The business of ideas

March 2015

Patrick Collister, Google’s Head of Design, knows all there is to know about creating ideas that sell. He believes that there are techniques that anyone can develop and tools that people can use to help develop winning ideas.

Ideas are the stock in trade of people in the advertising business. I’m interested in the “business” of ideas because today ideas generate money. A hundred years ago to become fabulously stinking rich you had to own the means of production. Now all you need is a garage! Microsoft, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin from Google – they all started in a garage.

What is creativity? I think it’s what separates us from every other species on the planet. Opposable thumbs gave us the ability to create, which meant our brains could ask “what if?” The human brain could have ideas, test them and make them work. So for me, creativity is an innate human characteristic. It’s just that some have more of it than others – especially people in ad agencies.

But the creative process is filled with conflict. First, there’s a theory that only one in five people are capable of having an idea and that’s just down to how you’re wired. So if you’re part of the 20% who do have ideas, quite often you’re sharing your idea with people who literally do not see what you are showing them. Second, often those who are responsible for briefing creative people think and communicate in abstractions – but creatives deal in concrete concepts. Then, there’s the fact that people see differently, so when we talk about our ideas we need to be able to present them in such a way that everyone sees what we see. And the fourth point of conflict in the creative process is objectives. Every time you sit down to do a job, everyone around the table has got totally different objectives for it.

Creativity is about solving these problems, and in our case it’s accomplished through communication. The way we communicate and create is through ideas. So what is an idea? Think of two totally disconnected words. The brain automatically tries to make patterns. What we’re trying to do in communications is break patterns, because people are bored by what they know and have seen already. What they want to see is something new. Our job is looking for new connections.

In every piece of communication are three ideas woven together, which I call the hierarchy of ideas: the creative idea, the communications idea and the business or product idea. If they’re not woven together and if there isn’t an intellectual armature that runs through all of them, then you’re wasting money.

What we’re trying to do in every piece of communication is differentiate. Sometimes the differentiator is the product itself, while in other cases it’s the strategy. And sometimes you are only able to differentiate through the creative idea. The moment you identify the big idea, your differentiator, then you can start testing to see if it’s extendable. You can come up with your strategy, decide who you’re talking to and build it into a brilliant piece of communication.