Creative thinking concept. A light bulb representing an idea or solution on top of a pile of discarded crumpled paper representing attempts to reach the idea / solution.[/caption]Award winning creative director and author Steve Harrison reveals that there’s more to coming up with a big idea than speedy brainstorming.

The first thing we need to realise is that it is more about time than talent. So when your boss or your client gives you 24 hours to come up with a big idea, explain that it just can’t be done.

You need much longer than that.

The first stage

Whether you’re working on a big campaign or a one-off web page, make sure you have read and re-read the brief. This immersion in the background is vital.

If no one’s bothered to write you a brief (or the brief is crap), analyse your target audience and the thing you are selling. Then be sure about the Proposition you are making (which itself should be the subject of another blog post).

Once you’re in command of this information, write your ideas down on a pad. When you come up with one that’s OK, put a circle round it. Then move on and do some more.

The ideas will come thick and fast at the beginning, but then, after a day or so, you’ll dry up.

This is normal. You’ve simply got rid of your first thoughts, the ideas you’ve seen before and the cliches that are associated with the topic in question.

At which point, stop working on the headline and concentrate on something else. But have your notepad ready and jot down the good ideas when they start popping into your head.

Where your first thoughts come from

This game of patience was introduced by American adman James Webb Young in his book A Technique for Generating Ideas back in 1940. Some sixty-four years later, professor of psychology, Arne Dietrich explained how it happens in his paper The Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity.

He classified Young’s process as “spontaneous and cognitive creativity” and traced its beginnings to the brain’s prefrontal cortex. In the early stages, the prefrontal cortex focuses your attention while you’re mulling over the details of the brief. At the same time, it relates those details to the stuff that’s already in your head and acts as a search engine that “pulls” task relevant information from long term storage.

Where your original ideas come from

After you’ve got the predictable ideas out of your system and stopped working on the brief, your basal ganglia take over. But not that you’d know about it. No, they’re operating in your subconscious while you’re thinking about other jobs, going to the cinema, drinking with friends, watching football or fast asleep.

The basal ganglia are a zany bunch who hang out in the brain’s Deep Web. Free from the constraints of consciousness, they play with the information, put together much looser combinations and produce fresher ideas. As Dietrich says, “because there is no apparent effort or intention associated with these intuitive insights, they are often described as mysterious and indicated by such metaphors as ‘being hit by bricks’ or the proverbial light bulb turning on.”

Here’s an example you’ll all have heard

Most people involved in creative pursuits rely on the subconscious. Loath as I am to use him as an example, Sir Paul McCartney famously knocked off “Yesterday” one morning after having dreamed the entire tune.

At this stage in his career, McCartney was still steeped in the craft of song writing and he was still allowing time for his subconscious to work its magic.

By the time he was writing the Frog Chorus, Silly Love Songs and Mull of Kintyre, the chap was obviously no longer willing to wait. He’d become either too busy with other things, or too complacent or lazy to look beyond his banal first thoughts.

I am sure you’ve seen this happen in your agency. When it occurs, just remind everyone that there is a process to being creative – and there are no shortcuts.

Don’t rely on the brainstorm

Often, clients and agencies think a shortcut lies in brainstorming – getting half a dozen creatives into a room in the hope that an idea will be born from the collective effort.

This doesn’t work because of the weird and wonderful nature of the ideas thrown up by the basal ganglia. Their sheer originality makes many of them risible. And most people do not feel comfortable sharing them with a roomful of people. They are best written down and sifted by the person who has them, and the trusted partner with whom they work.

Then, when the mad and the bad have been rejected, the good and the great can be honed into something presentable.

And all of that takes time.

If you’re still in doubt, I’ll leave you with Warren Buffett. “No matter how great the talent and effort, some things just take time. You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”

Multi-award winning former creative director and author Steve Harrison will be running an AWARD Creative Masterclass in Perth on March 9. He’ll be covering how to develop big ideas, as well as writing a clear brief, and better copy overall. Attendees will receive a free copy of Steve’s book, ‘How to write better copy’. Book your place here.