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Get Creative! 9 Fun Brainstorming Tactics for Agencies

Creativity... It’s the lifeblood of every agency. Without creativity there’d be no new ideas. No problem solving. No innovation. And nothing to distinguish your company from the competition.

“There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.”

- Edward de Bono

But inspiring creativity is tough, right? Your team love their agency jobs, but if you drag them into a dreary, monotonous meeting their minds start to wander. Suddenly they’re daydreaming about home, beer and doing laundry in their underwear... And despite an hour of whiteboard scribbling you fail to produce results.

I know you’re surrounded by talented people. So how do you tap into their imagination? Sometimes it takes a few unusual tactics to bring your creative meetings back to life.

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Tip #1: Ask for Terrible Ideas

Is this counter-intuitive? Sure. But it really does work. Instead of asking your team for good ideas, write a problem on the board and ask your team to brainstorm their worst solutions. The suggestions can be stupid, bizarre, illegal - the more ridiculous the better.

This is a great way to start a meeting for 4 reasons:

  1. It always gets some laughs, creating a positive environment
  2. It’s a no pressure task - more people feel comfortable speaking up
  3. It stimulates the creative side of your brain
  4. The bad ideas often lead to good ones

I love coming up with terrible ideas. I have so many I wish I could get paid for it (one day my dream will come true). But on a serious note you’ll be amazed how often this ice-breaker exercise leads to real solutions.

Looking at a problem from the reverse perspective is surprisingly helpful - many bad ideas contain the seed of good ones. At the end of the exercise, challenge your team to turn those awful ideas into positive ones.

Tip #2: Get Doodling

Every team has a few secret doodlers. I’m one of them. And I’m a firm believer that drawing pretty flowers and space monsters inside the ‘S’ on my notebook actually helps me to listen. Don’t believe me? Ask science.

In 2009, researchers at Plymouth University carried out tests to see if doodling could improve memory recall. During a listening test, one group of test subjects were instructed to colour in shapes on a piece of paper. Another group were instructed to perform the same listening test without doodling.

The study revealed that doodlers performed 29% better on memory recall tests than non-doodlers. It seems that doodling (which is mentally undemanding) prevents daydreaming, and actually helps us to concentrate better during mundane activities.

So next time your team gets together, fill your meeting room with children’s colouring books, pens and scrap paper. Instruct people to draw mindlessly and prepare to be amazed by their superhuman recall. After all, who can argue with science??

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Tip #3: Hold a Silent Meeting

Silent meetings. They’re like a silent disco, but less humiliating.

The goal of a silent meeting is to get quiet, introverted members of the team to participate equally. Have one chairperson who is permitted to speak. Get them to announce a project and read out all the relevant details (project scope, goals, deadlines, etc). Then have your team write down as many creative ideas as possible on a big shared piece of paper, connecting their thoughts.

No one is allowed to talk, but you can raise your hand if you need the speaker to repeat details. Time your session. Wrap the whole thing up and dismiss your team without breaking the rule of silence. Finish with some weird bowing or handshakes like you’re in a secret society.

Afterwards, collate the ideas and email them to the team. You can discuss the suggestions in a normal catch up later, but I find this is a fun way to stimulate new thoughts. People actually look forward to silent meetings, and there’s always one person who can’t fight off the giggles.

Tip #4: Start a Question-Storm

Brainstorming puts pressure on everyone to come up with ‘the right answers’. And this pressure can be really stifling for our creativity.

Enter question-storming! This alternative approach to brainstorming is gaining popularity with companies like Microsoft and MIT. Question-storming forces your team to dig deep and consider an issue from new angles. For example, you might ask why your problem exists, why it’s even considered a problem, or what’s been done to address it in the past.

Instead of saying: “We have X problem. How can we solve it?”

Try saying: “We have X problem. What are all the questions we can ask about it?”

The first time I tried this in a group the results were nothing short of amazing. One of my especially shy colleagues (he’d never spoken in one of our meetings before) asked 3 questions in the first minute. And by the end, we’d produced a long list of new ideas and strategies we’d never even considered.

