A Sixth-Grade Dropout’s Secret to Coming Up With Great Ideas

It was 1898.

James Webb Young dropped out of school and started working for a book publisher. He was 12 years old.

By the time he turned 22, he was advertising manager. In 1912, he joined the prestigious advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. And he quickly became known as an “idea man.”

In 1917, Young became vice president of the agency. In 1919, he wrote one of his most famous ads. It was for the deodorant Odorono, and ran in the Ladies’ Home Journal. At the time, women found any mention of underarm odor to be in bad taste. Cleverly avoiding the word “armpit,” his headline grabbed attention with “Within the Curve of a Woman’s Arm.” But then readers were hit with this: “Persons troubled with perspiration odor seldom can detect it themselves.” Outraged, more than 200 women canceled their subscriptions to the magazine. Despite the controversy, sales of Odorono went up 112 percent.

Young believed the secret to coming up with great ideas was to use a method similar to the one Henry Ford used to produce cars. And in 1940 — at the height of his career as an advertising legend — he laid out his five-step method in a small book titled A Technique for Producing Ideas.

For marketers, it’s a secret so powerful that mastering it can mean the difference between success and failure. Consistently come up with ordinary ideas and you’ll make an ordinary income. If you work for somebody else, you’ll be easy to replace. If you’re a freelancer, you may starve. Consistently come up with great ideas and everyone will want you to work for them.

As motivational author Robert Collier once said, “A single idea, the sudden flash of a thought may be worth a million dollars.”

It was worth multiple-millions to Jack Smith and Sabeer Bhatia. In 1995, while working on starting their own business, they worried that their bosses might see the e-mails they were sending to each other. That’s when they hit on the idea for a Web-based e-mail system that could be accessed anonymously. As a result of that idea, Hotmail was launched on July 4, 1996. And they sold it to Microsoft less than two years later (on Sabeer’s 29th birthday) for $400 million.

Mark Zuckerberg got the idea for Facebook from his days at Phillips Exeter Academy. Like most colleges and prep schools, they had a long-standing tradition of publishing an annual student directory complete with headshots. Today, Facebook is valued at over a billion dollars. (At its peak, it was estimated to be worth $15 billion.)

Merv Griffin’s wife came up with the idea for one of his most successful ventures. They were flying from New York to Duluth one day back in 1964. Griffin was mulling over game show ideas when his wife noted that there had been no successful “question and answer” shows since the quiz show scandals. Then she said, “Why not do a switch, and give the answers to the contestant and let them come up with the question?” With that one twist of an idea, the hit show Jeopardy! was born. 

These examples illustrate the principle behind James Webb Young’s five-step technique for generating ideas: “An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how to apply the process to your marketing efforts …

Step 1. Gather the raw material.

In Young’s words, “In advertising an idea comes from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge of life and events.”

So before you even attempt to come up with an idea, assemble as much information as possible about your prospect, your market, and your product. Approach this systematically. Dig deep. Find all you can.

Young offered two suggestions to help you get the most out of the gathering stage.

  • Grab a supply of 3 x 5 index cards and write down specific information as you gather it. One item per card. Organize the cards by subject. This will bring order to what you’re doing and reveal any gaps in your knowledge.
  • Log general information in a scrapbook or file. By general information, he meant newspaper articles, magazine articles, etc. that are related in some way to what you’re selling.

Step 2. Chew and digest the raw material.

Take all the information you’ve gathered and go over it “with the tentacles of your mind.”

Specifically, Young said …

  • Take a fact. Turn it several different ways.
  • Bring two facts together. See if they fit.
  • Try to find a relationship between facts.

Out of this, tentative or partial ideas will come to you. No matter how crazy or incomplete they are — write them down. (Use the 3 x 5 cards.)

Even if you think you’ve exhausted the possibilities, keep going. Your mind will get a second wind. Eventually, you’ll run out of insights. Everything will be jumbled up in your head.

That’s when you stop.

Step 3. Turn the process over to your subconscious.

Forget everything you’ve done so far … and do something completely different. Listen to music. Go to a movie. Go golfing. Go shopping. Play tennis. Anything that will take your mind off the task of generating ideas.

Young isn’t the only one who has advocated this approach.

According to Dr. Maxwell Maltz, author of Psycho-Cybernetics, when people try to solve a problem through conscious thought, they become anxious and fearful of the results. That brings the creative process to a screeching halt. It’s a lot easier, said Maltz, if you let go of the problem and let your subconscious mind take over.

Master copywriter Gary Bencivenga explains it this way:

“You’re effortlessly teaching your mind what’s going to be happening. Your subconscious mind … is a goal-striving mechanism. When you give your subconscious a target that you want to hit, it will pull into itself and eventually share with your conscious mind all kinds of resources that you never knew you had within you to make that happen.”

Step 4. Let the idea hit you.

An idea will come to you when you least expect it. It might be when you’re half awake in the morning. It might be in the middle of the night. You might be brushing your teeth, driving to work, or standing in line at the coffee shop.
“This is the way ideas come,” said Young. “After you have stopped straining for them and have passed through a period of rest and relaxation from the search.”

Step 5. Test, edit, refine, and polish the idea.

Now it’s reality-check time. The idea will almost certainly need a little “tweaking” before you can build a marketing campaign around it. What kind of tweaking? The best way to find out is to run it by people you trust and ask for feedback.

That’s it. Five simple steps for generating an endless stream of ideas.

Try it. If you get the results Young predicted, you’ll have mastered one of the most important skills for success as a marketer.

P.S. Producing winning ideas is just one element of the American Writers & Artists Inc.  Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting.  In this program — which I’ve taken myself — Michael Masterson and dozens of other master copywriters reveal the secrets of effective advertising copy. Even if you’re not a writer, you can learn to write moneymaking sales letters (and more) with their step-by-step guidance.

  • John,

    Thank you for sharing the process for generating great ideas. It’s very similar to the one Herman Helmholtz created, which Graham Wallas expanded in his book The Art of Thought: preparation, incubation, illumination, implementation, verification. I have used this model in ways I’m sure the creators never intended.

    There are aspects of Young’s model that I like, particularly the specificity of step 2: take a fact and turn it different ways.

    Thanks again! Avil Beckford