Ideas can come from anyone

Dear Young Creative Folks,...

Dear Young Creative Folks,

It occurred to me the other day that some of you may be overlooking the most important parts of your professional anatomy. (Fill in your own dumb joke here.)

Since you get to flaunt the precious word ‘creative’ – envied by ordinary mortals, as in ‘I’m not creative, but…’ – you very likely think that all your ideas have to come from that nifty gray matter between your ears. They do not. Many great ideas come from the ears themselves. And the eyes.

Our job is to sell to people, and we are constantly surrounded by people, so it logically follows that we should listen to people. People say a lot of things, and occasionally what they say contains an idea.

The key point is, they don’t know they’re having an idea. In the case of account people and clients, it has been carefully drummed into them over the decades that they are incapable of having a creative idea. In the case of the general public, it never occurs to them that they might be doing an ad guy’s job for them. But they are.

Terry O’Malley was once sitting in the premises of his largest client, McDonald’s. He sat and he watched and he listened, and he discovered that near his table a rite of passage was going on.

A family was instructing a very young girl on how to go to the counter and order a meal, all by herself. It was obviously a major step for her, somewhat akin to flying solo, and she was nervous. But with the support of her family and a helpful counter attendant, she slowly and stumblingly and happily pulled it off.

Terry found the moment charming, and not only that, it was also pretty damned on-strategy. So all he had to do was go back to Vickers & Benson, write down what he’d just seen, have it storyboarded and filmed – and presto! he had a marvelous McDonald’s commercial.

Does that somehow make Mr. O’Malley a lesser creative being, because he saw and heard the idea, instead of sitting in his funky office and thinkin’ it up? It sure as hell does not. Ideas are precious, and you do not get creative points deducted because your brain is connected to your eyes and ears.

Another story is told of the day, many years ago, when Doyle Dane Bernbach arrived at their new car-rental account for their first briefing. Avis was pretty small, and pretty unknown, and of course, as with all service businesses, they had a very difficult time articulating what set them apart.

The agency people kept at it, though, trying doggedly to figure out what would distinguish in the renter’s mind an Avis Buick from a Hertz Buick. And then, finally, probably from sheer exhaustion, somebody on the client side of the table blurted out, ‘Well, I think we try harder.’

Ninety-nine out of a hundred agencies – particularly in those days, when the Unique Selling Proposition was king – would have smiled, metaphorically patted the client on the head, and gone back to analyzing the molecular structure of Avis’s ashtray cleaning fluid. Doyle Dane didn’t. They muttered a very quiet ‘Aha!’ and went back and packaged ‘We Try Harder.’ And the rest is history.

Creative people are both born and made. Some people do have better imaginations than others, just as some can jump higher or throw a ball farther. But a large part of creative success is remembering that we are packagers of ideas as well as sources of ideas.

Ideas are everywhere, but as I’ve said in the past, 99% of them are sparks that fizzle out unrecognized. We don’t really have to spend all our time trying to generate sparks out of nowhere, like overaged Boy Scouts. If we take somebody else’s tiny spark like ‘Well, we try harder’, and through our skilled use of words and pictures and music we fan it into flame – hey, we done good. We done great, in fact.

Edison said, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Burghardt says, a little observation helps, as well.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING • CREATIVE THINKING’. He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072, by fax at (416) 693-5100 or by e-mail at