“Too fast to live. Too young to die.”
In defense of bad first-round ideas.
by Jeff Hunter
In the merciless world of professional advertising, there’s no time to fuss. Which is why in the first round, creative teams typically launch a fusillade of quick ideas at the wall—often accompanied by some kind of hasty sketch—to see if anything sticks. Once the dust settles, a handful of ideas live to see another day, and the rest are just… dead. They can’t all be winners.
Given the circumstances, It’s no surprise that the majority of first-round creative ideas face certain death. It’s a suicide mission; not exactly conducive to scholarly rumination. When the first wave of ideas inevitably gets thinned out, and all the misfires start to quietly fizzle, most hardened creatives simply deep-six the evidence and move on. What an colossal waste of psychic energy. All that misguided thinking—poof! Gone, just like that. Seems like we ought to do something… say a few words, then maybe make an offering to the advertising gods. I prefer to honor the memory of my short lived ideas by saving the sketches that brought them to life (more on that later)—and then I write a thoughtful dissertation about it. So, my question is, why are we so quick to dismiss bad first-round ideas?
Well, it’s complicated. I realize this is going to piss some people off, but my gut tells me that science has revealed the true nature of creativity goes something like this; nobody really knows what the hell they’re talking about. Bringing something new into existence is messy, it usually involves a volatile mix of knee-jerkery, procrastination, overthinking and desperation—which happens to be the world I’m most comfortable in. Knowledge is useless when you’re flying by the seat of your pants—you’re now relying on pure instinct. When you venture into the unknown the world gets foggy and you start seeing things that probably aren’t there, but you write them down anyway because your brain has already moved on and you’re afraid you might forget whatever it was that drew you to this odd direction in the first place. You’re chasing shadows, catching glimpses, getting lost in the wonder of it all. Your only tether back to the real world is a flimsy line in the brief that could snap at any moment and send you adrift for eternity. What could be more exciting than that?
The problem is, you can’t expect the world to appreciate your bad idea unless you can make them feel it first. And feelings, like bad ideas, are hard to define, unpredictable and known to spontaneously combust.
Denial is the default reaction when you first discover your first-round idea is bad. But you don’t give up that easily. You convince yourself that truth is an illusion, everything you know is probably wrong, opposites do not attract, k-pop is actually quite good, and all bad ideas actually aren’t all bad. Of course, those distinctions depend on who you’re asking, the time of day, and the direction of the wind at the moment you discover their particular flaws. Why? Because people—otherwise known as consumers in this overly broad generalization—make terrible algorithms. They make irrational decisions all the time. Paradoxically, some of the most successful ideas didn’t test well, and some of the biggest, world changing notions were discovered hanging out in the most unlikely places—like in a small business on a Saturday.
Round-one ideas are like teenagers; they’re immature, irresponsible, impulsive, they think they’re invincible, and they usually make very little sense. Yet somehow they are the vanguard of popular culture. What the rest of us seem to have forgotten is that sometimes obvious and stupid is actually witty and cool. Sometimes when we indulge in the occasional stupid idea, stupid rises to the occasion.
Round-one ideas have something refreshing to offer; a willful indifference towards their own badness. They’ve got a license to suck if deemed necessary in the never ending quest for attention. They simply don’t play by the same rules and they’re unbearably honest about it. What’s good about these bad ideas is that they get to be irreverent, ironic, disarmingly accessible and unflinchingly truthful—and still be charming. Any one of those things is enough to get you noticed. Which is kind of the whole point. They’ve also got built in tensions that have the potential to lead to something unexpectedly entertaining, in fact some bad ideas are just one twist away from becoming great ideas. Others are so shockingly bad that you can’t look away. It just takes one brave idiot to go poking around where nobody else thinks to look, and another even braver idiot to say, “What the hell, let’s do it.”
The thing to remember about round-one is, If you’re going to go down, you might as well go down in a blaze of glory. That makes it our chance to throw out the rule book and get really creative. It’s the ADHD round. It’s our time for asking questions, ignoring answers, exploring tensions, taking naps, losing your keys, aiming for the fences, moving the fences,… My point is, you gotta step out of your perfect advertising bubble every once in a while and get your feet dirty. Over-rev your engine. Get out of your lane. Think across disciplines. Follow your gut and spend some time on an ill-conceived romp in the weeds and you may find the scenic route quite productive. I know, I’ve lost my keys there a few times. I think what I’m trying to say is don’t stop chasing after those foul balls.
Cause as much trouble in round-one as you can, because by round-two, you better have your shit together. Sometimes bad ideas are just a bad idea and should be approached with extreme caution. Like you should never run down a hill at top speed. So please, use your best judgement and indulge me as I dust off some real stinkers. The following collection of postmortem thumbnail sketches is my tribute to all of the “other” ideas that have ever been conceived and then killed in the name of advertising.
Thinking with thumbnails.
A thumbnail is a key visual, in the form of a quickly drawn sketch, that accompanies the write up for for an advertising strategy, activation or execution. It is a visual shorthand that helps to explain the idea and bring it to life. It’s also an invaluable concepting tool for divergent thinkers who like to work out ideas on bar napkins. But enough words, allow me to present a 3:2 window into my creative process. To the Art Directors who strive to perfect their craft, I say “Behold the lost art of the thumbnail sketch.” And to my second grade teacher, “Yes Ms. Schnepp, you actually can make a living by doodling all day.”
“Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”