Innovation. Ideas. Insight.

BrainMonsoon: Going Beyond the Brainstorm

In Innovation on July 17, 2008 at 10:58 am

If you work at a creative agency (Advertising, marketing, PR, sponsorship, digital, etc.), or if you are in one of those departments at a brand, you’ve no doubt been involved in a brainstorm session. It probably went something like this:

Step 1: Group leader sends out a meeting request, maybe providing some background information. Your response is to think, “Ok, better review that before the meeting.” Which you do, about five minutes before the meeting starts.

Step 2: The first 25% of the brainstorm session is used to get everybody up to speed, because A) they were provided with little, or inappropriate prep materials,  and B) they didn’t really review it anyway.

Step 3: After an hour or two of flailing about, some half-ideas, most likely ones that don’t support business objectives, and most certainly aren’t real game changers are gathered up and the project leader goes back to his office to write them up.

Step 4: The next time you hear anything about this project is when the “final concept” is presented.

The time to rethink how to do a brainstorm has come and gone. Your model is broken and trying to fix it isn’t going to solve the problem. Sure, you could introduce some gimmicky brainstorm tricks, you know the ones – having balls or toys in the room, breaking into teams and awarding points, asking everyone to say their porn star names (name of first pet and the street you live on) – but that’s just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. So, let’s start fresh:

Step 1: Let’s get rid of the term brainstorm. When I think of a storm, I think of an isolated weather disruption that starts quickly, lasts a little while, then disappears. Kind of sounds like your brainstorms, doesn’t it?  I want something bigger, more impactful and longer lasting. Let’s hold a Brainmonsoon! A monsoon is a season, it totally immerses the local population in a deluge and often leaves a long lasting impression.

Step 2: Sure, go ahead and call that meeting, generate a creative brief as well. But give your colleagues something more. Pique their interest, tell a story, do something that is remarkable or unexpected. In the days leading up to the creative session, send short (:30 – 1:00) YouTube clips, MP3 files and links to blogs that in some way cover your subject. Do a video yourself, explaining your feelings on the project. Leave unusual items in common areas or on people’s desks. Have a television in your space? Turn it to a relevant channel and leave it there for a couple of days. All of this is to get people in the right frame of mind, even if it is just subconscious.

Step 3: Don’t hold one creative session, hold several. A group of 10, a group of 3. Give half the people a creative brief, tell the others nothing.  Invite someone who doesn’t work at your agency, and isn’t in a field related to the subject.  There are myriad variations, how do you know which one is going to produce the best result for this project? You don’t, so try several. And the next time try several more. Don’t settle on just one or two ways of holding a session. Keep people out of their comfort zones.

Step 4: Here’s where I think a lot of agencies are missing out. You’ve finally gotten everyone focused, engaged and really thinking about the project, the creative session ends and you let them think: “Okay, I can check that off my list, what’s next?”  That’s crazy. Now is when you are likely to get some really great ideas, after people have heard from others and had time to evaluate a variety of concepts. Here’s where the subconscious goes to work, making connections and coming up with new possibilities.  The day after the creative session, request that eveyone involved take five minutes to do some private writing. Continuous, non-stop writing without any editing. What ideas did they like, what do they really think of the product/project, what do they think would be an amazing idea… Just keep writing. This should be typewritten and handed in somewhere completely anonymously.  You don’t care who is providing the opinion, you just want total uncensored honesty.  After a 24 hour period of contemplation, people will have formed new, or better ideas. Also, some ideas or thoughts will have been self-censored during the creative session.

Step 5: Consider sharing your process with the client. Tell them you didn’t hold a brainstorm session, you have a Brainmonsoon season. Show them the videos, music files, blogs, images, props and whatever else you used prior to the creative sessions, share with them video highlights of the creative sessions themselves. Show them the 20, 30, 40, 50(!) pages of notes, scribbles, jottings and drawings that were recorded during those sessions. Even share some of the private writing revelations. This will blow your client away. It proves you didn’t just spitball ideas for 30 minutes and take the first halfway decent idea. You totally immersed your entire team/agency in the project and the idea you are ultimately presenting is the winning result of a Darwinian, survival of the fittest battle, amongst dozens, even hundreds of ideas you generated and considered.

