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A Technique for Producing Ideas

A Technique for Producing Ideas

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by James Young

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A step-by-step technique for sparking breakthrough creativity in advertising--or any field

Since its publication in 1965, A Technique for Producing Ideas has helped thousands of advertising copywriters smash through internal barriers to unleash their creativity. Professionals from poets and painters to scientists and engineers have also


A step-by-step technique for sparking breakthrough creativity in advertising--or any field

Since its publication in 1965, A Technique for Producing Ideas has helped thousands of advertising copywriters smash through internal barriers to unleash their creativity. Professionals from poets and painters to scientists and engineers have also used the techniques in this concise, powerful book to generate exciting ideas on demand, at any time, on any subject. Now let James Webb Young's unique insights help you look inside yourself to find that big, elusive idea--and once and for all lift the veil of mystery from the creative process.

"James Webb Young is in the tradition of some of our greatest thinkers when he describes the workings of the creative process. The results of many years in advertising have proved to him that the key element in communications success is the production of relevant and dramatic ideas. He not only makes this point vividly for us but shows us the road to that goal."
--William Bernbach, Former Chairman and CEO, Doyle Dane Bernbach Inc.

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McGraw-Hill Education
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A Technique for Producing Ideas

A McGRAW-HILL Advertising Classic


Copyright © 2003 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-07-142625-1

Chapter One

How It Started

One day in my last year as an advertising agency executive in Chicago I had a telephone call from the western advertising manager of a well-known magazine.

He asked if he could see me immediately on a matter of importance. Shortly thereafter he arrived in my office, somewhat out of breath.

"We are having a meeting today," he said, "of our entire western sales staff. Its purpose is to discuss how we can improve our selling.

"In our discussions we have tried to analyze the selling methods of other successful publications and salesmen. And among these we have been particularly impressed by the success of Mr. Kobler in his selling of the American Weekly.

"After studying just why he is so successful we have come to the conclusion that it all rests on just one thing: he doesn't sell space; he sells Ideas.

"And so," he continued, with enthusiasm, "we have decided that that is just what we are going to do. From here on we are not going to sell space at all. Beginning tomorrow morning every single one of us is going to sell Ideas!"

I said I thought that was just dandy but wondered what it was that he wanted to discuss with me.

"Well," he said, somewhat ruefully, "we could see that what we ought to do is to sell ideas, all right. But after that we sort of got stuck.

"What we are not clear about is just how to get ideas.

"So I said maybe you could tell us, and that is what I am here for.

"You have produced a lot of advertising ideas. Just how do you get them? The boys are waiting for me to come back and tell them."

Now I know that if I had not been so flattered by this question, and if my questioner had not been so obviously serious in asking it, I would have had a hearty fit of laughing at this point.

I thought at the time that I had never heard a funnier or more naive question. And I was completely unable to give any helpful answer to it.

But it struck me afterward that maybe the question "How do you get ideas?" wasn't as silly as it sounded. Maybe there was some answer to it. And off and on I thought about it.

The Formula of Experience

An idea, I thought, has some of that mysterious quality which romance lends to tales of the sudden appearance of islands in the South Seas.

There, according to ancient mariners, in spots where the charts showed only deep blue sea, there would suddenly appear a lovely atoll above the surface of the waters. An air of magic hung about it.

And so it is, I thought, with Ideas. They appear just as suddenly above the surface of the mind—and with that same air of magic and unaccountability.

But the scientist knows that the South Sea atoll is the work of countless, unseen coral builders, working below the surface of the sea.

And so I asked myself: "Is an idea, too, like this? Is it only the final result of a long series of unseen idea-building processes which go on beneath the surface of the conscious mind?

"If so, can these processes be identified, so that they can consciously be followed and utilized? In short, can a formula or technique be developed in answer to the question: How do you get ideas?"

What I now propose to you is the result of a long-time pondering of these questions and of close observation of the work of idea-producing men with whom I have had associations.

This has brought me to the conclusion that the production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.

If you ask me why I am willing to give away the valuable formula of this discovery I will confide to you that experience has taught me two things about it:

First, the formula is so simple to state that few who hear it really believe in it.

Second, while simple to state, it actually requires the hardest kind of intellectual work to follow, so that not all who accept it use it.

