How To Host Successful Inter-Agency Brainstorms

It's 9AM. Everything is looking promising for the mega-agency brainstorm. There's a mini- bagel breakfast spread, fresh agency-branded notepads at each seat and a cluster of agency executives hovering around a laptop, loading 13MB+ PowerPoint presentations. They are all eager to wow you... YOU, The Client.

11:15 - Break. Everyone is scrolling through BlackBerries, looking important. The day started out well, with your pep talk conveying your confidence in the team's ability to develop BIG integrated ideas. The research guru led everyone through the tracking study and the ad agency is about to brief the team on the communications strategy.

12:30 - Lunch. After you pop out for an emergency call about a production crisis, all that's left is a warm roast beef sandwich and a caffeine-free Coke. A signal of what's to come...

1:15 - Brainstorming confusion sets in. What exactly is a BIG IDEA? How should it integrate with the TV campaign? Are we coming up with a new BIG IDEA? An AAE frantically types brainstorm notes on the big screen, a varied mix of strategies and platform ideas and tactics and miniature tactics, ranging from a new Twitter handle to a media buy on ESPN to an entirely new strategic direction.



We all have been in one of these meetings -- a meeting with high expectations for a BIG IDEA yet nobody knows what that means. Instead of well organized concepts, you're left with a 10-page Word document of scattered ideas. Here's how to get real results:

1) Identify exactly what you are looking to achieve from an ideas perspective.

As we've all witnessed, the term BIG IDEA means something different to everyone. Identify the phase you are in along the communications development continuum and give precise direction as to what you are seeking from agencies:

  • Phase 1- Creative Platform. The overarching campaign theme, e.g., the Ford Fiesta Movement
  • Phase 2 - Mega-Tactics. Big tactics that can be channeled across multiple platforms, e.g., Ford selected 100 "agents" to test drive Fiestas for six months, take on "missions" and lifestream their experience via social media
  • Phase 3 - Mini-Tactics. E.g., Tweetups, Flickr pages

2) Don't host a traditional brainstorm, but rather an "idea share & build"

Inter-agency brainstorms are not necessarily effective for developing creative platforms or mega-tactics. These require careful deliberation from agency Creatives, who often come up with their best thinking outside of the brainstorming environment. It is best to instruct each agency to come prepared to present one to two creative platforms and associated mega-tactics. After all agencies have presented, host an "idea build" session in which all participants can build on the ideas and provide tactical suggestions. If you have a great moderator, he or she will be able to establish linkages between ideas and potentially merge some.

Same applies if you are in a more tactical stage of creative development. Agencies should come prepared with "mini-tactics," and then host an "idea build" to generate additional tactics and establish linkages between tactics.

3) Identify a core decision making team to finalize plans

After the inter-agency brainstorm, a core team will need to determine how to proceed, which may involve researching ideas or simply moving forward with favored ideas. While each agency can be offered the opportunity to cast a vote in favor of an idea, ultimately a small team needs to make the final decision.

On a final note, if you truly want Big Ideas, lose the catch-all phrase BIG IDEA. It's time to get specific.

7 comments about "How To Host Successful Inter-Agency Brainstorms ".
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  1. Kelley Connors from KC Healthcare Communications LLC, September 8, 2009 at 7:56 a.m.

    Thanks Allison! Great article.

  2. Patrick Scullin from Ames Scullin O'Haire, inc., September 8, 2009 at 8:39 a.m.

    Great ideas all. It's always good to let people think a bit before the brainstorm... and be sure everyone who attends contributes something. Anything!

  3. Catherine Sampson from Integrated Planning, September 8, 2009 at 9:26 a.m.

    Where's the strategy? It would seem to me that phase I would entail developing a sound strategy. 'Big ideas' for the sake of big ideas are what cause most inter-agency executions to fail. Determining the best strategy and ensuring that all agencies are on-board and on-message would seem to me to be the most important part of any inter-agency activity.

  4. Alison Hillhouse from Taylor, September 8, 2009 at 10:14 a.m.

    Great point Catherine. This assumes that all agencies have already aligned on strategy and are entering the creative development stage. Aligning on strategy is absolutely the most important first step!

  5. Andrea Learned from Learned On, LLC, September 8, 2009 at 10:31 a.m.

    It's also helpful to prepare the environment/set the stage by identifying a few previous efforts that hit the nail on the head and perhaps spending a few minutes on the core elements that made those successes work. If people SEE that they've been able to really innovate and have "big ideas" in the past - that positive energy helps participants contribute even more freely. And, you may end up with a much more collaborative process overall.

  6. Alison Hillhouse from Taylor, September 9, 2009 at 2:45 p.m.

    Agreed, Andrea. It's really important for participants to have very specific, concrete examples of desired results. And even better if these past succeses were generated by the involved agencies. Focusing on success is what gets people excited to create the next big thing!

  7. Steve Schildwachter from Hayek & Smith, September 29, 2009 at 9:46 a.m.

    Dear Alison: I just linked to your article on my blog, Ad Majorem, in a post about how we and some other agencies are working well together on behalf of a common client. Check it out at

    Steve Schildwachter

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