Never mind the answer, what’s the right question? Frank PR’s Graham Goodkind gives his recipe for coming up with brilliant ideas

With the regularity that I’m sure that Ashley Cole gets asked about why on earth he cheated on Cheryl, one of the questions I get asked the most about Frank is how do we stay creative and still keep coming up with good ideas? My normal reply is along the lines of “thank you“, “it’s very nice of you to say that’” and err, “I dunno really.” Then I tend to just ramble on a bit and try to divert the subject onto Arsenal or something.

But since I was asked the question only the other day – again – and given the fact that Arsenal’s season has unravelled very suddenly and consequently my beloved Gunners are not a subject I want to talk about at the moment, I thought I would explain the longevity of creative success Frank has enjoyed.

As the foundation, I think it’s important to have some process. Now I’m not suggesting we get too theoretical about how ideas evolve, but a direction to follow makes things easier and more productive. At Frank, we have this ethos of Talkability®, a word we trademarked way back in the day that Frankie Cory, one of the MDs here, still had a sense of humour. To come up with ideas that have this inherent word of mouth we have several levers that we play with that we find shove us off in good directions. It works for us, so much so that we tend to think instinctively like this now.

I’ve also found that many people who join Frank from other agencies have been trained to brainstorm in such a rigid and disciplined way that they have lost a their creative joie de vivre. They think a brainstorm is all about not being negative, having a really good facilitator, a big bowl of sweets and a killer flipchart. While those are nice (especially the sweets), they’re not the key factors in a creative agency I’m afraid.

The crux of the problem I’ve found is that brainstorms are way too focused on ideas. Sounds a bit counter-intuitive I know, but bear with me for a sec.

I think you’ve got to be prepared to put in a bit of effort to bring those ideas out, and a brainstorm is the place for that. But good ideas rarely come out of nowhere, they need a context. So a typical brainstorm session at Frank is more about coming up with good questions than coming up with good answers.

I’ve always felt that the better the questions then the better the chance of coming up with a strong insight. And once you’ve cracked an insight that’s a winner then the ideas tend to flow more freely. It’s not forced when that happens, it’s real. And that obviously gives it a lot more Talkability® potential too.

When you’re having your creativity session, don’t just involve the same old people. Old as in the people you usually get along to those sessions, not old as in me being ageist! Having the same people will mean you keep coming up with the same ideas. Sometimes you need to change the dynamic and inject new blood. Those new sparks of genius can come from anywhere; so use people from right across the business and at any level. In fact, sometimes people with less experience might come up with better thinking than people who have been doing PR for years. They have no blinkers on and they haven’t been turned into cynics like some who have been doing the job for too long. Try it.

You’ve also got to have the right environment. This applies as much to office interior design as it does to agency culture. You’ve probably all been into offices that feel like they have had the life sucked out of them and it’s usually down to one or both of those.

Having fun is a crucial component of the creative process. And even if the environment is wrong, then that shouldn’t stop you trying to have fun. You have to make an effort to be fun or to create a fun session, even if it means just doing something different to start things off. Prep properly for this as it sets the tone for the rest of the time the group spends together.

If I had to boil it down to one thing, I’d say that unpredictability is a key part of what makes us creative. We don’t plan when and how we’re going to do stuff, we just do things when it feels right to do them. And I’ve always loved the fact that we are spontaneous and people here do random things sometimes. Not like a lot of other agencies that say they will be spontaneous, but tomorrow. And this infiltrates itself rather nicely into our creative and ideas-led culture and makes it difficult for any other agencies to copy. If we don’t even know what we’re going to do, how can they?

Many clients, past and present, in quieter one-to-one moments with me have sometimes questioned whether Frank’s creative reputation was down to too many drugs and other illegal substances! I hope in some small way that this article has now put that rumour well to rest, at least until Arsenal’s results start to improve again anyway.