5 Steps for Generating Ideas

Published April 24, 2013 by Mark Hollingsworth

Categories: The business of marketing

Idea generation is the lifeblood for every marketing organization. As you know, some people are perceived as being much better at generating ideas than others—the “light bulbs” just seem to turn on faster. The truth is, everyone can participate in idea generation—no matter how they’re wired. In our agency, everyone on the team plays an important role in generating ideas for our clients. It doesn’t always happen naturally, however. We must set aside time to allow for the development of ideas. To better equip and train our team, I am reviewing several resources; one of them is a short book called A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. This quick read is not hot off the press, rather an older publication first published in 1940 and recently republished by Walking Lion Press.

The author writes that there are two important underlying principles to the production of ideas. The first principle is that a new idea is nothing more than a new combination of old elements. The second principle is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. Consciously or unconsciously, every idea we produce follows a certain technique that includes these principles. Thanks to these principles, we can cultivate a conscious idea-generating technique. According to Young, this technique follows a five-step process from which all ideas flow. It’s important to follow each step in sequence

1. The first step is gathering raw materials. In the advertising world, it is the agency’s job to know the client, its products and, most importantly, its customers. Yet most agency people stop too soon in the process of gathering information. If enough research exists, differences between products and consumers appear, leading to relationship individualities that may lead to an idea. In advertising, an idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with a general knowledge about life and events. A practical step is to write information down and save it in a systematic way on your computer. Classify and organize information as you gather it. This helps prepare your mind for the idea-producing process.

2. The second step, after thorough raw material gathering, is to blend the information together—bringing facts together to see how they fit. Bits of ideas may begin to appear; this can be mentally exhausting, but press on and think of it as putting a puzzle together.

3. Now move on to the third stage. Drop the idea completely and turn it over to your unconscious mind: In other words, let it develop while you sleep. Also, do things that you enjoy that stimulate your mind and emotions. Listen to music; go to the movie or theater; read poetry; or get outside your normal routine.

4. If you’ve really done your work during the first three steps, then the fourth happens naturally. Perhaps you’ve experienced this: a “Eureka” or “I’ve got it” moment. You wake up with a great idea or you are taking a shower or driving to work and the idea appears with clarity. Write it down or commit it to memory.

5. The fifth stage is sharing your idea with your team. This is when reality hits. Your bright, shiny idea may lose some of its luster once others are made aware of it. However, the refining and tuning process that happens when you share your ideas with the team can offer enlightening perspective—and generate something better. It’s important not to hold your idea too tightly: allow it to go through a critical-thinking process. If it’s a good idea, you will see that it has self-expanding qualities, and with this, possibilities you did not think of may come to light.

This five-step process, as simple as it seems, will allow us to continue down the path of producing relevant and dramatic ideas for our clients.

Mark Hollingsworth


  • I like your article. Very educational indeed.
    by: kevin Omara on 2017-10-15 07:44:29
  • Nice article Mark. Thank you for including me in your list. Miss you guys.
    by: JR on 2013-04-29 19:11:08

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