Brainstorming For Copy: Timing Is Critical

“Every action is an idea before it is an action, and perhaps a feeling before it is an idea, and every idea rests upon other ideas that have preceded it in time.” – Wallace Stegner (“A Capsule History of Conversation,” When the Bluebird Sings in the Lemonade Springs, 1991)

Here’s a very common marketing situation — something that you are better off avoiding:

You have a brainstorming session to come up with a new promotion for a product/service. You set an agenda, gather the right people, and spend half a day (or longer) batting around ideas. After several hours of going nowhere, you strike on a good one. It begins with an offhand remark and grows — comment by comment — into something everyone is excited about. Several people are taking notes.

Sometimes, the one good idea leads to another. Sometimes, to a third. At the end of the session, everyone feels good. You’ve done your job. You have outlined some very good copy platforms.

The next day, you write a memo summarizing the ideas. You assign each idea to a creative team and indicate deadlines. You ask for confirmations and get them.

A month or two later, busy with your hectic working life, you open your calendar and note that a first draft of one of the promotions is due. It’s not in your inbox, so you make a few calls. As it turns out, it’s not yet done — but will be almost any day now.

You check back a few days later, and it’s still not done — but you are assured it will be just another 48 hours. When the third deadline elapses, you call up the copywriter yourself and have a frank discussion. After much hedging, he admits that he’s stumped on the copy. “I don’t know what happened,” he says. “It seemed like such a good idea at the time. But now it seems thin.”

You take out your notes — the original notes that summarized the ideas you had all come up with — and go over them with him. But now, surprisingly, that idea seems thin to you too. You read and reread the notes, looking for clues. You were sure the idea was strong when you conjured it up, but it doesn’t seem so from the summary.

You are stumped. You call another creative session — an emergency creative session — and begin again. But now you are seriously behind schedule.

What’s going on here?

Probably two things — which are inter-related and easy to correct:

1. You scheduled the brainstorming session too far ahead of the deadline — before your creative team was ready to execute the good ideas you came up with.

2. You relied on a written summary to capture the essence of these ideas — something that can’t be done. Here’s why:

A great marketing idea is usually something that is 80 percent obvious and 20 percent new. The 80 percent part is what you are more or less forced — by the market or by the product — to do. It becomes the basis of all your promotional platforms (e.g., “We can give you profitable stock recommendations even in a down market” or “You can’t get healthy by eating a low-fat diet”). Any idea you get from paying attention to this will be similar to that which your competitors — those with similar products/services — come up with.

It’s the 20 percent part — the clever twist that you put on it — that makes the promotion special and gives it energy. This part, while it can be understood by everyone in a brainstorming session, usually has something in it that’s subtle and relative — something that seems like it can be noted down but can’t.

Great marketing ideas are like poetry. They are unique, perfect … and fickle. They can’t be summarized — just as a poem can’t be summarized.

So here’s what you have to do:

1. Schedule your brainstorming sessions at times when your writer is free to begin writing immediately. Every hour that passes after the idea is expressed puts him one step further away from recreating it in a strong and perfect way.

2. Tape-record these meetings to help your writer remember what was said, and give him a very quick deadline — 24 hours or 48 hours — to get something back to you. It could be a headline. Maybe a lead. It could be an image with a caption. It has to be something substantial, something that captures the essential genius of the marketing idea in a way that won’t be forgotten.

3. Instead of trying to summarize the ideas that were generated in the session, quickly jot down some core phrases and images that will get you where you need to be.

4. Tell the copywriter to review the tape and notes and come back to you with a headline (or several of them) and a lead (no more than 20 percent of the full piece) in a relatively short period of time. Generally speaking, that time limit should be a week. A good copywriter will get on it right away and have something for you to review within 48 hours.

If you’ve all done the right work, the headline and lead will be 80 percent right at that point. Eighty percent right is a considerable accomplishment and will almost ensure that the rest of the creative process works smoothly and ends successfully.

The bottom line is this: Brainstorm until you have a great idea and then get your copywriter writing until that idea turns into a powerful lead.