Time and brand planning wait for no man

On the news the other day, there was a report about two American sailors who have to be rescued 9 times by various coastal rescue services – just on their journey from Norway to Cornwall. They still have their trans-Atlantic crossing to make in a boat, ‘Nora’ that looks clinker built and is, well ‘romantic’ more than seaworthy. At the same time and on a seemingly unrelated path, I have been wrestling with a recurring challenge on innovation projects: why do great ideas get ditched so quickly?

The analogy of an ocean storm is what draws the comparison here. The ‘storm’ is the annual round of business and brand planning. Like a Force 12 storm blowing in, it approaches fast; it swirls and blows – disrupting normal events; the waves are big, awe-inspiring in fact and it demands immediate action.

If a brand plan is a good one, out of this maelstrom come the annual action plans, innovation being one of them. Teams set off, get briefs written and engage various partners. Insights are articulated and challenges expressed. Ideas are generated and validation kicks in. Yet, more often than not both client and agency are left disappointed: clients because the ideas aren’t ‘breakthrough’; agencies because the great ideas get left behind.  Why? There seem to be a number of recurring themes.

The ideas generated in the here and now always seem the best – they’re owned by that team; they have a senior sponsor (or perhaps originator), they seem fresh and new. But newness doesn’t make them the best ideas nor the right ones to move the business forward. Just as it’s important to test your ideas vs a competitive control, so you should also test your ideas against existing ones. Are we moving forward? Are we taking learnings and applying them for better results?

Breaker.jpgAn idea’s support and sponsorship is fleeting – there’s a purple patch for ideas. You love it; you present it with passion; you engage the Board, everyone’s excited. But depending on how you go about taking innovation forward, it can quickly wane. Rounds of iterative fettling; focus groups and quantitative testing if lingered over can sap the momentum. It’s important to be single minded, test and verify with urgency and get on with it. If you lose the momentum, whilst the idea may, in consumers’ eyes, still be a good one, you’ve probably lost the battle internally.

Great ideas don’t just spring out at brand planning time – we’re increasingly realising that great ideas are a jigsaw – a jigsaw of structured planning at a point in time, constant curiosity and spontaneous creativity. Put it this way: you are less likely to be successful if you set up an old meeting room with a few fairy lights and post-it notes than if you think about your physical environment for innovating all year round. More than anything else: capture thoughts and ideas whenever they arise and display them. Ideas attract interest like moths to a flame, but only if the flame burns brightly.

It’s never now or never – the market opportunity may be now or may be in the future, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell where you are with an emerging trend. Keep the ideas from the past and don’t be afraid to dust them off, tweak them and put them to consumers again. (And yes, a ‘Three Strikes And Out’ rule is sensible, but only over the course of years, not months).

Fine ideas are like fine wine –young white wine you may think is best with fish, but a bit of age and you realise it’s sublime with chicken. So too with ideas – and the insights behind them. New ideas can be a bit rough and ready whereas some time, some thought applied, some prototyping can put a sharp point on your idea. Think about how you nurture and protect ideas with potential beyond the one year window.

Like a big ocean storm, if a concept doesn’t make it through in time, then the next wave swamps it, even if it is a crackling idea. And this push, this desire for short-term winners means we risk losing the wild cards and the potential higher risk but high reward game-changers.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses.; +44 (0) 1283 246260

© The Crow Flies, 2016

Actually, brainstorms do work

Slide1Funny how trends roll in the world of marketing. Agency names are one: the current norm is for the single word cerebral stimulators: ‘Thus*’; ‘Meaning*’; ‘Vessel*’, ‘Occur*’ – you know the sort of thing. More serious is the way established ways of working are parodied and denounced. Focus Groups are a good example: they don’t work; they don’t reveal anything of the true behaviour of consumers and so on. At the edges such claims are undoubtedly true, but they demean the inherent value of a well recruited, well run and more importantly, commercially aware debrief can deliver to most clients who, usually by their own admission, don’t interact with their customers that often.

There has been a tide rising too against brainstorms. At worse, there’s the jump on the bandwagon group who simply claim that they don’t work, with little substantiation. Others, more thoughtfully denounce what has been seen hitherto as good practise, saying that it doesn’t reflect the reality of how ideas emerge in the real world. For example, it’s claimed that creative behavioural practise like suspending disbelief and ensuring that a positive, value adding mindframe is adopted and rigourously applied throughout the session, or that the creative opportunity is tightly defined are bound to fail because they don’t reflect the criticism that ideas soon receive.