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Tip #5: If These Walls Could Talk

This technique is perfect for traditional, boring meeting rooms - the ones with four walls! Write down a list of four problems, projects or hurdles your team needs to overcome. Phrase them as open-ended questions. Then stick one to each wall.

For example, your walls might read:

  • How could we revamp Client X’s website on a tight budget?
  • How can we communicate better as a team?
  • How can we improve our social media reach?
  • In retrospect, how could we have done better on Project X?

Give each team member a pad of sticky notes. Set a timer for 15 minutes, and let them walk around the room writing anonymous answers. Encourage fast, free flowing thought - there’s no wrong suggestions.

At the end of your session gather everyone’s notes and discuss them as a team. If there’s too many you can vote and rank them, then dissect the top five ideas. Don’t worry about attributing each note to it’s author - it’s the ideas that matter.

Tip #6: Think in Bursts

The internet is full of conflicting (and sometimes bogus) advice about how to run an effective meeting. 15 minutes is often touted as the optimal time. But I’ve got to be honest - I’ve never been in a successful creative meeting that took under 60 minutes. Creative meetings are about generating unique ideas - and these need time to emerge, evolve, be refined.

But don’t throw your egg timer away yet! Urgency is still be a powerful motivator. Try spending two minutes brainstorming a single topic, then immediately switch to a different subject. Setting a musical alarm can keep the atmosphere lively (or spur people into homicidal rages, it depends on the song).

These short bursts of activity will keep everyone’s neurons firing, and prevent boredom from setting in during long sessions. Collect the best ideas and return to them later in the meeting for proper discussion and planning.

Tip #7: Be Unprepared

By now you’ve probably realised that I’m a big fan of pens and paper. Sticky notes, whiteboards, colouring pencils, highlighters - the stuff copywriter’s dreams are made of. So do be physically prepared and bring stationery to your meetings!

However, what shouldn’t be prepared in advance is your ideas. Creative brainstorms are a different beast from administrative meetings. A tightly defined agenda and print-outs of discussion points can be a death knell for free thought.

I know, I know...The whole purpose of your meeting is to squeeze creativity out of your team. But that’s why spontaneity is your best friend. Don’t announce your meeting topic until 5 minutes before you enter the room. Catch people unaware and tap into their raw, impulsive thoughts. Then refine these ideas into something great.

Tip #8: Get Comfy and Cosy

Have you ever held a productive brainstorm outdoors? While ‘walking meetings’ have become popular in recent years, they can be a logistical nightmare for large groups of creatives. If your staff are writers like me they’re probably averse to sunlight. And it’s impossible to stay focused when everyone is staring longingly into the window of a neighbouring pub.

But you don’t have to embark on impractical missions to mix things up. Instead of dragging your team to a park five blocks away, scout for new locations in your building. Find a sunny balcony or comfy office lounge. Bring beanbags, chairs, and clipboards - you want to be comfortable but productive. Or indulge your team by booking a private lunch room at the cafe next door.

In short, it’s great to mix up your location but remember the three P’s: Private, Peaceful, and Practical. For an in-depth creative brainstorm you’re going to be there a while. Save the more adventurous ‘walking meetings’ for one-on-one discussions.

Tip #9: Bring in a Wildcard

Does your creative team consist of the same people? When you brainstorm with a group of similar minds every week it’s easy to fall into a routine. The same disagreements and thought patterns repeat themselves, especially when we know our colleagues intimately.

Why not mix up the dynamic? Bring in a wildcard person - a friend or staff member who knows nothing about your project. It goes against traditional ‘meeting logic’ to introduce an irrelevant person, but it might just be the electric shock your team needs.

Wildcard attendees bring a valuable, unique perspective to the creative table. We all view issues through the lens of own expertise. Designers think like designers. Copywriters think like copywriters. Developers think like developers. But an outsider… they might think like one of your customers.

Ask yourself who would make a constructive, observant wildcard - and introduce them when the meeting starts to fizzle. Bonus points if they can perform a faux dramatic Jerry Springer entrance.

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Feeling inspired yet? Everyone loves a meeting that’s a little bit weird - so get creative and get brainstorming! I’d love to hear which strategies work for your team.

You might also like to read about making the Xero and WorkflowMax integration work for your creative agency. Or learn how to write an effective creative client brief.

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