It’s time for a paradigm shift that will change the thinking of your agency/department and produce not only different, but better ideas for your client.  Yes, it’s more work, but that’s not the point. Was your goal to get an idea as quickly as possible? Or was it to come up with remarkable, memorable, even game changing ideas? What exactly is the ‘right’ amount of time that should be spent to achieve that sort of result? 

Note: The inspiration for elements of this post came from a session with Mark Levy.

  1. I didn’t read anything here about focus. Maybe the creative brief contains the “focus” of the project. Great ideas come from great minds. Minds that know the focus of the project, the deliverables and expectations, and a clear path to the expected outcome. This sounds like a lot of unproductive time.

    If you have staff members in a meeting for a clients project and they have prepared all of 5 minutes before the meeting, there’s something wrong.

    I agree with different size meetings, but 10 in a room for “brainmonsooning?” By the time you finish the intro it will be time to wind up the meeting.

    I want to work in this place. TV on for days, gifts or inspirational toys on my desk, I get to watch videos on YouTube in the middle of my day!

    I think if I showed my client 50 pages of notes, doodles and what have you, not to mention random writings from anonymous employees for their project, I’d be looking for work the next day. All a client wants is one great concept for their project and they don’t care how you got it. I would think the first thing a client would do when seeing everything but a great concept is wonder how many hours and what it cost him for diatribes that may not have anything whatsoever to do with the business objectives.

    Sorry…did like some of your ideas…but some of these just sound like an attempt to be unconventional without delivering the goods. Great concepts for the project across multiple platforms and quantifying the potential results…that’s what a client wants to see.

  2. Michele, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Let me briefly respond:

    “If you have staff members in a meeting for a clients project and they have prepared all of 5 minutes before the meeting, there’s something wrong.”

    Of course we’d all like to believe that people have taken the time to prepare for a creative session, but the truth is, from my experience, that many people don’t prepare properly. I think you may have missed my point.

    “… 10 in a meeting…”

    I’ve been in creative sessions with all sorts of numbers, the exact number of 10 wasn’t my point, my point was to mix it up.

    I work at a PR agency, we have about 8 TVs on throughout the office, and I don’t think that’s wildly unusual at a creative-focused agency. And yes, we often watch videos from YouTube, and go on Facebook, etc. throughout the day, that’s some of the many ways we keep up on consumer and popular culture.

    Maybe I didn’t communicate this properly, I didn’t mean to suggest that you literally take your client through every bit of background material, but that you demonstrate your differentiation from other agencies. In my experience, clients are blown away when they understand the research you put against their project. Apologies if this didn’t come across right.

    Certainly don’t want to suggest being unconventional for the sake of it, but my overriding point was to do things differently and extend the brainstorm concept beyond one, one-hour session.

  3. Rick –

    I love the idea of a BrianMonsoon and the various approaches to take a creative session to a different level. Often times I’ve found impromptu sessions in the Office Lounge or just turning around and talking to the people around you leads to new and solid concepts you hadn’t thought of before. Point is that these sessions don’t always have to occur in a conference room – you need to get out of those elements and allow people to be comfortable and not feel like the best ideas need to come out in a conference room with a wipe board.

  4. Most ‘brainstorms’ that I’m in a re braindrains. Inside of an agency, part of the problem is the baggage attached to a client (and I don’t mean the negative of baggage, I mean the cliche of the box that most people remain in that gets people saying “the brand would never do that.”)

    That’s why, the best brainmonsoons I’ve hosted or been in, we don’t talk about the client. It’s easy to take an entirely different, almost metaphorical tact and talk about experience. Actually, that’s not true: it’s not easy, and the risk is that you don’t get anything. Still, it’s more fun.

    Also, I like your points. I’d like to be invited to your monsoon.


  5. Matt, I was thinking along those lines a little bit this weekend. If your client was, say, a tequila, rather than have a creative session about the tequila brand, have a session about Mexico or the target demo or bars or something that’s related, but not actually your client.

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