Collaboration Is Not Design By Committee

Anyone who has spent a few years in the ad agency business has likely experienced the sad effects of design by committee. Usually, this phrase is applied to client-side groups who sit in judgment of agency creative presentations… and then break the work into a messy crumble of redirections, disputes and disagreements. This tends to alter engaging, emotionally stirring ideas into safe, boring messages ineffective for moving the target audience to action.

But what about your agency’s internal creative process?

Great creative partnerships arise when very small groups collaborate. Often, two people working together can make a good idea better. Sometimes, a third person is good as a sounding board for the idea. But involving too many people can dilute and dampen an idea. Groups can offer useful commentary and spot possible sticking points in an execution, but the idea should not be adulterated until “everyone is happy”—because that usually means an idea has low impact and will be quickly forgotten.

When it is good to involve the larger groupSelective use of large groups to discuss, offer feedback and fine-tune ideas can boost good work to the level of greatness. This is not even about consensus, but about listening to your gut telling you the idea is “almost there,” and just needs fresh eyes to push it to where it could be.

Embrace serial brainstorming – Ask individuals to list ideas based on the creative brief; then call everyone to the table to share and discuss ideas. Another way to merge individual and group brainstorming is to have one person start by listing ideas, then passing their ideas to the next person for comments and additions. That person shares to another creative, and soon you have a lengthy list of thoughts and comments. The creative director then calls a meeting to discuss the best ideas, and those are shared with the AE and narrowed down to a single idea everyone believes answers the brief.

Try additive collaboration - One downfall of brainstorming is the failure of moderators to limit negative comments. Requiring that all ideas be “plussed” is one way the creative people at Disney develop ideas. Rather than allowing people to say, “Yuck! That idea sucks,” demand that brainstorming participants always begin with “Yes, and…” or “What if…?” This helps people move objections or negative reactions into a more positive space, where they can offer constructive feedback or suggestions.

Encourage team play – Collaborative design and ideation does not need a Vulcan mind meld. All you need is a few people tossing around crazy, silly, fun ideas… or talking about ideas they enjoy from other agencies or current campaigns… or, discussing new films or books or music… The point is, multiple minds bumping up against others’ ideas and opinions can lead to insights or fresh perspectives. Make sure your creative team has opportunities to play a little, and watch the good ideas emerge.

Build a creative entity – Ideas can come from anyone in the agency, not just your creative people. Whenever possible, invite people whose jobs are not specifically creative to offers ideas, feedback and consumer insights. By fostering an agency-wide creative mindset, you can harvest new ideas or inspire the creative team to go in new directions.

Allow time for great creative – Even with time constraints imposed by client deadlines or a busy agency schedule, remember that great ideas may require a little extra lead time. Weigh which projects you can spend more time on—those having larger budgets or bigger objectives, for instance. If the job is high-value to the client, they should be willing to give extra time for you to make sure the idea is the best you can deliver. Even for smaller projects, try to allow as much time as necessary to make the idea great.

Brainstorming Is for Volume

Creative collaboration is not the same thing as brainstorming. Brainstorming is about creating a volume of ideas—not great ideas, just lots of ideas to pick over and think about. There may be one or two great ideas (or more) among that volume generated by a larger groups of creative thinkers, but brainstorming as a process is not about idea development, only about generating lots of ideas in a relatively short period of time.

The creative director or art director/copywriter team review the ideas from the brainstorming session, and select for development those most appropriate to the parameters of the creative brief. Brainstorming is not the default method for creative ideation—it’s useful for when your lead creative people need a little nudge; when you are pressed for time and need ideas quickly; or when you need a bunch of ideas for a campaign, new business pitch or promotion, not a single big idea. Brainstorming is one tactic, but not always the best tactic.

Finally, brainstorming can be done individually, with a later meeting to share and discuss ideas. Sometimes, depending on your creative people and how they prefer to work, solitary brainstorming is more productive than a group session. Some creative people feel inhibited in a group, and just do their best work in private.


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