PR TECHNIQUE: Generating ideas: Brainstorming ideas for a new campaign

The casual nature of brainstorming sessions often fosters truly creative ideas. But certain "rules" must be kept for such meetings to be both fun and fruitful.

The casual nature of brainstorming sessions often fosters truly creative ideas. But certain "rules" must be kept for such meetings to be both fun and fruitful.

Many people think a brainstorm involves a group of people getting excited, shouting out ideas, playing with stress balls, and writing on oversized flip-pads while the room's energy spirals around them. These people are largely correct. Though unfairly criticized as a '90s cliche, halfway between Dilbert and dot-com fever, a brainstorm can be the best way to get started on a new client's brief, and instill enthusiasm in the project team. The stress balls and flip-pads don't hurt, either. In fact, Slinkies, Goldfish crackers, M&Ms, and a squashy green football (to throw at people who say, "This is probably a bad idea, but anyway...") are all strewn across the boardroom table at one such session, for growing online retailer and destination, at New York PR firm Lippe Taylor. "We really got acquainted with [the client] over lunch," says agency MD Phil Sheldon, explaining the casual nature of the relationship and the fact that there wasn't a detailed briefing document with a ream of research. In a case such as this, when the only "brief" is an early, informal discussion with a client, he and many others agree that a brainstorm is really the best way to approach these early objectives. has a number of already-successful spin-offs, including Lippe Taylor's specific tasks were to come up with a strategy for the launch of another offshoot, an area of the website called "Sexual Well-Being," and also to explore some ideas for connecting's different areas. Around the table is a cross-section of the agency's talent, from founding partners Maureen Lippe (president) and Gerald Taylor (general manager), through the ranks, down to the most junior assistant account executive. "It's important to bring a mix of people to the table, not just those that you think will be handling the project - especially if it's an account the agency has held for a while," explains Sheldon of the motley crew. The green football also plays a crucial role. A number of rules are written up on the wall that any team would be advised to consider: "There is no such thing as a bad idea." "Only one person talks at a time." "Headlines only." After a run-through of these rules, the session commences. Sheldon stands in front of the flip-pad with his colored marker pens while the room calls out ideas for the launch. Very quickly, it's obvious why the brainstorm leader needs to manage the session rather than just transcribe it: The ideas become tangential and jump to the next thought so quickly that good ideas can get lost in the general melee, and the launch is even forgotten once or twice. Sheldon breaks up the creative chaos by calling pauses from time to time, asking a specific question, and even introducing a few props along the way - in this case, some of the "adult" products the website will be selling. "It's a good idea to introduce props halfway through the session," Sheldon explains later, "to revive enthusiasm in case things are flagging. Brainstorms can become really exhausting." Some ideas, of course, are plain silly and unworkable - such is the nature of the brainstorm. Sometimes an idea is worth having just so it can be ruled out. Sometimes an idea comes up that would be perfect for another part of the business - even another client. So in addition to exploring a possible Valentine's Day launch and a possible tie-up with New York's new Museum of Sex, ideas were born for the menopause area of the main website - just showing how far away from the original germ of an idea a brainstorm can go. Finally, Sheldon wraps up the free-for-all by asking if anyone has any ideas that would get the agency fired, which ensures that everyone is focusing in on the client's mindset by not only thinking hard about what the client might want, but also what the client most definitely would not want. Now the boardroom walls are papered by his colorful scrawl - around six sheets of the stuff. The session is concluded as everyone picks four ideas they think should be developed into the campaign by sticking colored dots next to them. A person is nominated to write them up, and then the account team will be picked to work through them and discuss them with the client. All the client sees, therefore, is a clean document, explained by an account team, rather than the fun chaos, the rejected ideas, and the Goldfish crackers trodden into the carpet. The whole point of a brainstorm is to get your ideas to this presentable stage, not expecting to have the entire PR strategy and its tactics mapped out by the end of the session. And the earlier it's done in the whole campaign process, the fresher the ideas will be. Scott Hildula, principal of the RedUmbrella Group, begins simply by writing down a very basic brief. "The creative juices start flowing during the brief," Hildula says, "and we attempt to schedule a two-hour brainstorming session within 48 hours of writing it. This way, the freshest thinking is captured before team members get bogged down in client service or scheduling deliverables." Not everyone thinks that a roomful of people is the way to go, though. Lauren Bossers, an account manager at Skutski & Oltmanns, says that just a few weeks ago, her agency employed a new brainstorming technique. "In the past, we'd pile as many people as possible into the conference room, and it would never be as productive as we'd hoped it would be. Some people would be completely silent, others would dominate and suck up to the boss. And despite laying out the golden rule of brainstorming each time - 'No idea is a bad idea' - we had 'neganators' who couldn't stop themselves from shooting down other people's ideas. So we tried a new technique where the larger group meets, gets the ground rules or assignment, and then we split up into groups of two to three people. The first time we tried it, we came up with 44 solid ideas in one hour." Admittedly, the sheer number of solutions that emerge from a brainstorming session can be daunting. But when compared to a sheet of paper with only the words "new campaign" on it, it's surely a nice problem to have. And if you've done it right, you've also had a lot of fun. -------------- Technique tips Do set a clear objective before starting and outlining "rules" Do pick the participants carefully and balance introverted and extroverted personalities Do introduce props and prompts during the session to revive flagging energy Don't allow a dominant personality to take control of the proceedings Don't spend too long on any one idea Don't make the session too long. It shouldn't last much more than an hour

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