10 Steps to Breakthrough Brainstorms 

“Everyone’s born creative; it just gets trained out of them.”

With this quote, Larry Stultz, advertising department chair at The Art Institute of Atlanta, started me on a year-long journey to find best practices in brainstorming. Through trial and error, discussions with top creative professionals and tracing the synthesis of the most creative campaigns, we at MSL Atlanta have developed 10 steps to help guide you to breakthrough brainstorms. Here they are:

1. Keep Your Brief Brief:
Even if you’ve been asked to come up with the best ideas for campaigns, events, story angles and  digital assets, stick to a few topics per brainstorm. Keep the focus narrow and the creative brief to one page.

2. Keep Score: Often in brainstorms we rely on gut instinct to determine which ideas we like best, without factoring in the idea’s specific advantages for the client. Next time, try to quantify client “wants” and “needs” and assign values up front. Some use a 60 point scorecard—10 points for each of three “needs” and 10 for each of three “wants.”

3. Pick Your Team: Selecting the right people for your brainstorm is essential to its success. Four people you need to invite are The Outsider—someone representative of the audience being brainstormed; The Creative Catalyst—someone good at generating and building on ideas; The Subject Matter Expert—someone from an account service team or with a passion point relevant to the subject; and The Naysayer—activated in this role only during the evaluation stage to poke holes in and improve ideas.

4. Get Familiar: Preliminary research is key to insight—visit stores, sites or locations prior to brainstorming to collect images, artifacts, materials and observations that can be relevant to the ideation process.
5. Mindstorm: Have your group warm up with independent “mindstorming” to develop two to three ideas to bring with them to the full brainstorm group. These preliminary possibilities become the passport to entry into the heart of the brainstorm and get minds ready for new ideas.

6. Set the Scene:
Mornings are best and Fridays are often a great day to play, but any day is good for a brainstorm. Use a big room or a wide open space to set the stage for boundless ideas. Bring artifacts representing the audience you’re targeting that can help decorate the space. Use food, mood music and toys ranging from stress balls to clay to crayons that can provide tactile stimulation and help people revert to childhood when ideas flow with reckless abandon.
7. Break the Ice: Provide a clean mental slate with an icebreaker and help participants get to a fresh place to think about the subject. Successful icebreakers should typically last 10 minutes or longer and include conjuring up or drawing a favorite childhood memory or a visual of what a word or phrase means to each individual; a “word cloud,” where participants draw a line with free association branches to other words; or a “force fit,” displaying various images for group’s collective inspirations and first impulse ideas.

8. Follow the Rules: Here are the Rules of the Brainstorm:
•  Don’t judge others’ ideas, just build on them
•  Brainstorm for quantity over quality
•  Don’t be bound by costs or specific logistics of an idea at this stage
•  No use of mobile phones or smartphones for the 60-90 minute duration of the brainstorm
•  Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most elegant

9. Guide the Brainstorm:
Once ideas begin to slow down, change the pace with these thought-provoking techniques:
•  Assumption smashing – brainstorming best ideas, then take certain elements away to see how they morph and change into new ideas
•  Serendipitous ideation – take three organizations unlike your own and brainstorm from those perspectives
•  Problem reversal – develop all the worst ideas you can possibly think of for a client then flip them to positive workable notions.

10. Harvest the Ideas:
After taking 30 minutes to an hour to cool down, return with notes typed for evaluation against the scorecard. This allows for a left-brain exercise and gives the account team an opportunity to punch holes in good and bad ideas and further develop the best three to five. The scorecard you developed earlier should dictate what great ideas rise to the top.

These 10 steps should prepare you for a brainstorm that results in a supervisor or client-ready set of ideas, no matter how well-trained you and your participants may be.


This article was written by Stephen Michael Brown, SVP, MSL Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenATL  

  • Rhonda Dougherty

    Great and concise article! Thanks for posting!