That's my idea


Anyone who’s worked in advertising for more than ten minutes will have heard someone claim an idea. Those of us who work in creative have probably said it. But look behind the curtain at the science, psychology and craft of ideas and it’s easy to see why the whole idea of ‘my idea’ is bollocks.

Here’s my take on why ‘my idea’ is a terrible idea and ‘our idea’ can change the world.

What’s an idea?

Ideas are strange things. Great ones are like crystal glasses. Tap them on the side and you can hear them sing, drop them on the floor and they smash. And while everyone knows an idea when they see it, few can easily describe them or explain them.

The word ‘idea’ has roots in Ancient Greek. ‘Idea’ means ‘to form’ or ‘pattern’ and comes from the verb ‘idein’ – to see. Kant believed ideas were the product of reason and Plato described them as imperfect copies of an external pattern. Either way, the basic thinking describes how the smart combinations of old things can create something new.

That’s the definition I like best. It talks to the creativity of newness, while acknowledging the importance of inspiration. Ideas don’t come out of nowhere, they’re the product of people and culture.

Where do ideas come from?

This is another question nobody can answer. But a bunch of people have tried. Steven Johnson is an Oxford Academic who studies the environments in which ideas thrive.

His take, essentially, is ‘network effect’. He talks to the importance of coffee houses during the enlightenment – and the lunch room in a modern science lab. Few ideas happen when people scratch their heads and think alone. More pop up when everyone relaxes and throws different thoughts around a room.

Another academic, Matt Ridley, talks about ideas having sex. It’s not about one thought or another, but many thoughts from many people bashing together to make something new.

Ideas as currency.

The biggest irony of the advertising industry is that we break the potential of big ideas by owning them. By ascribing value to ideas, we drive behaviours that ultimately curtail them.

It’s easy to see why. Agencies who have great ideas, become famous. Clients who deliver great ideas get results. So ideas have tangible financial value and need looking after. But then we create these valued assets that would multiply at will if we share them, then lock them all up in the financial system designed to promote them. It’s the paradox of creative industries. And it’s fascinating.

Love, ideas and magic pennies.

Thinking back to primary school (the formative, historical context of many a good idea) I remember we sang this song in assembly. “Love is like a magic penny, hold it tight and you won’t have any, but lend it, spend it or give it away and you’ll end up having more.”

It’s true of love. And it’s true of ideas.

Any individual can have any number of brilliant ideas. But the crackers, the eye-openers, the gamechangers… those really cool big ideas are only ever created by a team.

That’s what I reckon, what do you think?

Michael Goldthorpe