Delivering new content – whether you’re a writer, artist, or musician – depends on a rich creative mind. In 1939, James Webb Young, VP at J. Walter Thompson developed a process for creativity and published it in his book, “A Technique for Producing Ideas,” still used by advertising professionals today.
Born in 1886, Young left school after the sixth grade to work at a book publishing firm in Cincinnati. By the time he was twenty-two, Young was advertising manager, and that’s when J. Walter Thompson came calling. They brought him to their New York office, where he started writing copy. In 1919 Young wrote a controversial ad for a deodorant that dared mention that women’s armpits stink. Although the ad resulted in women readers canceling two hundred subscriptions to the Ladies Home Journal, sales rose by 112%.
Young was a multi-discipline thinker, and he liked order on par with any engineer. Young believed that the creation of ideas was as much a process as manufacturing cars. For him, it wasn’t about finding ideas as much as developing a method and discipline for creating them, and that involved practice. With remarkable clarity, he laid out five steps to creative thinking that advertising copywriters still use today.
Young said that creativity “is just connecting things.” So, the first thing you need to do is assemble a creative library – a pool of material that you can draw from. Not to plagiarize but to inspire and form connections. If you look at enough ads – and the average person views 6,000 to 10,000 per day – you’ll see that the technique varies. Sometimes the call to action is in the headline; other times, buried in the body copy. There’s a pattern that often depends on the context of the ad, and here viewing lots of “raw material” helps. Many copywriters who come from a coding background believe this is about assembling facts, but I’m from the view that it’s about enriching your soul with art. I patterned my creative library after the one at Hallmark Greeting Cards. It involves a vast collection of books, paintings, advertisements, long drives to view notable architecture, and books about all of it. It’s a multi-disciplinary approach, and it serves me well. Far too many clients parrot famous ad campaigns. Variations of “Got Milk” seem to come up a lot. We can say the same about fiction writers. Many authors write books not based on experience or truth but from watching too much TV. Enrich yourself – build your creative library. Pursue art and science and ideas in your library for its own sake – not as a goal for a job.
Digest the Material
Young said to take that material and turn it over in your mind. Look for connections, view it from a different angle, try to find links between “Fantastic Planet,” the Harry Potter series, and “Straight Outta Compton.”
Take a break. How many times have your best ideas come when you’re walking the dog or taking a shower? This is your mind turning all that creative goo and those connections over and over. It’s why software designed to monitor writers by counting keystrokes or snapping a picture of them is ultimately self-defeating. According to Young, unconscious processing is key to the production of ideas.
“Out of nowhere, the idea will appear,” says Young. A survey of best-selling authors found that many do their writing at the beginning of their day. Often before breakfast. In that quasi-awareness, when you first open your eyes, the unconscious processing ends, and active creation begins. I carry a notepad with me for just these moments. There have been times when I’ve had to pull off the road and jot down notes about an idea, or I record thoughts on my phone when I’m walking the dog. Whatever works for you, but be ready for when lightning strikes and you say, “A-ha!”
“The Cold, Gray Dawn”
That’s what Young called it. After you put the idea down in words, or paint, or video, or whatever your medium is – wait overnight. I call this the “fermentation stage.” I had a short story that fermented years with many tinkering here and there before I finally got it right. With ads, I can usually crank them out in a few minutes after the “eureka” moment, but I prefer to let them simmer overnight before presenting them to the client. Many web designers like to do A/B testing, and others measure the results. Testing works well in advertising. Sometimes the best ideas fall flat, and a good advertiser knows when to tweak the campaign and pull the plug. For fiction writers in those early stages when you don’t have a deadline, and no one even knows your story exists, it’s a good idea to give it some time. Move on to the next story. Lee Child of Jack Reacher fame takes a vacation, sometimes in the middle of a book. Rocker, George Thorogood, said the creative process for the Destroyers is to record in the morning, eat lunch, smoke a cigar, come back in and listen to the morning’s work and decide it sucks and do it again.
Young’s technique works for artists, musicians, scientists, policymakers, and writers. It takes some practice to master, but in time, your fear of inventing new ideas will wane because you’ll understand it as a process. And a reliable process at that.