The Department: The Idea Generation

I am what demographers might call a trailing boomer. Born in the year usually classified as the last of the Baby Boom (1964, if you must know), yet identifying with neither that generation nor its successor, Generation X, I think of myself as a "cusper." This has always been fine with me; I've not felt deprived of a generational identity in any way.

But in the past few years I've come to realize that I am part of a specific generational cohort  it just exists in my profession rather than in my overall life. By virtue of the year in which I joined the media industry, I am one of those charged with leading media through its most profound shift ever, in which the role of the media professional is fundamentally changing from that of mathematician to that of idea generator.

I don't have a cute moniker for this generation of media leaders. Content Conquerors? The New Entertainers? Clearly I'm no Douglas Coupland. All I know is that we are expected to cut paths through the unknown, fearlessly showing our colleagues and clients the way to the future  a future in which media is creative, creative is content, and content is king.

Yet here's a scary truth: Today's media leaders might be the least likely group to conjure up content ideas, given our backgrounds. After all, 20-plus years ago, when we got into media, the profession was still mostly about applying mathematical odds in the effort to increase chances of ads being seen. Sure, we talked a good game about creativity and ideas, but truth be told, excellence in media was still pretty much defined by gross rating points levels and costs-per-thousand. Moreover, the comfort zone of numbers, rules, and fairly predictable outcomes was precisely what attracted us to media in the first place. We might have fantasized about being "ad people," but in truth our analytical aptitude and, shall we say, more subdued appetite for uncertainty steered us toward media: the seemingly quieter, safer branch of advertising.

Fast-forward what feels like only a few years (and actually has been only a few more than that), and the same group who gravitated toward neat spreadsheets is now expected to blaze trails in idea invention. It's like we went to bed in Peoria and woke up in Hollywood.

Clearly not everyone who succeeded in the old media world has the chops to make it in the new one, and the divide between those who still practice media-as-math and those who see its content and entertainment mandate is widening.

I presume you're not interested in going the way of the dinosaur and have a modicum of creative talent. How do you learn to churn out content ideas as well as flowcharts? Where can you look for role models? I have a few suggestions:

>>Creatives. My own personal approach has been to model what I've had the privilege of witnessing my entire career: brilliant creative thinking. I work with inspired copywriters and art directors every day, and when I observe them closely, I realize that they rarely have "the" right answer. They simply ask a lot of questions, reach the deepest understanding they can glean, and then invent from there. Having taken the leap to work this way  in effect, augmenting traditional analytical media work with sheer blank-slate, what-if idea generation  I can say that it's both exhilarating and terrifying. It certainly makes the job a lot more interesting.

>>Media companies. Many cable networks, along with some magazines and Web destinations, have done brilliant jobs of content creation, inventing programs that simultaneously attract and reflect their core audiences. We could learn a lot by emulating their efforts (not to mention tagging along via partnerships).

>>Young media people. It's amazing how unfettered by convention new media staffers are. They don't observe the "rules" of old media, because they simply don't know them. Grab the talented ones before all their creativity is sucked out of them, give them an assignment, and observe how they think. They're breathtakingly boundary-less, tossing out content and creative ideas as often as more traditional media suggestions. They don't even know the difference.

The most important thing, regardless of how you go about it, is simply to dive in and invent. And if you're in a position to lead and teach others, expect invention of them too. Today's media leaders may not have seen it coming, we may not even have asked for it, but the opportunity is here now and it's ours to seize.

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