Thus I broadcast this formula with no real fear of glutting the market in which I make my living.

The Pareto Theory

Now, we all know men of whom we have said: "He never had an idea in his life."

That saying brings us face to face with the first real question about this subject. Even assuming that there may be a technique for producing ideas, is everybody capable of using it? Or is there, in addition, some special ability for producing ideas which, after all, you must be born with—like a color sense or tone sense or card sense?

One answer to that question is suggested in the work Mind and Society by the great Italian sociologist Pareto.

Pareto thought that all the world could be divided into two main types of people. These types he called, in the French in which he wrote, the speculator and the rentier.

In this classification speculator is a term used somewhat in the sense of our word "speculative." The speculator is the speculative type of person. And the distinguishing characteristic of this type, according to Pareto, is that he is constantly preoccupied with the possibilities of new combinations.

Please hold that italicized definition in mind, because we shall return to it later. Note particularly that word pre-occupied, with its brooding quality.

Pareto includes among the persons of this speculative type not only the business enterprisers—those who deal with financial and business schemes—but those engaged with inventions of every sort and with what he calls "political and diplomatic reconstructions."

In short, the type includes all those persons in any field who (like our President Roosevelt) can not let well enough alone and who speculate on how to change it.

The term used by Pareto to describe the other type, the rentier, is translated into English as the stockholder—though he sounds more like the bag holder to me. Such people, he says, are the routine, steady-going, unimaginative, conserving people, whom the speculator manipulates.

Whatever we may think of the adequacy of this theory of Pareto's as an entire explanation of social groups, I think we all recognize that these two types of human beings do exist. Whether they were born that way, or whether their environment and training made them that way, is beside the point. They are.

This being the case I suppose it must be true that there are large numbers of people whom no technique for producing ideas will ever help.

But it seems to me that the important point for our purpose is that the speculators, or reconstructors of this world, are a very large group. Theirs at least is the inherent capacity to produce ideas, and it is by no means such a rare capacity. And so, while perhaps not all God's chilluns got wings, enough have for each of us to hope that we may be among those that have.

At any rate, I propose to assume that if a man (or woman) is at all fascinated by advertising it is probably because he is among the reconstructors of this world. Therefore he has some creative powers; and these powers, like others, may be increased by making a deliberate effort to do so and by mastering a technique for their better use.

Training the Mind

Assuming, then, that we have some natural capacity for the creation of ideas, we come to the practical question: "What are the means of developing it?"

In learning any art the important things to learn are, first, Principles, and second, Method. This is true of the art of producing ideas.

Particular bits of knowledge are nothing, because they are made up of what Dr. Robert Hutchins once called rapidly aging facts. Principles and method are everything.

Thus in advertising we may know the names of types, how much engravings cost, what the rates and closing dates are in a thousand publications; we may know enough grammar and rhetoric to confound a schoolteacher and enough names of television artists to hold our own at a broadcaster's cocktail party; we may know all these things and still not be an advertising man, because we have no understanding of the principles and fundamental methods by which advertising works.

On the other hand, we may know none of these things but have insight into advertising principles and method, so that by employing technicians to help us we may produce advertising results. Thus we sometimes see a manufacturer or merchant who is a better advertising man than his advertising agent or manager.

So with the art of producing ideas. What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas.

Combining Old Elements

With regard to the general principles which underlie the production of ideas, it seems to me that there are two which are important.

The first of these has already been touched upon in the quotation from Pareto: namely, that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.

This is, perhaps, the most important fact in connection with the production of ideas. However, I want to leave the elaboration of it until we come to a discussion of method. Then we can see the importance of this fact more clearly, through the application of it.

The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it is an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts.

An illustration of this might be taken from a relationship between advertising and psychiatry. At first blush it might be hoped that there is no relationship! But the psychiatrists have discovered the profound influence which words have in the lives of their patients—words as symbols of emotional experiences.

And now Dr. Harold Lasswell has carried over these word-symbol studies of the psychiatrists to the field of political action and shown how word-symbols are used with the same emotional force in propaganda.

To a mind which is quick to see relationships several ideas will occur, fruitful for advertising, about this use of words as symbols. Is this, then, why the change of one word in a headline can make as much as 50 percent difference in advertising response? Can words, studied as emotional symbols, yield better advertising education than words studied as parts of rhetoric? What is the one word-symbol which will best arouse the emotion with which I wish this particular advertisement to be charged? And so on.

