What’s the big idea, buddy?

Finding the big idea in advertising

I’m often asked how I come up with ideas for ad campaigns. I have been doing this for so long and my process is so rote, I really have to stop and think to answer that. Good advertising ideas don’t come from anywhere; they’ve kind of always been there all along through life experiences. I am not just an ad man, I’m also a consumer. I buy stuff and am influenced by brands like everybody else. Often, ideas are built right into the product or service in the form of quality, price, or competitive advantage. But sometimes they are hidden in the target audience – the consumers’ needs, hopes and aversions.

 The idea won’t just bubble up, though. You have to do a little homework. Read the strategy, research and learn all you can about the brand. Ask for a tour of the facility. Many a great idea came from a discovery during a visit to the factory or office. Look for advantages over a competitor or even a common benefit that the competition has never brought to light. If you own it first, you own it. To then get inside the head of the target audience, read the research. Go beyond their household income, age and ethnicity and find out what really makes them tick. What are their hobbies, music preferences and other brand loyalties? When you feel you have a thorough understanding of your target, pair this knowledge with the product knowledge and the ideas will come.

 An idea isn’t an ad, but it’s where the ad starts. Once you discover the idea, it’s just a matter of how to say it. Is the tone emotional, logical, over-the-top…? That depends on the brand. The brand could be fun, serious or wacky. The type of ad execution will be determined based on this tone. Once I’m ready to consider execution, I back away. I go on Facebook, have some lunch, meet a friend for a drink… I forget it all. The subconscious never takes a break and ideas will hit you when you’re not even trying.

 When I go back to it with rough ideas in my head, I go through a few exercises. I think visually. I determine what I want and need to show and then decide how I can make the visual more dramatic. I have word association exercises that I do in my head and sometimes list. e.g. bank services that are easy. I list out visuals and words commonly associated with “banks” and “easy.” Then maybe I can combine two of these into a great message or visual. Choose words in your message copy that are dramatic only if your image is not. If your visual is dramatic, a tame, serious payoff in copy will bring the image home. Now, consider what has just happened. An idea has been born and I haven’t done a single layout or sketch, picked a font or an exact headline. It’s time for the copywriter and art director to bring it to life.

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