections that shed a new, useful light on the originals.

Another exercise we have used to stimulate creativity is what we call a Language Lab. It entails listing all the common buzzwords and terms used in a specific therapeutic category. The team then attempts to offer alternate, often more colloquial expressions of each word or term. While this can open new perspectives on the way we communicate with HCPs, it can be especially effective for patient/consumer communications.

The Traps of Brainstorming

One of the traps of brainstorming in all forms is the likeness effect: The four or five “winners” deemed worthy of testing are often all too similar. After all that energy and unbridled creativity, leaders can get an acute case of tunnel vision. They have fallen in love with one idea, and every other selection is a kissing cousin to it, with minor but seemingly “important” variations. Subsequent research quickly exposes the similarities, revealing no clear front-runners. This is followed by much head-scratching and blame-seeking.

To avoid this, strive ruthlessly to narrow down the ideas that are different enough to provide a trove of learning in research. And make sure you have at least one that scares the hell out of you.

Back to top