Beauty of the Brainstorm

IStock_000003660306XSmallAmong the questions I hear all the time is, “Why should we hire an agency, versus handle all communications in-house?” 

This one comes up more often than usual thanks to the rise of the blogosphere.  Smart clients understand that they may need to take a more personal, active role in their communications to the outside world.  While that is true, agencies can facilitate that process (big-time), and anyway, there are also other great reasons to consider outside assistance.

Here’s one of ‘em…

I participated in a brainstorming session the other day, in which a broad cross-section of SHIFT employees were engaged in generating ideas for a prospective client.  In the course of the event, it occured to me just how much value these sessions create. 

First of all, from a purely monetary perspective, a solid 90 minutes’ worth of time was being contributed.  Thinking about the billing rates of all the folks in the room – which ranged from approximately $80 to $250 per hour – we probably spent a couple of thousand dollars, easy.

Now consider the wide range of experiences brought to bear.  Around the same table: freshly-minted college graduates, a.k.a., the Facebookers; media specialists; mid-career executives, battle-scarred but young and vigorous; writers and graphic artists; and of course, the grizzled gray-bearded veteran (sigh – that’d be me).

The Facebookers bring their enthusiasm and “why not??” attitude, as well as special insights into how-to reach their peers.  The media specialists will know which ideas they can “sell” to the mainstream media and blogosphere.  The executives will sense which ideas will play well in the prospect’s mind.  The writers and graphic artists think about whimsical ways to “package” the concepts.  (The grizzled gray-beard brings his brain, pickled in a jar.  He lobs in a decent idea when he can.)

The best part?  NONE of those people know very much about the prospect.  At best, we were able to get 30 minutes’ worth of direct input; we looked at their site, and researched the competitive landscape. 

We know enough to be dangerous.

IStock_000003625482XSmallAnd that’s the “beauty” part.  As outside consultants, we care not a whit for the prospective client’s internal politics or entrenched histories.  We get to create ideas based on a snapshot in time. 

Because the narrative we’ll help craft is ultimately intended for external audiences, we’re well equipped to consider what story we’d tell, based on what we know the rest of the outside world is already thinking.  We’re in the same boat as the rest of the spectators.

We try to bring the same process to the brainstorming sessions we conduct on behalf of existing clients.  We do this every 6 months, for almost every client.  The account team will present their client scenario to a larger group of their peers: “here’s what the client does, here’s how the program’s going; here are the challenges so far.”  With just that little bit of data, we’re off to the races, ginning up brand-new campaign concepts.  The account team on-the-case tend to sigh with gratitude by the end: the fuel tank has been re-filled!

Agencies live and die based on the strength of their ideas.  That creative muscle is excercised each day.  That’s the kind of muscle most companies need, to push them to the next level.

Posted on: March 25, 2008 at 8:04 pm By Todd Defren
9 Responses to “Beauty of the Brainstorm”


  • thumbs up for this blog.

  • Thank u so much for the posts as they are profoundly thoughtful. We love the way you are able to breathe more fire into whatever you write about and it all is right from your hear t. I have bookmarked your site long ago and keep on coming back to it time and time again.

  • Nice post. Thanks for sharing these tips.

  • Scott Monty says:

    I’m glad you wrote about this, Todd. Brainstorming has to be one of my favorite business activities. It’s hard to describe the rush that I get from sitting around a table with colleagues, imagining the possibilities and generating amazing ideas. While any single individual can develop an idea, I find that it’s the collaborative process that helps these ideas evolve, take shape and eventually find their way to consideration.

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    Does an outside agency have less emotionally invested in a companies’ communications plan, giving them a fresher perspective? It’s an interesting argument for going beyond internal communications teams. Also: Questionable numbers in a PR poll, and the …

  • Brian B says:

    There are only two parts of the brainstorm I live and die for. 1) Getting to use a wacky imagination to propose the inconceivable and 2) encouraging the client to use their untapped creative side to understand their potential!

    When the client begins laughing and tossing out ideas with no fear of criticism from their team members, outsourcing for the brainstorm paid for itself right there.

  • Kami Huyse says:

    Todd; I really like this post. I think that a fresh approach is always in order. It must be coupled with a pragmatic outlook though. You have to be sure you do understand the culture into which the ideas will be implemented. Not the culture of the company so much as the culture of the customer.

    Sometimes standing outside the culture and space can bring innovative ideas and sometimes it can be disastrous. Things that might seem perfectly reasonable to a group of diverse people might be a egregious breach of etiquette in a community.

    One has to know the rules before they can break them.

  • Todd,
    I think another challenge that companies face if shifting their focus from “us” – products and services, to “them’ – clients’ needs. This is where an agency can really help.

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