Why is it important to have creative brainstorming sessions when you’re a writer or designer in a marketing agency? It’s simple: We deal in ideas. Our “product” is the creative deliverable we produce out of thin air, after a lot of research, strategy and innovative thinking. Brainstorming is vital to the process as it allows us to generate a lot of ideas in a short amount of time. It’s been the starting point for such gems as this Vermeer campaign, this Mercy College campaign and this Bank Iowa campaign. A good idea is a diamond in the rough, and a brainstorm is the carbon-rich dinosaur carcass where it all begins.

Creative brainstorming basics

There are a few rules that govern a good group brainstorming session. Follow these rules, throw out the rest, and watch your little brain-rain turn into a brain-hurricane.

1. Go for quantity over quality.

Think up as many ideas as you can. It doesn’t matter if they’re terrible; you’re just warming up! You have plenty of time to sift through and pick out the good ones later. Right now, it’s about numbers. The more ideas you have, the more fun you have, the more momentum you build, and the more options you have to choose from. No matter how silly the idea or how stupid you look, blurt it out with confidence! This will have the added benefit of encouraging your team to do the same.

2. Criticize? Nah, legitimize!

“No idea is a bad idea” is a lie. However, please resist the urge to dismiss an idea without even giving it a chance. This is especially true when you’re in a group brainstorm. Instead of halting an enthusiastic flurry of ideas with reasons why an idea won’t work, think up ways it could work. If nothing else, you’ll contribute to a good vibe, fun atmosphere, nonjudgmental comradery and spirit of trust that are essential to a productive brainstorm. As the creative brainstorming sessions unfold, the good ideas will stand out and the bad ones will naturally fall by the wayside.

3. The bigger the better.

Start with big ideas, then go bigger. It’s a lot easier and more natural to tone an idea down than ramp one up. For example, “What if we deliver a turkey to every prospective customer’s office so they could see for themselves what a healthy, robust turkey should look like?!?!” was easily turned into a snazzy little 3D popup mailer for Kemin, the likes of which we’d never seen. Unique, memorable, doable. Now, if we’d started with, “What if we send customers a mailer about turkeys?” it probably would have ended up somewhere closer to this. Generic, boring, doable (though you shouldn’t do it).

4. Start riffing.

So you have lots of big ideas that haven’t been outright rejected, but they’re still terrible. No problem! These are just jumping-off points. Your bad idea may spark someone else’s creativity and inspire a good idea. Even better: Riffing on an already good idea can lead to great ideas!

Brainstorming example:

Creative 1: “How about Buck the Trend for a theme, and it’s all about how Vermeer does things their way?”

Creative 2: “I love it! And what if we got Rodeo Champ Jess Lockwood to be the spokesperson?”

Creative 3: “Now we’re getting somewhere. And for the tradeshow booth? Two words: Mechanical. Bull.”

Now is the time to leggo your ego — once your idea is out into the open and your team starts exploring its possibilities, you don’t “own” it anymore. And that’s a good thing!

Creative brainstorming techniques

After you’ve done a lot of research and have a thorough understanding of the product or service you’re marketing, it’s time to have fun! There are lots of good articles online about sophisticated brainstorming techniques that are great for certain types of projects. But if you really want to go nuts (which is what creative brainstorming sessions are all about), here are just a few of wackadoodle brainstorming techniques that have worked for me in the past:

1. Pick a word, any word

Flip open a dictionary and point to a word at random. Force yourself to create an idea using that word. It’ll get real weird real fast.

Brainstorming example: “Discombobulate. Okay…discombobulate. We tell the story of KemTRACE Chromium from the pathogens’ point of view. They’re having a great time, wreaking havoc in GI tract of a cow when BLAMMO! KemTRACE Chromium swoops in. The pathogens are confused, discombobulated, eradicated!”

2. Pick a picture, any picture

Do the same thing ^ with an image in a book or magazine.

3. Get your mind off matters and matters off your mind

Play with a fidget spinner or doodle as you think. When you stop trying so hard, ideas magically pop into your head.

Brainstorming example: “This 8 I drew kind of looks like a sideways tandem bicycle. Ha, tandem bicycle. Everybody loves a tandem bicycle. Using one in a campaign would really stand out. How can we make it happen for Bank Iowa?”

4. Crowdsource

Get lots of ideas from lots of different brains. Back in the old days, it’d be writing the question on a whiteboard and waiting a week to see who contributed what. Now with instant messenger platforms like Slack, results can take a matter of minutes.

5. Play ball

Say a word or phrase then toss a ball to the next person who has to say the first thing that comes to mind. It keeps you alert on multiple fronts and opens up your creativity.

Brainstorming example:

Creative 1: Baseball

Creative 2: Baseball diamond

Creative 3: Diamond ring

Creative 4: Ring around the rosie

Creative 5: Rosie the Riveter

Creative 6: Riveter…rivet-rivet…you know? Like a frog?

6. Take a break

There’s a reason “shower thoughts” are a thing. Go for a quick walk, read or watch something you’d normally never read or watch, play a mindless game for a few minutes…relax!

The value of creative brainstorming sessions

Understanding what goes into a brainstorming session can make you a more creative thinker and a better idea maker. At the very least, it will give you an appreciation for how one good idea is often the result of hundreds of bad ideas, hours of brain activity and several professionals stretching their imaginations. Combined with extensive knowledge of the product or service, a sound strategy and a keen eye for details, creative brainstorming sessions make a campaign electrifying!