What’s an idea

Words often get in the way of creativity so it’s no surprise that the word “idea” often gets in the way of ideas.

1. We use the word “idea” to describe thoughts and suggestions. “I know this is heteronormative of me but I have an idea: let’s eat kimchi soondubu at Food Gallery 32 in Koreatown for lunch.”

2. We use the word “idea” to describe new concepts. “I have an idea  —  it’s a business where we turn memes into bath products  –  Dank Tank.”

3. We use the word “idea” when someone says something stupid. “You have no idea.” That’s a mean use of the word. Don’t be mean. The world doesn’t need it.

If we focus on the first two examples, the word “idea” telegraphs that something new is coming. And if you can pause on your Internet memes about whether anything is ever new (I’ll raise you post-modernism and ask if anything is ever real), what we now want to do is distinguish between the way we use “idea” as industry jargon and the way we use “idea” where we’re in casual mode.

Ideas are thoughts but not all thoughts are “ideas.” Here’s an example of the use of the word “idea” in an agency setting: “I have an idea — let’s do something with augmented reality or Blockchain or make a special lens.” This isn’t wrong; it’s sloppy.

In the traditional industry sense, “idea” means a novel concept. But when it’s used as in this example, it masks the lack of an actual idea  —  like when someone dumps in the word “strategic” before they say something that’s not strategic. It ups the importance of what comes next. The problem: sometimes this works as a meeting tactic but does not lead to good or clear thinking.

Compare this thought with the use of the word “idea” as a novel concept: “I have an idea  —  I want to create a tool that runners can use to track how far they’ve run and then compete with each other by sharing their achievements via the Internet. They’ll track it via this technology in their shoe which will talk to their computer.”

Ideas and thoughts feel different When I’m training people in lateral thinking, I point out how adding mischief feels different in the brain. But see how the two “I have an idea” statements above feel different? One is a yawn, the other a kick in the pants.

Yes, it’s complicated because humans complicate things. And what complicates all of this is that, as far as “ideas as novel concepts” go, in agency world, there are:

  • Business ideas
  • Advertising ideas
  • Brand ideas
  • Campaign ideas
  • Content ideas
  • New product ideas

And strategies (which are also ideas  —  even though the monopoly on the use of the word “idea” in an agency belongs to the creative department).

Oh, and concepts. “Concept” suggests a higher-level of thinking. To call something “high concept” means it’s asking a big philosophical or existential question. For example, what would life feel like if we started old and got younger every day? People use the word “concept” in agencies in as slippery a way as they use the word “idea” so it’s important to discuss the words you hear.

It’s can seem fussy but it’s useful to create a glossary if you’re working with a team for any period of time. The point isn’t to be a fascist about words. The point is to reduce confusion and help people work better.

Why do you need the ability to explain an idea?

Here’s a secret: many people in our industry aren’t idea-literate.

You could work with a creative team that focuses on taglines, hashtags, and manifestos. You might need to play the mind game of helping them articulate their idea without them knowing. You could work with other agencies who throw the word around like confetti only to catch yourself a few weeks into a project wondering, “What are we even talking about?” When you know how to explain your ideas, your working life will improve.

And it’s important to pry apart the executional stuff, the tactics from the idea for five reasons:

1. Longevity

If someone can’t explain their idea then they may be using verbal and visual tricks to get through an executional approach (eg a certain art style or piece of technology). This can reduce the longevity of a campaign/project because an execution may not carry interest for long.

2. Support and defensibility

To defend great work that’s based in strategy, there needs to be a clear line from the challenge through to the insight, strategy, and to the creative. A well-explained idea can help the team promote the work to the client. It also helps manage the conversation with the client so that executional concerns do not undermine the idea or the strategy. I have seen occasions where executional issues have led to a strategy change because neither the idea nor strategy were well explained.

3. It’s more efficient  —  money money money

If you can’t put stakes in the ground from problem to insight to strategy to idea and something executional gets rejected then DOMINOES! Re-work. More time, more money, more frustration. It will cost you.

4. Brain tether

If the thinking is executional (“I want to do 3D typography”) then it becomes harder to ensure every chapter across every channel builds on it without it all being matching luggage.

5. Laziness is contagious

It isn’t hard to define an idea — if you have one. When projects don’t start with clear, concrete strategy and ideas, they will slop from one meeting to the next.


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