A Guide to How to Have Ideas

Posted by: Steve Doyle - 06.12.22

‘Where do you get your ideas from?’. It’s the first question you get asked if a ‘muggle’ from outside the industry finds out that you work in a creative department.

We blame Mad Men. It painted a seductive picture of a world where creatives spend all day lounging around smoking pipes, napping and drinking whisky in plush offices while occasionally having amazing ideas.

Whereas only some of that is true, the Ride Shotgun copy team thought we’d spend a moment to recline raffishly on the agency sofa, light our pipes and attempt to describe how we try to make ideas happen. If we’re really honest, we don’t really know where ideas come from, but there are some tactics you can adopt to get yourself in the right place for having them.



1. Read the brief

It may sound obvious, but spending time reading, interrogating and immersing yourself in the brief always pays dividends. Taking the time to really understand what’s been asked for and getting a sense of who you’re talking to, what their motivations and pain points are and how this product or service can answer them is the foundation on which ideas are built.

“While I’m reading the brief I usually jot down my thoughts, half-arsed ideas and questions”



2. Keep it simple stupid

Most briefs are jammed with useful information, but if you’re not careful, this can make it difficult to see the wood for the trees. So, it’s wise to make a deliberate effort to avoid getting mentally sidetracked by all this detail. Try to pare it down to the bare essentials.

“I often try to summarise the task in a single simple sentence or two. Only when I’ve done that am I ready to start having ideas.”


3. Start riffing

A good starting place is the doodles, thoughts and words you collected while reading the brief. At this stage, anything goes. All the obvious, rubbish, seen it before ideas, the ghastly puns, the crazy non-sensical left-field stuff. Create word clouds, use word association and generally try to approach the challenge from as many different directions as you can. Uncritically writing it all down allows you to move onto the next thought.

“This is the fun part. Here’s where I start furiously and uncritically scribbling down random words, thoughts and phrases.”



4. Re-orientate yourself with the brief

By this time, there’s risk you’ll have strayed into some weird areas, gone way off-piste and, seduced by your own cleverness, drifted away from the brief.

“Just reminding myself of the ‘ask’ by rereading the brief in my new ‘idea generating’ mindset keeps me on track and will often spark new avenues of thought.”



5. Start Googling

It sounds like cheating, but having all the knowledge in the world at your fingertips is too good a tool to ignore. You just need to know how to ask it the right questions.

The obvious place to start is with thesaurus and idiom websites. This can broaden out your thinking. All the time keep writing down thoughts, headlines, snatches of ideas, random words and useful phrases. It’s a good idea to check what competitors are doing to make sure you’re not going to accidentally plagiarise anything.

“I’ll also look at related famous quotations to see if I can twist them to my purpose and research how other brands have solved similar problems”



6. Cast a steely eye over your work

Okay, now we’ve been at this for a decent amount of time it’s the moment to scrutinise what we’ve got with a critical eye. Things begin to coalesce around certain themes, approaches or areas.

“I begin to sort them into themes or areas in this way, while setting aside anything that’s too boring, weird, off-brief, clever or obvious.”



7. Proof of concept

Now it’s time to start crafting those half-thoughts into proper headlines or concepts, refining them and developing them to see if they have what we like to call in the trade ‘legs’.

“A good test is to ask yourself: Can I write more lines or come up with more concepts in the same vein or is this just a one-trick pony?”


At this point we’re also thinking about any associated visuals that could help them work, any tactics that spring to mind and how each idea might play out across different channels. Once we’ve got a shortlist, we’ll often write a ‘rationale’ for each. A short paragraph that explains the idea and why it’s worthy of consideration.


8. Stop thinking about it

It’s a cliché, but it really works. Coming back to your work after doing something completely different or even the next day is always highly illuminating. Things become clear. Ideas settle down. Those little grey cells have been working on it all night without you even realising.

In Mad Men, the main character Don Draper tells Peggy Olsen, a copywriter who is stuck on a campaign: “Think about it really hard. Learning everything. Then, forget about all of it and an idea will just POP into your mind.”

“Make a round of tea, because A) Tea is great, and B) It’s amazing how often ideas will randomly pop into your head whilst you’re doing something completely unrelated to thinking about the actual brief.”


When you come back to it later, the idea you thought was a dead cert for an award might make you cringe. Meanwhile, with a couple of tweaks, another idea you didn’t think was up to much suddenly starts looking like a serious contender.


9. Sharing

This is beginning to take shape now and a few front-runners are emerging. We’re ready to share what we’ve done with other people in the agency to get their reaction. Sharing is important but it needs to be at the right point in the process. Too early and you kill ideas that are still being born. Too late and you’ve wandered off down a blind alley and there’s no time to develop them further.

“The instinctive reaction of others to your ideas can be painful, but it’s a good test. Not only will it help to confirm whether an idea is any good or not, but it also provides areas to build on, new thoughts and fresh input.”



10. Brainstorming

What we’ve described so far is essentially a copywriter’s approach. However, we’re often working with other creatives and the process is very similar but involves a lot more post it notes, coffee, doodling and strategic toilet breaks.

Working alongside a designer/art director also brings a visual element to the thinking – sometimes it’s a visual idea first, to which the copywriter then adds or helps to craft the perfect headline. Or vice versa.

“Having other brains in the room definitely helps you get there faster. The creative ping pong of thoughts generates a greater volume of ideas and helps you to explore areas you certainly wouldn’t have on your own.

So, there you have it. Coming up with ideas is almost always a messy, uncertain, frustrating and subjective process. But it’s also immense fun and hugely rewarding when an idea you’ve come up with gives you the ‘feels’.

Right, we’re off for a whisky and a nap.

We love ideas. And we love coming up with them for our clients. If you’d like to know more about how our creative team can help you, why not get in touch today?