Crushing the ‘White Bull’

Copywriting, Ideas

10 idea-generating techniques to smite the terror that is the blank layout pad

It’s 3.00pm. Your feet are up on the desk (skirt or no skirt, you just don’t care; you’re a rebel like that). You’ve been locked in the slightly musty ‘concepting’ room for almost a day now.

Across the desk, your art director looks up nervously from his pad. You cough. He coughs. You go to make tea. You come back. You forgot the sugar, you dimwit. You start over. You serve his tea and sit down again.

‘Got anything yet?’ your buddy asks you as he sips his brew. Do you tell him the truth – do you admit that you think ‘this is it’, this is the one brief you can’t crack? Do you voice the abject terror cartwheeling around your head like Captain Caveman on acid… that your words and ideas have run out of the door and stuck two fingers up at you in your moment of imperative need?

Of course not. Because buried deep down inside that wonderfully imaginative, gin-soaked brain of yours is the memory of a blog post you once read.

The post told you that every single writer worth his or her salt has faced the 50gsm demon that is ‘the blank layout pad’. And although they may have wee-ed a little in horror because the ideas were slow to churn (oh come on, it can’t just be me), they did eventually smite the snorting A3 ‘White Bull’ (as Hemmingway named it) of the layout pad.

Skip, skip, skip through the flowery meadow my creative lovelies and twirl like a dandy.

You see to defeat the beast (does best monster impression), we just have to be prepared. And being prepared, in my mind, means having up your boho sleeve some tricks and tips that the biggest fish in the creative business use to get their engines stoked and their ideas combusting all over the place. Pop, pop, pop.

So here are 10 of my favourite idea-generating techniques that have saved me from myself over the years. They are a bit Flash Gordon (simple), but they do the job, trust me.

May they serve you well – and may your hair always bounce with luster. Because you’re worth it.

1. With

Is there an idea in showing what happens with the product? With this technique it’s like showing the ‘after’ without first having shown the ‘before’. It means asking certain questions, like:

–       What will happen when someone uses the product?

–       What effect will it have on them?

–       How will it change things?

2. Without

Is there an idea in showing what happens without the product?
This technique uses the same route as before but focuses on the ‘before’ without ever showing the ‘after’.

3. With and Without You

Is there an idea in showing what happens with/without the product in the same ad? With this technique you show ‘before’ and ‘after’ side by side for easy comparison.

4. How

Is there an idea in how the product is made? Clients will tend to take their manufacturing processes for granted. But you shouldn’t.

5. Where

Is there an idea in where the product is made? With this technique you should ask yourself questions like: Is there something in the air? A special property in the water? Or if you can’t find anything unique about where it was made then perhaps you could invent the place it came from… like Marlboro did with ‘Marlboro country’. It’s also worth considering places the product can be shown to its best advantage. So ask yourself questions like:

Where will this product be most useful to the customer?

Where will this product be least likely to work?

Where will it perform at its best?

Where will it be most interesting?

6. History

Is there an idea in the product’s history? If you’re stuck for an idea in the present, then go back to the product’s past for a solution. Or if the product doesn’t have a history – invent one.

7. Name

Is there an idea in the product name or logo? I don’t think this technique needs any explanation… it’s pretty straightforward, you look for an idea solution in the product name or logo.

8. Motivation

Is there an idea based on the customer’s motivation? This is quite different from the rest of the techniques above. Instead of using your product as your starting point, you start with the customer and his/or her motivation. With this technique you look at each level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and try to make the product appeal to a particular need.

9. Yesterday

Is there an idea in the product’s old advertising? Dig into what’s been said about the product before. Do a bit of advertising archaeology. You never know, you might find a Rembrandt in the attic!

10. Today

Is there an idea in something that’s happening around you? Observation can be a great source of ideas. So open your eyes and ears and notice what’s going on around you. Ideas can come from anywhere.

What do you do to dig yourself out of a creative hole?

Have you any other techniques to share?

Have you tried any of the above – did you get good results?


Is the copywriter toast?


Copywriter, huh? Thought so. It’s the look in your eye, see. I’ve seen that look a hundred times before my friend. Right there, behind that ‘I’m-a-writer-don’t-you-know’ sparkle, there’s fear. No use denying it son, it is what it is.

You’ve clocked the rumors. You’ve heard the whispers, “No-one reads copy anymore.” And you’re starting to think they’re right, haven’t you?

“What if they don’t?” I hear you whimper. “What if visual is everything?”

“What if the days of ‘copy’ are dead? After all, brands ‘crowd-source’ here, then they ‘consumer-generate’ there”.

Most of the ads you pass feature only a word or two. No one even knows what ‘copywriting’ means – even your mother thinks you work in law.

You start to shake. Sweat pours from your brow and you reach for the gin. (Or perhaps that’s just me.)

Are you a dead copy man? Are you like that big guy in the Green Mile? Will Tom Hanks be so kind to you as the account handlers come to march you to your doom?

In a word, ‘no’. Copywriters aren’t dead. And Tom Hanks doesn’t give a monkeys. Sorry, he doesn’t.

Tom Hanks may not care, but brands do

The great news, the best news is; copywriters are now more important than they’ve ever been. Their role hasn’t shriveled thanks to the dawn of the one-word ad. It’s expanded beyond what we ever imagined.

In fact, my gorgeous copywriting hombre, copywriters have in their hands right now one of the fattest creative opportunities they’ve ever had.

Teressa Iezzi, Editor of Advertising Age’s Creativity, calls this new era, ‘the next creative revolution’ in her book The Idea Writers. The copywriting landscape has exploded – because the media landscape is richer than ever before and clever brands know they need to be a multi-platform part of it to connect with their promiscuous customers.

Which means copywriters are no longer tied to the medium of print or TV or just churners of copy chunks. Woo hoo!

Copywriters today go beyond words

Today, good sir or madam, you can puff out your chest with pride, because the copywriter of 2013 is an inventor. And their job is to invent ideas that build brands, in whatever form and whatever medium is the best for that client at that particular time. The copy then follows, or doesn’t (if it’s a one-word ad).

Feel the freedom baby, turn your face to the sweet, sweet breeze of media-neutral thinking and take a deep, deep breath.

Tomorrow you may be called upon to spark a conversation with an attitude-laden Emo, wake up a 50 Shades of Bored housewife with 140 characters, invent an app that’ll keep kids quiet on long car journeys, or name an epoch-defining product. (The iPod was named by freelance writer Vinnie Chieco you know.)

You’re a storyteller. A scriptwriter. A conversationalist. A commentator. A techy. An executor. A curator. A lover, not a fighter (again this could just be me).

So you see, forget those who make myopic comments like ‘no-one reads copy anymore’ or ‘the copywriter is toast’. Because the copywriter is not an overdone bread product.

But perhaps the label we give ourselves, ‘copywriter’, is.

Claire Robinson

Freelance ‘ideas writer’ and all round good egg.

Should we call ourselves copywriters in today’s world?

If we were to ‘rebrand’ what would we be called?