What a Pivot Brainstorming Session Looks Like

by Ian Doescher


Pivot’s creative team consists of me, Erik Doescher (Senior Marketing Consultant and my older brother), and Joey Bianco (Marketing Coordinator). Occasionally others from Pivot join us, especially if they have knowledge key to a particular client, but in general it is the three of us.  What do these meetings look like and what might you take away from them?  Here’s a little taste.

The meeting generally starts off with one of us explaining why we’re there and what we need to do.  Then the ideas start flowing out.  You might imagine that at a marketing firm with a specialized creative team, all we do is think of pure gold ideas, one after the other. In truth, before we get to those golden ideas, a lot of other things have to come out—crazy ideas.  Boring, vanilla ideas.  Ideas we could never put in print.  Ideas too ordinary to put in print.  There’s generally a low-point of each meeting, when the ideas are so far afield that they’re useless.  But generally, we are able to snap back from that and get going again.  Sometimes we get on a roll, and it seems like every idea is a good one.  Sometimes we don’t talk for five minutes because our brains are all stormed out.  That’s usually a good indicator that it’s time for a break.  Occasionally one of us goes and grabs chocolate or some other sugar to help us along.  Every now and then, one of us mentions something we’ve seen on TV or the Internet, so we stop and look it up and watch it—like this video, which we watched during a recent brainstorming session—as a way of recharging our creativity.  At some point, Erik inevitably turns on a Michael Jackson song.

When we’re done, roughly an hour and a half or sometimes three hours after we began, we have a whiteboard or two full of ideas.  At that point, Erik generally will cull the list and harvest the best ideas for presentation to the client.  And then we rest.

In the process of many, many brainstorming meetings, here are a few things I’ve learned that might help you the next time you sit down to storm your brain:

1. Have all the information readily at hand. You can’t know what you should be brainstorming about unless you have all the information.  What product or service is this for?  Is there an accompanying promotion?  What is the most important aspect of this product or service?  What tactics will be used (brainstorming a commercial is far different than brainstorming a billboard)?  Know what you need to know before you sit down to be clever.

2. Have clear goals.  Not only do you need to have all the information, but it helps to know what the goal of the brainstorming session is.  Most of the time, at Pivot, the goal is several good ideas to present to our client.  But sometimes the goal is to have a fully fleshed out campaign idea by the end of the session, or even have copy written.  Goals help you not get mired in needless details—why worry about the nitty gritty of copy if all you are trying to do is figure out your campaign theme?  No brainstorming session will be successful unless you know what you want to get out of it.

3. The Internet is your friend… mostly.  It doesn’t hurt to have a computer handy during sessions in case you’re trying to look up words associated in common phrases with another word, or looking up words to rhyme with other words.  We often use the Internet during these meetings to check whether our ideas have ever been used or whether they make sense.  (I can’t tell you how much we argued about whether a particular headline should be “small but mighty” or “small but powerful” until we used Google instant search results to show us which is more common.)  The big “but” here, though, is don’t get stuck into the trap of checking your email while you brainstorm.  Staying connected to your email or your phone is the kiss of death for brainstorming meetings—you may as well not be in the room.

4. There are bad ideas.  It’s common, when starting a brainstorming meeting, to reassuringly remind yourself and your colleagues that there are no bad ideas.  But that’s just not true. If there were no bad ideas we wouldn’t have to brainstorm.  In fact, most of your ideas for campaigns are pretty bad, if by “bad” we mean they’ll never see the light of day.  In Pivot brainstorming meetings, for every 100 ideas we speak in the meeting we write down about 20 and present only three or four to the client.  Now, the sentiment behind the phrase “there are no bad ideas” is that everyone should be willing to throw out their ideas, no matter how crazy they think the ideas are. I agree with that completely.  However, you also need to have a thick enough skin to know that sometimes you will think of an idea that just won’t work, no matter how hard you try.  There are bad ideas, and that’s okay.  We all have them.

5. Take your time.  We don’t schedule brainstorming meetings for less than an hour and a half.  Sometimes, as I said above, the meetings go for hours (though there is a point at which you’re not productive anymore, so be mindful of that).  You need plenty of time to brainstorm, to let yourself really get into it.  An hour and a half (or more) may feel like a luxury, but it’s far less of an expense than unoriginal ideas that become uninspiring campaigns (or having to schedule a second try if the first meeting is unproductive).  Spend the time!

6. Take breaks, both for your mind and your body.  As I mentioned above, we sometimes stop and watch something on YouTube.  And if we need to go to the bathroom or grab something to eat, we do it.  You can’t be creative when you are neglecting your body.  Take care of yourself, take the break you need, and then jump back in.

7. Have fun!  Brainstorming should be fun.  If you are not having fun—and yes, that happens to us at Pivot from time to time, usually because of other circumstances not related to what we’re brainstorming about— the process will be pretty miserable and your ideas will stink.  Have fun when you’re brainstorming and your ideas will be better.  It’s really that simple.

Go out and be creative!  And enjoy your precious brainstorming time.

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