The point is, of course, that when relationships of this kind are seen they lead to the extraction of a general principle. This general principle, when grasped, suggests the key to a new application, a new combination, and the result is an idea.

Consequently the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas. Now this habit of mind can undoubtedly be cultivated. I venture to suggest that, for the advertising man, one of the best ways to cultivate it is by study in the social sciences. A book like Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class or Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, therefore, becomes a better book about advertising than most books about advertising.

Ideas Are New Combinations

With these two general principles in mind—the principle that an idea is a new combination, and the principle that the ability to make new combinations is heightened by an ability to see relationships—with these in mind let us now look at the actual method or procedure by which ideas are produced.

As I said before, what I am now about to contend is that in the production of ideas the mind follows a method which is just as definite as the method by which, say, Fords are produced.

In other words, that there is a technique for the use of the mind for this purpose; that whenever an idea is produced this technique is followed, consciously or unconsciously; and that this technique can consciously be cultivated and the ability of the mind to produce ideas thereby increased.

This technique of the mind follows five steps. I am sure that you will all recognize them individually. But the important thing is to recognize their relationship and to grasp the fact that the mind follows these five steps in definite order—that by no possibility can one of them be taken before the preceding one is completed, if an idea is to be produced.

The first of these steps is for the mind to gather its raw material.

That, I am sure, will strike you as a simple and obvious truth. Yet it is really amazing to what degree this step is ignored in practice.

Gathering raw material in a real way is not as simple as it sounds. It is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it. The time that ought to be spent in material gathering is spent in wool gathering. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us. When we do that we are trying to get the mind to take the fourth step in the idea-producing process while we dodge the preceding steps.

The materials which must be gathered are of two kinds: they are specific and they are general.

In advertising, the specific materials are those relating to the product and the people to whom you propose to sell it. We constantly talk about the importance of having an intimate knowledge of the product and the consumer, but in fact we seldom work at it.

This, I suppose, is because a real knowledge of a product, and of people in relation to it, is not easy to come by. Getting it is something like the process which was recommended to De Maupassant as the way to learn to write. "Go out into the streets of Paris," he was told by an older writer, "and pick out a cab driver. He will look to you very much like every other cab driver. But study him until you can describe him so that he is seen in your description to be an individual, different from every other cab driver in the world."

This is the real meaning of that trite talk about getting an intimate knowledge of a product and its consumers. Most of us stop too soon in the process of getting it. If the surface differences are not striking we assume that there are no differences. But if we go deeply enough, or far enough, we nearly always find that between every product and some consumers there is an individuality of relationship which may lead to an idea.

Thus, for example, I could cite you the advertising for a well-known soap. At first there appeared nothing to say about it that had not been said for many soaps. But a study was made of the relation of soap to skin and hair—a study which resulted in a fair-sized book on the subject. And out of this book came copy ideas for five years of advertising; ideas which multiplied the sales of this soap by ten in that period. This is what is meant by gathering specific materials.

Of equal importance with the gathering of these specific materials is the continuous process of gathering general materials.

Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever know has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested—from, say, Egyptian burial customs to modern art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.

Now this gathering of general materials is important because this is where the previously stated principle comes in—namely, that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of elements. In advertising an idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge about life and events.

The process is something like that which takes place in the kaleidoscope. The kaleidoscope, as you know, is an instrument which designers sometimes use in searching for new patterns. It has little pieces of colored glass in it, and when these are viewed through a prism they reveal all sorts of geometrical designs. Every turn of its crank shifts these bits of glass into a new relationship and reveals a new pattern. The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater the number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations.

So it is with the production of ideas for advertising—or anything else. The construction of an advertisement is the construction of a new pattern in this kaleidoscopic world in which we live. The more of the elements of that world which are stored away in that pattern-making machine, the mind, the more the chances are increased for the production of new and striking combinations, or ideas. Advertising students who get restless about the "practical" value of general college subjects might consider this.


Excerpted from A Technique for Producing Ideas by JAMES WEBB YOUNG Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James Webb Young was a driving force behind the creation of the modern advertising industry, and is one of advertising's most honored educators and practitioners.

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