Weathering the brainstorm

Brainstorming is making a comeback. But while the concept rarely works, that hasn’t put agencies off booking up the meeting rooms

Until very recently, brainstorming was considered a ghastly throwback to the 80s, like stripy suits and big salaries.

But now, this technique that was first outlined in 1948, by an ad-man – Alex Osborn, the ‘O’ of BBDO – is coming back into vogue, though today it’s called something different like a ‘working session’, an ‘ideas session’, or even – bleuuurgh – a ‘creative jam session’. Why the name-change? Was the term ‘brainstorm’ offensive to people with epilepsy? No, it’s because the activity had become so unfashionable, it needed a re-brand. However, the reason brainstorms went out of fashion is a very good one – they don’t work. There are several reasons for this.

First, people in a group are wary of expressing anything vaguely out-there, for fear of being thought weird. And since any idea with potential seems out-there when first mooted, no interesting ideas get expressed.

Secondly, certain individuals use the group setting to hide. Instead of brainstorming, they are basically daydreaming, having sexual fantasies, or thinking about what they might have for dinner tonight. This is a phenomenon that psychologists have a great term for – social loafing.

And who can blame them? In a brainstorm, everybody knows that no one is accountable for cracking the problem. And anyone who does crack the problem … won’t get any credit for it. Hence, no reason for effort.

Thirdly, there is an element of ‘blocking’ that occurs during brainstorms. In other words, when you have an idea, you may have to wait a while to say it. During that ‘blocked’ time, your brain just goes into pause mode. On top of that, there’s the possibility that listening to everyone else wanging on will block you from thinking of anything yourself. In short, most of the current research concludes that people produce more ideas and more good ideas when working alone or in pairs rather than in groups.

To some extent, the popularity of brainstorms can be explained by a phenomenon that psychologists Wolfgang Stroebe and Michael Diehl call the ‘illusion of group effectivity’. We’ve all experienced that, haven’t we? You have a great session, full of energy, everyone is participating and the croissants are free, you generate a pile of paper that reaches to the ceiling of whatever meeting room you’ve been assigned, and it’s only when you’re sorting through the ideas later that you realise they might as well be written on Andrex. But the real reason for the return of the brainstorm is that agencies nowadays are required to produce more ideas, in more media, more quickly. So quantity has become more important than quality.

Of course, we creatives hate brainstorming. Putting what we normally do behind closed doors out on display feels like being naked in public. And if we’re doing it with other creatives present, it becomes a naked display of competitiveness. Doing it with account men and planners is more psychologically tolerable. But although they have many great skills, lateral thinking isn’t one of them. This means that during the brainstorm, they will come up with lots of what they think are ideas, but on closer inspection are just words.

Yet the real problems occur when a senior person attends. A hospital would never get the chief executive of an NHS trust to perform an operation, but ad agencies often call the agency management in to do idea-generation.

When this happens, it’s grim. For a start, while a senior person may attend brainstorms, they won’t actually brainstorm. They view their role like that of the farmer who herds a bunch of cows into a room so they can milk them. Worse, the senior person (and I include some creative directors in this) is unable to turn off their critique function. When the first few ideas get thrown in and they don’t like them, they will spend ten minutes explaining why they’re wrong, and re-stating the problem. This crushes the soul of all but the hardiest group participants.

So, as a creative, how do you survive a brainstorm? Quite often, you can decline the invite. The brainstorm will still (uselessly) go ahead and the rest of the team will be quite happy, because they will feel they are doing something, and generating the quantity of ideas which they don’t trust us to do.

But if you have to attend, remember that you can’t be a social loafer like most of the others – they are looking to you to be the major contributor, since in their heart of hearts they know that they themselves are not going to come up with anything useful.

And be aware that you are being judged in a brainstorm primarily for your social skills, not creative skills. They are looking for energy, positivity, and enthusiasm. Not great ideas.

Those will have to come later, when you and your partner are given some time to yourselves. After the brainstorm has inexplicably failed to crack the problem.

‘James McNulty’ works at a London agency

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