Here’s the thing though: brainstorms do work.

To be effective they need to work as part of a creative process – an accelerator perhaps – but not as the start and end in itself.

This assertion is based on evidence captured over years of being a client and buying (and buying into) creative processes and in more recent times studying and applying creative best practise as part of my own brand building company.   And like a good idea, these guidelines, this best practise, has emerged over time not as a ‘Ta Da!’ moment (see below…)

Set realistic expectations: who really believes that by simply getting a group of people together in a room for a day that all your commercial problems will be solved? If you look back at where great ideas come from there’s little evidence of ‘Eureka!’ moments – at least in the sense that one minute, you wander lonely as a cloud, and the next you have solved the thing. Brainstorms are excellent in bringing people together who share a desire to solve a problem or tap into an opportunity, away from the value eroding distractions of e mail, disrespectful interruptions and day long meetings, to focus on doing one thing, really well. Face it: how often does that happen in your day-to-day work?

Ideas emerge: I have my best ideas in the immediate working hours after creative sessions. Typically, I leave brainstorms with super heightened commercial-creative senses. Wandering around a supermarket or a retail environment, not just with a problem, but specific ideas, on my mind, allow me to sharpen them, critique them, add value and improve them and share my thinking more broadly. The role of a brainstorm as a creative stimulus in its own right has been underestimated: indeed, I would argue that for innovators and decision makers, this is the value.     And there is a broader theme here, about idea emergence.   Ideas can emerge at any time – the beauty of a well specified creative session is that it gives an outlet for these ideas to be aired, built upon and get more bright minds working on them.

Acceleration: any creative session where the business and participants don’t care or have skin in the game will fail. Getting the people in the room who have a need to solve it or a commercial itch to scratch, increase their chances of success. And more to the point, it increases the chances of (a) something happening at all and (b) something happening quickly. Creative sessions give this core group the chance to work on the problem and feel the creative – commercial challenges and be part of the answers.

Deconstruct later: a criticism for brainstorming is that ideas thrive off being criticised. There’s truth in this. But there’s a difference between criticism with good intent and downright thuggery. Idea seedlings are fragile and loosely formed, they don’t have the same constitution as a concept, blooming and robust. If they are stamped on the moment they poke their heads above the surface, expect finding commercial-creative solutions to your business challenges a barren task. Structure for criticism in the session if you must, but in my experience, a working day spent on developing ideas without fear of them being immediately killed is a rare luxury that should be protected.

Context is everything: an issue for creative sessions is that one set of rules seems to apply to them, normally introduced by the facilitator, but which don’t apply when you go ‘back to work’. For example: capture everything is one of these rules. If you don’t write it down, you will lose it. Yet this is just as important if you are wandering around a supermarket, or noting the customer service experience in a bank, or trying to check out during an online purchase or chatting to your partner. Keep a notebook. Write your ideas down. And bring them with you to the brainstorm.

Show your work off: ideas grow exponentially in proportion to the number of engaged brains working on them. In a brainstorm this may mean that you are asked to bring your ideas to life visually, perhaps cutting things out from magazines or deploying stickman artistry. Again though, why not all the time?   Show your work, stick it up around your desk or create a dedicated area where you can show off the emerging thinking. Let others scribble on it, or draw their stickmen in turn. Being prepared for a brainstorm doesn’t mean checking where the venue is and arriving on time (although both help, clearly) – it’s about coming to that session with some solutions already swimming about in your brain.

The common denominator is this: be prepared and brainstorms will work for you:

  • ensure the problem you are developing ideas for is one the business has heart for.
  • get the right people in the room – decision makers, not just free-wheeling creative thinkers
  • give time and space to the group bringing their ideas with them – a winning idea may already be in the team
  • creative solutions start well in advance of the session – brief those involved at the start of your overall process, not just the brainstorm

If the role and focus of a brainstorm is as a high impact intervention in your overall creative effort, then there’s enormous value to be had, even if this view does swim against the tide.

* Names changed to protect the Guilty.

IMG_1067David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, an innovation, research and strategy company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 7885 408367;; @crowflieshigh.

© The Crow Flies, 2014