by Andy Capp
The clouds had hung in the sky for days before the stranger came to town. The old-timers called them "Empty 'Uns," hanging overhead...covering the sun...not a hint of a refreshing shower.
His wagon was brightly painted, like a runaway from a circus. The murals on the side-panels were strange -- people building odd machines, others clustered around test tube-filled tables, yet another person feverishly writing a manuscript. Stranger yet, each person worked with a lighted candle floating mysteriously above their head (remember, this IS before the light bulb).
The people gathered curiously as a small stage dropped from the wagon. The stranger bounded to the stage and addressed the group. "Gather 'round friends, gather 'round! I've been drawn to your humble hamlet because I understand your problem, and I believe I can help! You say you're plagued by blockage of the brain? Constipation of the creative juices? Swarms of unsympathetic sales folk? (Get away kid, you bother me.) Look to the sky...is that clouding of the cranium I see? Well friends, the answer to your problem is in those clouds! Yes friends, what you need is to open the floodgates on those clouds and blow up a good old-fashioned brainstorm!"
Brainstorming, Singular or Plural? Brainstorming can be a lonely business taken on by yourself (usually the case for writers and producers), or it can be a community event, featuring contributions from a roomful. Either approach can be fruitful, but for this month, let's assume that we're tired of the singles scene, the well is dry, and we'd like to get the station brain trust together. Who do we invite? When do we do it? What is the purpose? (Ahh, there's the first question!)
The More You Prepare the Luckier You Get! Before we put together a guest list and order the meat and cheese tray, it's a good idea to know what you're brainstorming! In my younger, foolish days (or was it yesterday), I made the mistake of getting into brainstorming sessions where the salesperson had no idea what the client was all about, what they wanted to push. It was like using a self-propelled mower without a blade...buzzing forward, without purpose. Questioned after a frustrating, unproductive meeting, the salesperson usually admits that they've never met the client and were looking for a "Killer Spec" to hit them with on a cold call!
It's important, then, to make the following your battle cry. "No background, no brainstorm!" Make it a rule. Have grandma cross-stitch it to hang in your office. Tattoo it on the Sales Manager's forehead if you have to! Make it clear that you need a complete background on a client to make the brainstorming session work. They can start with the basics (hopefully they already have a file on the client that can provide those), plus it is nice to have a track record of previous advertising -- what worked and didn't, what the client liked and didn't. Make them prepare it like a book report to present to the group at the beginning of the brainstorm.
One last piece of information you need from the rep before the brainstorm: what is the ultimate goal? Make them be specific. "Writing a funny spot" doesn't cut it! Find out what the commercial is supposed to do -- advertise a sale on duct tape, announce a new location, create a crowd at the happy hour buffet. This information will become the foundation of your brainstorm (and may influence your choice of guests at the meeting!)
Those in the know were pulled from the crowd. There was some grumbling from this smaller group, but a few plucked chickens and a bucket of hot tar later, everyone had the information they needed. The clouds were getting darker, heavier. "Friends, we're on the road to the promised land!" the stranger bellowed. "Join me now, right on this stage! Let your mind open. Let the ideas flow free. Let down the barriers, and let the brainstorm begin!"
"Anybody Order a Plain Cheese?" Time to organize this party. Put the "guest list" together. Obviously, you and the attending rep should be there. Other members of the group could include just about anyone in the office! Continuity writers (if you have them), the Sales Manager, the PD, the GM, that highly paid, massively gifted morning show, any other DJs (lowly paid, yet usually just as gifted as the morning mavens), other salespeople, bean counters, interns.... Anyone with a voice and a brain is welcome! There is no limit on the number of people to include. We've done them with the whole staff. We've done them with five. Both worked well, although smaller groups are easier to control. (You may want to consider a seating arrangement for a larger group. It's like grade school. When "friends" sit together, the secondary conversations can disturb the larger group.)
Should the client be there? Well, there's nothing like the "horses mouth" when finding out about a business, plus you get instant feedback from the client. The bad news is that when you get instant feedback from the client -- an idea can be blown away before it gets a chance. Plus, sales reps can become "yes people" in front of the client, and the free flow of ideas flies out the window. It can be great; it can be a nightmare. It's your choice. When? Right away in the morning or at noon works well, especially if you can get the front office to spring for donuts or pizza. There's something about free food that not only encourages attendance, but also loosens up people.
Where? Oh, any quiet, out of the way area at the station where you won't be disturbed (yeah, right). Actually, getting out of the building works the best. Most restaurants have meeting rooms these days. Maybe the station has a trade or wants to get something out of a past due client. Talk it over with "The General."
The Gang's All Here! Finally, the event itself! Make sure somebody is writing everything down. You may even consider taping the meeting so nothing gets overlooked. Explain at the beginning that there are no dumb ideas. No one is allowed to negate anyone else! (Or you may decide that they can call somebody's baby ugly, but only if they have an idea of their own that everyone likes better!)
Explain the central idea of the session. Let the salesperson do their client report, and allow for some question and answer so everyone is clear. Then, let the ideas fly. Sometimes the ideas start flying immediately. Let 'em go if they're on a roll. Other times you might have to "break the ice" with some playtime. Have them think up puns about the client and their business (this is not a good idea when the client is in the room). Go around the room and ask "what if" questions to stimulate discussion like, "what if no one could shop at the clients store?" Do some play acting (make someone the client and someone else a potential customer, or make someone a kid trying to convince "mom" to go shopping...you get the idea). Have the group write lyrics about the client set to a familiar song ("Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" has worked for me in the past). There are just a few ideas. The main thing is to keep it fun, focused, and free of negatives!
With any luck, a scant hour should produce plenty of ideas to roll on with! Oh, and be sure to recycle -- keep any ideas you don't use for future clients!
Those that were there that day say it looked like a miracle. The clouds opened up with a down pour just as the sun broke through, creating a blinding, refreshing sun shower. The people danced and laughed and shouted in the rain. No one noticed that the stranger had disappeared in the jubilation. Some months later, someone in the town heard that the rainmaker had scored a job as the Creative Director at a top 20 station, pulling down 6 figures a year.... (Now that's what I call a happy ending!)