10pm, Monday. My art director and I are at the height of concept ideation, fully engrossed in conversation. A disturbingly chipper voice redirects our attention toward a crowd of bystanders that appear out of nowhere. Every molecule in my brain slows as my eyes shift from face to face. There’s my ECD holding up a paper shredder. Next to her, an SEO expert flipping through a binder of keywords. Even more creative types beeline to the front, hanging a few of their own “thought starters.” Seated in the center, my account director passes a love note to the client. And, if the pressure of their presence wasn’t enough to trigger an anxiety attack, I hear the chippery voice chime in once again. This time waving an icebreaker game and identifying himself as the Brainstorm Facilitator.

Time begins to warp. I scream, “It’s too soon! We just got the brief. Our ideas aren’t fleshed out!” But I’m drowned out by the opinionated mix of voices, echoing at unchoreographed speeds, blurred together into a jargon-filled whirlwind of feedback. 360 engagement! Influencer outreach! Social conversation! The hot air is so stifling I can’t bear another second.

Desperate to end the madness, I sidestep the intern mummified by sticky notes and rip down the board bleeding with every color of dry erase markers. Gold stars start to pour down from the ceiling, pelting me with praise for our efforts today. Bruised and defeated, I lunge toward the door and am met with a cinematic gust of wind and my parents saying “l told you so.”

My nightmare of a brainstorm isn’t as farfetched as it seems. Too often, quantity, speed to market and testing supersede the tried and true process of conjuring up one amazing idea.

Over the years I’ve participated in a variety of brainstorms, ranging from downright terrible to remarkably productive. I’ve learned a few things.

  • Brainstorms aren’t supposed to be formulaic or efficient.
  • More bodies, even a room full of creatives, doesn’t mean you’ll arrive at the idea faster. It often results in unfocused, expected executions.
  • Getting into “The Zone” can’t be forced. It may require booze, random tangents or late night oddities.
  • Where you meet should be conducive to inspiring thought and creativity.
  • Ideas in their infancy are too fragile to expose to outsider evaluation and scrutiny.
  • As soon as people lose a sense of ownership, they lose the passion necessary to come up with great ideas.
  • Loud voices are often just loud. Buzzwords kill the buzz. Chemistry is crucial.