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How do you keep an idea alive?

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”

Nelson Mandela

Ideas. Endlessly swimming against the tide of opinion, trying to survive.

Keith Reinhard, Chairman Emeritus of DDB recently wrote about a 5 minute rule they have in a company in Silicon Valley. Basically, the way it works is after an idea is expressed you spend the next 5 minutes supporting it and being positive about it. In other words, you try and let the idea live. Actually, even more than that you actively try and keep it alive. I have always believed ideas are like babies. They are beautiful beyond measure. So precious. Yet, at the same time vulnerable, innocent and always facing a world that could hurt them very easily. Ideas are just like babies. Hard to keep alive.

So, that first 5 minutes is very important. I have seen it happen over and over where an idea dies for no good reason. Someone will say it’s weird or they think something isn’t right without offering an alternative solution. It’s gone. Think how many ideas are generated across the world in advertising agencies in a year. It must at least be at least a couple of million a year.

And that is the problem. We don’t value them enough, if at all. I don’t think there can be that many industries that generate so many ideas, so quickly, every single day and then throw them away. There is also this strange phenomenon in our business where if the idea dies you can never speak about it again. So, constantly millions of ideas die every day in our business never to be heard of again. Madness.

And it has always been like this. So what is changing?

Well, for one, the length an idea can now take. We often talk about realtime and fast turn around work in our business. And that is a big part of it. However, if you look at a lot of the great work that is being made today, and I am specifically talking about creating products, experiences and large, complex, integrated campaigns you realise how much time was involved. These kinds of pieces of work can take up to two years before they come to fruition. Think about the moving parts in something like Nike Fuel Band. Take Volvo’s Epic split. That was just one piece of work in a very large campaign that had been going on for a couple of years. Ideas of this size are often not disposable and sometimes very difficult to replace. So, the next time you are about to kill an idea take a breath and ask,¬†can I make it better?

Now, just letting an idea live is only the first part. The second part is even more arduous.

An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that it rubs against. Bill Bernbach said this 50 years ago but it is still true today. Perhaps, more true.

As I have said in a previous blog, having ideas is not the hard part, caring about them is.

And for that, you need a special type of person. For an idea to survive, it needs a friend. Somebody who is going fight to keep that idea alive. They have talent. But they also have something that takes the idea from dust to magic. Perseverance. Talent lets you begin. Perseverance is what makes sure you finish.

I have been lucky enough to work with quite a few great creatives in my career at TBWA Hunt Lascaris, Saatchis in Sydney and now DDB New Zealand. They have this strange quality of being able to create a slow, relentless, metronomic momentum towards their target. They are working bloody hard but they always seem like they are in the zone. They have an effortlessness to their industry. They are like great sportsmen. Watch Roger Federer play tennis. It doesn’t look like he is trying. You know he is. But he seems to be playing in slow motion while the other guy runs around like a waiter who keeps forgetting your drinks order.

My wife Minky is the best example I know of this slow, relentless, powerful quality. In her career she has been an art director, creative director and then later on became an illustrator. She is a truly great art director. But what sets her apart is her ability to lock into a project. She will find a way. I have often seen her work 36 hours in a row to get something done right. And that is often on a personal project. It is a beautiful talent made of dedication.

Steve Jobs said you can teach people anything except to care. For the great ones, caring is what drives them beyond reason. And beyond reason is where you find magic.

In the end, the spark of an idea that survives those first moments in the world is eventually protected by the slow burn of dedication and caring.That is how you go from dust to magic. And there are no shortcuts. Believe me, I have looked for them.

So how do you keep an idea alive?

Let it live for 5 minutes and then care about it forever.

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