The ideas factory

Where do I get my ideas? They typically strike at 2am. I’ll be lying peacefully in my four-poster bed as my pet Siberian tiger slumbers at my feet when a flash of creative inspiration will thunder across my brain.

I wake in a cold sweat, sitting bolt upright. (The tiger snorts and rolls over, all four paws in the air). Weakly, I turn on my Tiffany stained glass lamp, grope for the Parker pen and Smythson notebook I keep on my antique armoire and write down the exhaustive fully-formed ad campaign I’ve just come up with. I send it off to the client, unedited, the next morning, and then get a cheque in the post for millions.

Rich Woman

Come on, that’s not how this works! Nobody uses cheques anymore. And you certainly don’t look like the woman above after your first ad campaign.

Much as it’s tempting to imagine the agency life as whisky, quick inspiration, ten minutes of sitting at a typewriter, and being inappropriately close to the boss, Mad Men was not a documentary of 21st-century Britain campaign life.

If you only expect to work when you start with a really good idea, then you’re not going to produce nearly enough to build a reputation for yourself as a creative. Much as we’d all love to have a complete ad campaign stroll into our heads, the real answer to how we get our ideas is simple.


We work on them. Really hard. This might be making a list of aims of the campaign, it could be looking at similar ads, it could be mind maps and freewriting or tossing ideas around in the kitchen with our colleagues, and often it’s all of these and then some. You’ll fill many more notebooks, though maybe none as nice as the picture above.

But what it’s certainly not is writing down the first thing that comes into your head and calling it a day. You know what you get when you don’t put much effort into your work? Crappy work.

In a way, it’s reassuring to know there’s no big secret that everyone in the advertising world knows except for you. At least we’re all starting from the same place. On the other hand… the only way to get ahead is by sitting down, putting pen to paper, and filling the pages until something good comes out of them.