First, Make Creative People THINK

First, Make Creative People THINK

TIME. It’s a big element of the daily business of an advertising and marketing firm. Most agencies bill and make money based on time. Time drives agency activities—the daily schedule, deadlines, rush work. Time is what we so frequently have too little of.

Time is also important in one other way. Creative teams need time to think about the creative brief.

You’ll notice I said, “think about the brief”—not “brainstorm,” or “develop the idea,” or “refine the idea.” The greatest value lies in the early stages of the creative process. During that time, the seeds of great ideas germinate. You need time to cultivate and nurture those ideas so they sprout and grow.

Too many agencies focus on speed over creative thinking, and end up with ideas that, while good, could be so much better. They have not been developed to their full potential.

“Hey, we like to ‘fail forward,’ not spend days perfecting one idea,” you say. That’s fine for some types of projects, where immediacy is demanded, and you have the option of testing, adapting and adjusting as you go. But many creative assignments demand more than immediacy, and failing forward can be a costly choice.

Making Time to Think

Thinking time must be built into project schedules to allow creative people to mull over the brief. Maybe they sketch some thumbnail ideas and play with them. Perhaps they develop several questions and sit with other team members to discuss those. They may ask for more research to build on an insight, or clarify something stated in the brief. They may even return to the project manager or account executive and say, “We hate to say it, but we think the brief is fuzzy. Instead of going from point A to Point B, we keep seeing something interesting over here at point G. What if…?”

This thinking process can uncover revelations that may steer a client, and your agency, down different paths than you originally discussed. And it is essential to explore those paths, to be sure that your thinking is founded upon data and insights, even if this only reconfirms the original objective in the creative brief. In most cases, this thinking stage leads in a new direction. It may reveal a solution that isn’t advertising or marketing, but a revision to a system, or a change in process, or perhaps a new product.

Design Thinking

David Kelley, co-founder of IDEO, coined the term “design thinking” to explain this part of the design process. He realized that the design process lends itself to more than just making ads, or designing nice brochures or handsome websites. Design thinking is about finding solutions… or, sometimes, tracking down the problem we should be solving.

As you schedule new projects into the agency workflow, strive to build extra thinking time into the process. Ask creative people not to work on executions until they have deeply considered the brief, the data, research and initial ideas. Then share those ideas, dig deeper, redirect, and build on that initial thinking. Not only will this help you create better ideas, but it will also improve your ability to explain—and sell—those ideas to clients. 

Here are some other design-thinking thoughts for you and your staff to mull over.

Even where the deadline is tight, schedule as much thinking time as possible. Work with traffic and production to allot time so production people don’t pay a steep price because you gave more time to creative ideation.

Learn how to add and subtract. Creativity is additive (as in “yes, and…” - no bad ideas). Refining creative ideas is reductive—simplifying an idea, getting to its essence. Always look for the heart of an idea, stripping it down to its essence.

There are no “wrong” ideas. Ideas are ideas. What matters is how you develop those ideas.

Don’t treat design thinking like piecework. Creatives are not factory workers, and managers should not focus on quality control and logging time (process). Focus on producing higher quality ideas and avoid the “Why don’t they look like they’re working?” mentality.

It does not matter who has the initial idea. Once an idea is on the table, it becomes the team’s idea. Take the focus away from the creator and keep it on the idea to reduce ego-driven conflicts.

Few ideas arrive “perfect.” Examine ideas thoroughly. Try the SCAMPER method to upend ordinary thinking.

Budget for additional research and “discovery.” Your team may need more data, psychographic audience info, competitive research, etc. Try to provide these tools to help with ideation.

One good idea leads to another. If you can get one good idea on the board, everyone relaxes… and then the really good stuff can flow.

Not every project deserves maximum time. Know when and where to expend your best design thinking efforts.


You simply cannot accept the ‘not enough time’ excuse. Steal time. Borrow time. Wrestle time to the ground and sit on time. But whatever you do, commit yourself to taking the time to make it great.

Clio Hall of Famer Harry Webber
(I Am Stuck on Band-Aid Brand, A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste, Quality Is Job 1)


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