The 5 simple steps for coming up with good ideas

I suspect that whatever business you are in, one of your tasks is to think of new ideas. In the advertising business, it is basically the only thing we are tasked to do.

Over 100 years ago, a man called James Webb Young started his career in advertising. He went on to be one of the most successful ad men of his time, setting the scene for the modern ad business. A few years after he retired, he wrote a very short book, which sums up the basic steps of creative thinking. The steps really haven’t changed, even in our digital age.

The 5 steps are as follows.

1. Gather information

You need to spend time gathering information which may be useful to answering the problem. Young explains that you should collect specific and more general information about the issue you are working on. You need to look at information directly related to your client’s business, plus competitor and industry analysis too. You also really should talk to people who are likely to be interested in the product or service. At 358 we also spend time talking to people who represent extremes of behaviour – people who obsess over the product and people who never use the product – to understand the motivations involved.

2. Think hard about the infomation

Go over and over the material, thinking really hard from multiple angles. Chew on it. It is important that the information is fully digested. Try to think of solutions and ideas. Your ideas and connections will probably suck, but keep writing them down and working your brain hard. Look for connections in the data. At some point it will feel like you are going round in circles, and will never be able to piece all of this together.

3. Rest your brain

This is important. You will stay at stage 2 if you do not make the effort to so something else. At least work on something else, at best truly relax by doing something you enjoy. David Ogilvy talks about “going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret”  Forget about the problem and just like Sherlock Holmes, abruptly drop the case mid-way through and go to a concert. You need to do this to unhook your rational thought process.

4. Let the idea come to you.

This is the Eureka moment, which in Archimedes case came when he was relaxing in a bath. Don’t let it slide past. Write down the idea immediately. Be ready for it.

5. Craft the idea

The initial idea is likely to need work. So now is the time to craft the idea, think about the practicalities, and work out how it might really work in practice. Test the idea thoroughly with trusted colleagues and be ready to adapt. Get rid of the bits that aren’t working, and don’t be precious. It is really important that you are open to criticism to make the idea the best it can be.

That’s it. These steps may seem obvious, but it is amazing how often people think they can skip one of the steps, either not working hard enough at the information phases, or not giving their brains time to relax so that their unconscious mind can help to solve the problem in a creative way.

Of course, knowing the steps is one thing – but being committed enough, creative enough, and having a stimulating yet critical enough environment is what will actually make the difference between coming up with decent ideas and truly brilliant ones.

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One thought on “The 5 simple steps for coming up with good ideas

  1. Hey Daniel,

    I work for Matador Network, an online travel and culture magazine.

    I wanted to chat to you about republishing this piece on our site.

    If you are interested, please contact me

    Kind regards,


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