Agency Business Business Leadership

How do you solve a problem like... knowing a good idea when you see one?

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

February 9, 2022 | 10 min read

Each week, we ask agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points. This week, we asked them exactly how they know a decent proposal when they see one.

Ideas – small ideas, contentious ideas, Big Ideas – are the meat and drink of marketing and advertising. But identifying a good idea is actually pretty difficult.

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What's the best way of evaluating a great idea?

There’s a million ways to examine and evaluate creative work – The Drum’s World Creative Rankings, released this month, being just one example.

But knowing when you’ve hit on something good, knowing when to push on for improvement and knowing when you should stop meddling and move to execute, isn’t easy – and it’s vital for success.

So, we asked our readers how their agency examines ideas and decides if they’re worth pursuing. Process or pure intuition? Solo genius or polite consensus?

How do you solve a problem like... knowing a good idea when you see one?

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Alan Kelly, chief creative officer, Rothco

Ever since I started worked in advertising, there’s always been one person in the agency who spends way too much time trying to come up with a formula for great ideas. If you’re trying to do the same, you should know that that person always fails and always goes mad along the way.

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That’s because it’s impossible. It’s like trying to catch smoke with a butterfly net. The problem is great ideas have a constantly moving context – what’s considered genius today is considered boring tomorrow. So – and I realize this will sound completely self-serving – gut reactions from someone who is paid to have good gut reactions is still the best way to identify a great idea.

That doesn’t mean you can’t brief or quantify what type of idea you are striving for.

Here’s a simple rule of thumb that I sometimes use:

5/5 Unforgettable

4/5 Culturally contagious

3/5 Fresh

2/5 Cliche

1/5 Rat sandwich

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Helen Rhodes, executive creative director, BBH London

For me the best creative ideas are the ones I wish I’d come up with myself. Ones that make me go: ‘How the fuck did they think of that?’ Ideas that are both highly original and extremely relevant for the product they’re promoting.

Coming up with a fresh, never-been-done-before idea is the first step. Then, ideally, this unicorn of an idea will hit all three of the following things – impact culture (be something that people in the real world, not just advertising folk, care about), be beautifully crafted (keep writing, keep making it funnier, keep focusing on the detail – the idea is just the start, so be uncompromising on the craft), and move the dial (in other words, make work that actually works).

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Susan Credle, chief creative officer, FCB Global

We have a common language for the kind of work we aspire to do at FCB. It’s called ‘The 4,5,6’. On our best day, we create 4,5,6 work. Work that is provocative (4), that allows for co-creation/participation (5), that creates ‘never finished’ platforms (6). We also watch out for work that is damaging (1), that is invisible (2), is noticed but then quickly forgotten (3). Our goal is to do our best creative work on our biggest brands so that we can continue to prove that creativity is an economic multiplier.

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Matt Murphy and Carlo Cavallone, global co-chief creative officers, 72andSunny

At 72andSunny, we’re not just looking for the ‘right idea’, but rather the ‘undeniable one’. There are so many logical ways to solve a problem – but logic be damned! We need to find that flash of light that comes with an idea so fresh and fearless that you can’t stop thinking about it. A big idea for us is not an ‘ad’, but rather a platform from which many types of ideas can be generated. That’s the first filter, from there we start going beyond ‘solving the problem’ and begin to think about how to make a big impact in culture.

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Chris Garbutt, chief creative officer, Vice Media Group and co-president of Virtue

The first thing I do is try and put myself in the shoes of the audience. I try and understand what’s important to them, empathize with them. What tension or problem are they experiencing? How does our idea solve this for them? I then imagine how they might participate with the idea we have. Then I ask how they would feel when they do.

If I can’t answer this clearly, nine times out of 10, the idea isn’t strong enough, focused enough, compelling enough or motivating enough. The most important question we should all ask ourselves is how we want people to feel about our idea. Then push the idea to the edge of that emotion so it’s powerful and focused.

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Sarah Stringer, executive vice-president and head of US media partnerships, Dentsu

We have a process called ‘Idea Jam’ where we bring together a diverse group of folks and we get into the mindset of the customer, which has been shaped through data insights. We discuss the life in between the needs, fears, hopes and stresses, and we brainstorm how an idea offers value to a particular brand or product.

If you can switch that brand out for any other brand, dig deeper. If you told your friends, a parent, heck a stranger, would they think it sounds good? If only industry people will get it, it’s probably not a big idea. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most groundbreaking.

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Raig Adolfo, co-president and chief strategy officer, Saatchi and Saatchi NY

Creative intuition takes precedence over process, but there’s a discipline to it. A good idea is not only the right creative answer to the right business question, but makes people feel something about the brand. The ideas that feel both exactly right and totally unexpected are the ones worth exploring.

That’s in line with our intention at Saatchi to build brands by breaking rules and patterns – ideas must always be on brand (a given) but also push against an existing or dominant rule in the space the brand inhabits. We believe that’s how brands can best fight for people’s attention.

toby allen

Toby Allen, executive creative director, and Emily Harlock, chief strategy officer, The & Partnership

A good idea can come from anywhere and show up in the most unexpected forms. That sense of surprise is what we look for. It’s a gut feel, but if you were putting rigor around it, it would be: Does it solve the problem? Does it do so in a way you weren’t expecting? Does it feel like something people might talk about, share or even participate in.

Most of the time it is fairly simple to agree among yourselves whether a piece of work hits these parameters.

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Terri Meyer, co-founder, Terri & Sandy

Recognizing a good idea is very simple. A wave of heart-stopping jealousy comes over me and I think: ‘I wish I had come up with that’. Sometimes it is a kernel of an idea. Sometimes it is fully baked. It’s instinctual, after many years of experience, to know if it needs further crafting or is good as is. It is not often an idea is simply good as it is. You must look deeper and see if it answers the brief. The key is to continually preserve and keep the integrity of the idea once all the stakeholders weigh in.

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Carter Weitz, chairman and chief creative officer, Bailey Lauerman

The world is full of good ideas: stop signs, toothpaste, coffee, indoor plumbing. Some good ideas take a sabbatical, then re-emerge – like vinyl records. Agency war room walls are littered with good ideas. We’re so surrounded by them that it isn’t enough to simply be good any more. In the battle for attention and memorability, it takes more than good. It takes fascinating. Fascinating overrides all cognitive functions. It can make you forget to eat lunch or be late to the next meeting. When fascinating happens, you know you’ve not just seen a good idea but a great one.

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Will Holloway, creative director, Fever PR

There’s no definitive answer to this question. Ideas that feel right and everybody loves can fail to land and ideas you weren’t sure about can suddenly go viral; that’s the beauty and abject terror we face in coming with ideas for earned media. At Fever, we define a ‘good’ idea as one that passes through these four filters: Can you explain it in a sentence? Have you seen it before? Are we excited about making it happen? Will our friends talk about it down the pub?

Standing out in the sea of sameness is becoming harder and harder for brands and so it’s important to make use of as many human understanding tools as possible and keep asking: ‘Will anyone actually give a f*** about this?’. If the answer is ‘no’, then it’s probably not a good idea!

Want to join future debates? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com.

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