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Pre-COVID, I’d occasionally find myself in social settings like a birthday party or a friend’s BBQ talking with new people. Inevitably, these kinds of settings always lead to the obligatory “what do you do?” question. After explaining my job is to come up with the ads they see in the world, I’d almost always be hit with the follow up question of, “How do you come up with the ideas?!”

At this point, I’m desperate to stop talking about myself and would love to get back to more surface level topics like the weather or if that team has enough firepower to beat that other team. So, I’d usually respond with some bad joke like, “I have an idea tree.” They don’t believe such a thing exists, but at that point they’ve stopped caring and we’re on to talking about the seven-day forecast. Jackpot!

But thinking back on those moments, I know what they wanted to hear — that the ideas hit me like a ton of bricks, that I’m walking down the street whistling with my umbrella and kaboom, the entire campaign comes together at once.

And yes, that is a cool story and I do like to whistle, but unfortunately in my experience, that doesn’t usually happen.

I mean sure, ideas CAN strike quickly. I heard Dave Grohl talk about how he wrote Everlong in just a couple minutes. So it happens.

Great idea DON’T come out of nowhere. But creating a really good brand campaign has to work on a lot of levels (maybe even more than an awesome song does). It has to connect the brand strategy and brand narrative and it must answer to the “brief” which describes everything from our objective to what we want our target audience to take away from this idea – what response are we looking for, how do we want them to feel and what action do we want them to take as a result? It must be completely ownable, something fresh and unlike anything done before. It has to deliver on KPIs (whatever those are?) It has to able to last. And oh yeah, it has to be good.

***I bring that last one up because I can’t tell you how many times I thought we cracked it — we answered the brief, it’s hard working, the client will love it! Only to later look at it with fresh eyes and realize it’s been watered down to the point where it now sucks and I don’t want anyone to ever see it. So yeah, that last one is important.

Coming up with something that does all those things is usually less about having a single lightning bolt moment and more about having many smaller, less dramatic little bolt moments. It’s about asking the question, “what if?” over and over again. It’s paying attention to every little detail like fonts, colors and tone. It can be as small as changing a “but” to an “and” and repeating this tedious task for hours on end. It’s also about pairing that process with rigorous research, focus groups in Cleveland, surveys, social data and rounds and rounds and rounds (and rounds) of creative briefs.

And as I’ve started to work with greener clients who are less familiar with the process, this often seems to surprise them. Donut shops make donuts, ad agencies make ads. Give me my brand campaign! And while I get the logic (and would love to have a donut) getting to something that will work is a process. And if you respect the process and give it the time it deserves, you’ll usually be glad you did.

I look forward to seeing you at a party.