Sketch boneyard
Role: Artist/Philosopher/Divergent thinker | Sketches by Jeff Hunter
Where do bad first Round ideas go when they die?
How to stop worrying and learn how to love your dumb ideas.
by Jeff Hunter
“Too fast to live. Too young to die.”
-Malcom Mclaren

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. Hey, they can’t all be winners.
Given the obvious constraints of our self inflicted hustle culture, It’s no surprise that most first round creative ideas face certain death. It’s a suicide mission—a mad dash to mediocrity that leaves little room thoughtful reflection. So, when the first wave of ideas inevitably gets thinned out, and all the misfires start to quietly fizzle, most hardened creatives simply ditch the evidence and move on.
But, did you ever stop to consider the possibility that somewhere in that pile of discarded papers on the floor, the greatest idea ever conceived in the history of advertising may have just been murdered?
I realize this is going to disappoint many of you, but my years of advertising industry experience has revealed to me the true nature of creativity, and it goes something like this:
No self respecting creative person in the history of advertising has ever really known what the hell they’re doing. It’s true.
Who can really claim to understand the mystery of a creative mind, right? As someone whose job is to generate those “big ideas,” you’re always on the lookout for engaging, captivating, and culture bombing big campaign concepts that takeover the world. I think we can all agree that the path to those big ideas can be quite circuitous. Let’s be honest, bringing something new into existence is not an easy ask. In fact it’s quite messy. It usually involves a lot of chin scratching, a bit of alchemy, and if all else fails, a ritual sacrifice to the advertising gods might be in order. So we bravely grab our pen and pad and charge forward. As a self-professed gonzo journalist once opined…
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
-Hunter S. Thompson
Once your nimble mind crosses the threshold and begins to wander into unknown territory, the distinction between good and bad ideas becomes nebulous. The world gets fuzzy and you start seeing things that probably aren’t there. So, you quickly write down whatever pops into your head – because by then your brain is under assault from all directions and has already moved on to the next random thought and you’re afraid you might forget whatever it was that led you in this unlikely direction in the first place.
Thinking is useless when you’re trying to roller-skate in a tornado. You’re chasing shadows, catching glimpses, lunging at apparitions, getting lost in the wonder of it all. You, my creative cosmonaut, are now relying on pure instinct and the 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. I ask you, what could be more exciting than that?
Sure, we all aspire to come up with “smart ideas” – ideas that instantly flip a switch in our minds and light up the room when presented. But what about all those “dumb ideas” that somehow manage to capture the world’s collective imagination. And more to the point, what do you do when nobody “gets” your crazy first round idea but you – when they tell you that your idea sucks, is way off brief and has zero chance of connecting with your audience?
Learn to love your dumb ideas.
Who cares? Dad just gave you the keys to the minivan – and you’re on his insurance plan. You’re not going to let this opportunity pass you up. Renounce logic. Loosen your grip on reality. Go crazy. Round one is the creative Rumspringa. Convince yourself that nothing is real, ideas are just electrical impulses in someones brain, truth is an illusion, everything you know is probably wrong, opposites do not attract, k-pop is actually kinda cool, and all bad ideas actually aren’t all bad. Of course, those revelations depend on your frame of mind, the time of day, what you had for breakfast and the direction of the wind at the moment you discover these incongruities.
Why? Because unlike computers, actual people have feelings. Feelings are unstable and tend to mess up algorithms. Real people tend to do things like fall in love, worry, get mad, form attachments and habits that make no sense. They make irrational and arbitrary decisions all the time. Paradoxically, some of the most successful advertising ideas defy convention 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. So, how does that make a dumb idea smart?
Feelings are always authentic.
Empathy. Ideas that connect with peoples emotions just seem to stick around longer. They’re more interesting and people want to believe them. If they don’t like the facts, people will make all kinds of logical leaps and contortions until they get their emotional fix. It turns out feelings are honest, even when they contradict the facts. And at the end of the day, people go with their gut because it feels better.
Have you ever gotten this feedback, “Yeah, I’m just not feeling it”? When logic fails to produce anything worthwhile, we tend to rely on emotion. Feelings make ideas tangible. Without them, ideas lose traction. With them, preposterous notions become palatable. They imbue humans with the confidence to take chances. To make bold, untenable, dumb decisions, in spite of all the incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. So, feelings and dumb ideas are related – they’re both hard to define, unpredictable and known to spontaneously combust.
Think of it this way: bad first round 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.
Bad ideas don’t care what you think.
Terrible round-one ideas have something refreshing to offer; a willful indifference towards their own badness. They’ve got a license to suck. 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 turn into compelling stories 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 with a marketing budget to say, “What the hell, let’s do it.”
Never stop chasing after those foul balls.
The thing to remember about round-one is that time and the advertising gods are betting against you. So, if you’re going to go down, you might as well go down in a blaze of glory. That makes round one 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, spew your guts and spend some time on an ill-conceived romp in the weeds – you may find the scenic route quite productive. I know, I’ve lost my keys there a few times.
-Joseph Campbell
Cause as much trouble in round-one as you can, because by round-two, you better have your shit together. Sometimes, bad ideas are hidden doorways to creative magic, Other times, they’re just a bad idea and should be approached with a long stick and 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.”
More sketches by Jeff Hunter
I’m not sure what’s going on here. But it’s awesome.
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First TV spot I ever sold. It was in German. I don’t speak German — so I don’t know if it was any good.
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My favorite was the self-flagellating guy.
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Would somebody please make these.
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What the…?
Solid no.
Cool. Going to need to scale it way back.
Christo would’ve love this one. Still no.
I tried Steve.
Maybe a little too Geico.
Why would I click on this?
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Boring. I love it.
Who hasn’t worked on Charles Schwab at some point in their career?
Okay… no.
Great! Love it! Come back when you have an idea.
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I specifically said no angles.
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I miss the booze shelf.
They said “pizza heroes” right?
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Pretty sure they already had all this stuff.
One of these did not eat the salmon mousse.
Did I work on Samsung?
Keep going.
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These feel very Crispin 2009.
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Didn’t get the reaction I was hoping for.
Kept trying to sell this idea. Until I realized I couldn’t.
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Must have been playing around with my Prismacolors.
Ahead of it’s time. Next.
Doesn’t everyone tuck their t-shirts into their underwear?
Getting closer.
A Dad’s work is never done. Not even once.
Shut up Austin.
Almost made these.
Whoever killed these ads is an nincompoop.
Again, with the tucking t-shirt thing?
I thought everyone was digging these.
Early rounds.
No. No. And yes.
Can’t remember what these are for. But cool charcoal sketches.
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I should really clear out my hard drive.
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Not alive.
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Yes Dave, cats DO lick their balls.
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These should be ready in about an hour Drew.
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Aaaaand…. no.
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…and dead.
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Why didn’t I get credit for this again?
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Hello again Mr. Nimbus. Sorry you’re dead.
This one got axed.
Hmmm. Not interesting.
Cake idea. Still not working.
RIP cake idea.
This one finally made it.
What were we liking about these again?
Let’s hold on these for now.
Ah yes. The Liquid Gold Fountain. We actually made that.
The Aspen festival is not an idea.
Please, no more vending machine ideas guys!
Sigh. Why not?
Fackit, let’s go with the obnoxious mid-century western kitsch for a wall treatment. I don’t care what anybody says.
This is getting tedious.
Yep. Nope.
Sorry about the baseball thing Dave.

“Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”

-Dr. Seuss

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