Where do you get your ideas?

If I’ve heard that once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. And there’s no single – or right – answer to the question. Not trying to be difficult. I just really can’t tell you, because I don’t know. In this, I’m not alone. Most creative people have the same dilemma. But I divide ideas into two categories in my own work – revolutionary and evolutionary. I’ll use a recent project to explain what I mean. 

I have a really insanely great client in California. We get along famously, because he is ready, willing and able (on most projects) to give me vague instructions and allow me to do my best creative work, as opposed to as with some clients, to tell me exactly what they want, and micro-mange my time. Every so often, he has a project that’s either time-sensitive, budget-conscious, or the client he’s working for has some very specific requirements, which usually (but not always) means I get to do the craft work, but not the creative.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the craft work. But I live for the creative stuff. To be able to come up with that creative idea that puts a campaign over the top is what really gets my motor running. He had a quick, small-budget project to come in and the client had a fairly straightforward idea of what they wanted. It’s for a company that sells plans and information on building solar power arrays for home use. They wanted to mention the recent Green Jobs scandals of the Obama administration as well as rising energy costs, to convince people to check out their solutions. Good idea. But they had some visuals and text in mind that was very direct and not at all something I thought would work well.

Because I have such a great relationship with my client, I was able to give him exactly what his client asked for, but provide some of my own creative as well. Now keep in mind, he didn’t ask me to do any creative on this project. But I know the way he thinks. The minute he saw the visuals on what the client asked for, he called and asked “what do YOU think of the ads?”


I said, “They suck.” (I can be that direct with this client. That’s not true of everybody, but as I said, we have a very cool vendor/client relationship.) It’s not that I didn’t do my best work on them. I did my usual fanatical-attention-to-detail work. And I did my best to make what they wanted work. But instinctively, I knew that, no matter what I did, their approach just wouldn’t get anybody interested in their product. Which is why I had a new concept ready when he called.

Now you see, the challenge in advertising is NOT “communication.” Nonsense. Anybody can communicate. If I put up a sign that says “FOR SALE” you immediately know that I have something for sale. The trick is to communicate not just WHAT the product is, but WHY someone would want it. To be more specific, you have to sell benefits and not features. People are creatures of emotion. Few people (if any) buy anything because it’s logical. “Logic” and “reason” are rationalizations we make to ourselves and others to justify our emotional decision to buy something. So the trick is to communicate why buying a product will trip your emotional trigger. The ads the client wanted were appealing to logic and reason, but had zero emotional value. Even worse, they were bereft of any pizazz. Too direct. Too boring.

My first concept was to use a metaphor. “Solar Power” evokes mental images of expanses of panels on rooftops or in the desert. It’s not something that really gets people excited. But if I could come up with a metaphor, that is something we can use to make an emotional connection. So my first swing at bat used the metaphor of plugging some electrical appliance directly into the Sun. This invoked the tactile and familiar – plugging something in – with the metaphor of deriving energy from a wall socket in the Sun itself. Where did that idea come from? I thought about solar power and realized what we’re really doing is tapping into the power of the Sun. I thought, what if we could eliminate the middleman, so to speak – the solar panels – and go right to the source. A metaphor is born.

That was good. But I wanted better than good. I wanted insanely great. (Good is the enemy of great.) I realized that what we needed to do was to tap into the anger people feel over energy prices and our lack of a coherent, realistic energy policy, and maybe tap into the whole Solyndra debacle, but in a way that would turn that negative into a positive for the client.

Where do I get my ideas? In this case, it was from some email a friend sent, with one of those mock-motivational posters. I know the guys in Dallas that first came up with the whole “motivational poster” idea. I hated them. (The posters. Not the guys.) Sappy. Trite. And invariably found in offices where the boss was channeling Lundberg from Office Space. I am not alone in my hatred for the entire “motivational” industry. And thus sprung up an entire cottage industry of “DE-motivational” posters. You’ve seen ’em. They’re funny, because the humor is found in the ironic way they blend a photo, headline and sub-head. I did one of these myself, the day after the LSU Tigers embarrassed themselves and threw away a perfect season in this year’s BCS Bowl.


So I know my way around demotivational posters. From that connection, it was a short hop, skip and a jump over to creating a demotivational poster for the occasion. The formula, remember, is photo (either unremarkable or something out-of-place) plus a headline – usually something pretty dry and straight-faced, plus a sub-head that contains the humor.

So I came up with this:

As you can see at first glance, this ad looks just like any other demotivational poster. So people will likely read it, because it’s funny (and doesn’t look like an ad.) But the wording of the sub-head is not only ironic, but manages to make some rather important points for the client in just ten words. (Eleven, if you count the contraction as two words.)

With so much bad press surrounding the industry, a lot of people have gotten the idea that solar power is an unworkable solution. But that’s not true. Solyndra went under because they bet the farm on outmoded technology, and their Chinese competitors had a better product for less money. They couldn’t compete, even with a massive infusion of cash from the government. But how do you fight the public perception of solar power? By making a rather pointed joke out of it. You see, to use the words “stupid idea” in an ad for solar power is a gutsy move. But a smart one. Why run away from what everyone’s really thinking? Better to bring it out into the open, ridicule it, explain it, and deflect it. By saying “it’s only a stupid idea when the government does it, we acknowledge that the government’s done some REALLY stupid stuff regarding solar energy, but makes sure everyone knows that solar’s a great idea, but it’s the government that’s screwing things up. That is huge. Within one ad, we’ve got a format that’s almost guaranteed to get read, plus a sub-head that reaffirms the validity of the customer’s product, while at the same time acknowledging the black eye for the industry and putting the blame squarely on the government.

My client saw the ad, and immediately “got it.” He realized that this ad went way beyond “acceptable” or “good” and went right up there into “awesome.”

So, where do I get my ideas? I dunno. But I hope this has given you at least a little insight as to what happens when I’m getting my ideas, and what I do with them to make great advertising.

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