Since I started teaching advertising classes again over the summer after a short hiatus of 27 years, the question I get asked more than any other is this: "When you get an assignment, when you get a brief, do you have a technique or some tricks for coming up with ideas?"
When I was a kid, I could run around the neighborhood looking for deposit bottles to redeem for two-cents a pop. With nine bottles, I could buy myself a Carvel soft-ice cream cone. They cost just seventeen-cents and for just three bottles more, I could get sprinkles--chocolate or rainbow. I have always loved soft-ice cream. In fact, the other day, I asked my wife how she would feel if I got a soft-ice cream machine for our kitchen. I will spare you her frozen rebuke.
But that's all to say, ideas don't come out of a dispenser in a beautiful vanilla or chocolate swirl like soft-serve. When I get an assignment, there's no telling what's going to happen. How I'll fill a page with thoughts, or even if I'll have any thoughts.
I will tell you here what I tell my students. What I've been doing myself for almost 40 years.
I keep a box that I fill with things I like.
At one time, when we had offices, that was an actual physical box. Anytime I saw an ad or an article I thought was good or interesting, I would rip it out of whatever magazine I was stealing and deposit it in my box.
While I'm not officially a hoarder, I did cart this box filled with thousands of ads dating back to the early 80s all over Manhattan, out to San Francisco when I went to work there and then across the country to Boston.
For about the last 15 years, the sadness of my peripatetic freelance life has forced me to rely on pixels not dot patterns. Today, I do screen-grabs of things I like, or snap a picture with my always-with-me iPhone.
I'm not organized like some people are. My friend and ex-partner Sid, for instance, has a Pinterest page that would put the Library of Congress and Dewey of decimal system fame to shame.
He has almost 5,800 pins on his pages, organized in topics as arcane as "hands," "comfort," "love" and "water." Sometimes when I can't make it out to a museum, I'll visit the museum of Sid.
I also keep some sheets of digital paper I call "George's Magic List." I update it with yet another url every time I see something cool. Right now, it has almost 400 links on it, most of which I've memorized.
Many of these links are macro in orientation. They take a complicated subject and break it down with words, animations, diagrams and pictures--and sometimes sound--into something involving, interesting and clarifying. I find this useful, too.
Scattered throughout various hard-drives I have other badly organized files, too. Movie credits I like. Movie scenes I like. Dialogue I like. Fights I like. Commercials I like. And talks worth listening to. Additionally, anytime I find an article in the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or The New Yorker, I usually copy it, title it, date it and save it.
For me the key to all this is not being organized.
I am a believer in serendipity and it almost never fails to astonish me how often I find something better when I set out looking for something else. I suppose there's a bit of the availability heuristic at work in that chaos, and that's fine. If I had to choose heuristics, I'd choose availability over recency.
I have my favorite authors too, and my favorite articles. I jump into a deep pool of Melville when I'm puzzled and I always come up with a fish in my shorts. Other times when I feel my writing sucks, I center myself with Robert Caro or Joseph Mitchell or Roger Angell or AJ Liebling, or even the taut economy and bitter tang of Raymond Chandler or the laconic Dashiell Hammett.
If I find that I need to explain something very complicated and make it simple but not dumb, Primo Levi helps. He survived Auschwitz and was able to write about his years there with a scientific diffidence that can only be envied.
Mostly though, getting an assignment means getting to work. I've been doing this for 40 years now, and I've talked to a lot of my mentors and colleagues about how they handle things.
There's not a single person out there--if they're telling the truth--who isn't afraid they're done. That they'll never again come up with anything good.
I suppose the great artists go through this. Real writers, not just copywriters, and directors, too. I'd bet generals who move thousands of soldiers and are responsible for their lives worry that they've lost their knack. I know that happened to Erwin Rommel and George C. Marshall.
But the main thing, for me, is to put pressure on myself. When I was working at an agency, I usually picked out a superego who intimidated me a bit.
I'd say, "I have to get my ad to Steve, or to Lou, or to Liam at twelve." If it was 7:30AM when I said that, that was a pretty good kick in the ass. I didn't give myself much time to fiddle faddle around.
I'd usually finish by ten. Finish another permutation by eleven. Take a walk until 11:30, then have a tweak session until the time I had promised. More often than not that worked for me.
Those are my tricks.
They seem to have worked today.