The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

It’s Not All About You …
May 24, 2007, 8:41 am
Filed under: Comment


A man I respect enormously, Richard Huntingdon, has come out and said he is passionately opposed to brainstorm meetings because he feels they are ineffective, a waste of time and are more about cultivating mediocrity than powerful, motivating ideas.


Actually I’ll re-phrase that … Semi-Bollocks.

You see on one hand I can understand where he is coming from … quite often these meetings are attended by individuals with little experience [both interms of work and life] so their frame of reference and/or ability to recognise a great idea is severely limited – resulting in the sort of ‘bland idea by committee’ output he finds [quite rightly] so offensive.

However … and it’s a big however … I do not think it is right to say ALL brainstorm meetings are pointless because 

1 If you DO have the right people in attendance, amazing things can happen. [Look at where some of Apple / IKEA / Pfizer / Sainsbury’s greatest ideas came from]

2 As far as I know, there is no law saying a moderator has to be all nicey-nicey and ensure ‘everyone goes home happy’. I am a complete bastard when I run these things because [i] I won’t settle for 2nd best, [ii] I believe with the right guidance [and forward planning – including helping the participants see what they could achieve]  great things can happen, even if it still is the exception rather than the rule.

At his level … brainstorm meetings are as much about advancing the minds of the people in attendance as they are reaching an ‘idea’.

Look, I appreciate Richard’s frustrations … I acknowledge the big potential of mediocrity … but to come out and say anyone who does a brainstorm meeting is a celebrant of mediocrity is fucking bollocks.

Like most things, how you approach a task influences what you get out of a task  … and maybe I am lucky that when my clients ask me to run these things, they want me to approach it with the goal of helping something great come out or nothing at all … but it is wrong to imply ‘idea development’ should only be handled by those ‘deemed’ [or self proclaimed] great at it – because no one has the right to assume they have the monopoly on good ideas, even if quite often that seems to be the case.

Don’t get me wrong, companies should not treat at brainstorms as [1] the solution to all their issues or [2] a training program for creative thinking … but by the same token, agencies and the like should not believe they are the greatest idea generators in the Universe because …

[i] They’re not [though some are fucking great]

[ii] Many can only think interms of an ‘ad’

[iii] Too many don’t really understand [like many clients] what their consumer really wants

[iv] If they were that fucking great, they should pack in the advertising game and start their own companies to enjoy the fruits of their brilliance.

At the very least, a brainstorm – if handled well – can expand the expectations of the people in attendance and given we live in a World of growing mediocrity, surely that is worth the effort?

Oh and finally, I’d like to point cynic has had planners working in teams for about 3 years … because as brilliant as all our guys are, we know ego can sometimes be as dangerous as mediocrity.

Richard is a brilliant, talented, clever guy who has been involved with some of the greatest communication ever created … but as his post proves, he can be wrong occasionally, ha. [Just teasing Richard!]

59 Comments so far
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Thank you for pointing this out. I will not be discussing this here, but over on Richards blog.

[I am very, very angry]

Comment by Marcus

Its about finding the right balance between individual ego and group blandness!

Comment by Rob Mortimer

I’m happy that your planners work in teams; delighted even.

It’s the notion that ‘every idea is a good one’ that I’d take umbridge with. Not brainstorms per se – everyone wants to contribute = crap ideas can be born, and they cannot be slagged off easily in such a large group (whereas a pair of planners? hell yeah).

Comment by Will

Rob M, you’re lucky Andy is not online, you do know that unintelligible planner speak is not allowed here in Campbell land.

Comment by Hari

Hi Will …

This isn’t a post about planners working in teams [though I/we obviously see the merit in it or we wouldn’t have done it*] this is about Richard’s belief that brainstorms are a pointless exercise.

As I said, I can understand his frustrations – but I believe if that is the outcome he is used to, then he also has to take some of the responsibility because if he chooses to moderate sessions with the attitude of “every idea is a good idea’ then what does he expect?

I know how great he is … I know what he has achieved … but a planner can’t expect their ideas to be automatically accepted – we have to create reasoned argument and most of the time, that comes from actually seeking out ideas/opinions from the sort of people who attend brainstorms in the first place.

Maybe the issue is that clients don’t think their agencies are capable of coming up with ideas that are relevant without the direct input of their staff?

As I said, I don’t subscribe to the point of view of nicey-nicey moderation … I am there to make clients move forward not find a common, bland area of agreement – so education of what ‘great ideas’ are and what they can do is vital – as is ensuring the client appreciates that it is better to walk away than to adopt an idea that is the least offensive to the people in the room.

Brainstorms aren’t the issue … the standard of moderation and responsibilty is.

* Planners working in teams is a great concept but you need to carefully choose who-partners-who to ensure it doesn’t become some massive love-in.


Comment by Rob

i think the main issue here is actually ‘always’ and ‘never’… they create problems in sentences, like you wouldn’t believe, and should be used with extreme caution.

Comment by lauren

Rob, I know your post wasn’t (or his, for that matter) about teams of planners – however, I think it’s relevant to the discussion.

I personally would view his criticism as precisely what you’ve outlined – the standard of moderation in them – God knows (even in my tremendously short career) I’ve sat through enough ‘Wow.. that’s a….erm…good idea’ speeches to fill a swimming pool.

It all gets a bit like The Office, if you aren’t careful (and most people running them aren’t, in my experience).

And no – don’t mistake my querying of you for me defending Richard (especially given that he’s employed me before 😉 ). He’s a big boy – he’ll do just fine defending himself. For what it’s worth, I’m split, like you.

And as the man says – his blog aims to be deliberately provocative. It’s certainly achieved that.

Comment by Will

I’m not split. I’m fucking livid.

Comment by Marcus

go on marcus, what’s your beef?

Comment by lauren

So I’ve noted Mr B.

I’d like to add to your comments on Mr H’s blog though – I’ve not ‘simply agreed’.

In fact, I’ve agreed with Rob. 🙂

Comment by Will

He’s cross about sycophancy and disagrees with Richard, if I was guessing…

Comment by Will

yes, well, understandable really.

Comment by lauren

Lauren – check Richard’s blog.

And Will – do me a favour and agree to it on Richard’s blog.

Comment by Marcus

Marcus – I have no problem with small, well moderated groups.

I DO have a problem with large groups where everyone sticks their oar in, however catastrophic.

Comment by Will

I will NEVER, EVER, EVER say “That’s a good idea” when it plainly isn’t [which seems to be moderation protocol’ because to me, that’s like those American parents who tell their kid everything they do is brilliant.

In the long run all that does is build up false impressions of ability and that results in the mess we’re in now.

Saying that, people MUST be allowed to speak and express an opinion … but someone, somewhere has to make a call on what is the right thing to do and I believe we have a moral duty to be the people to influence that call based on pre-defined criteria.

Comment by Rob

The world would be simpler if we all sat round, a la Dr Evil, with chairs that hooked up to a central moderating point.

Say something stupid and you get warned. Twice – and the chair tilts back, and it’s firey death for you.

Harsh. But fair. 😉

Someone has to put their foot down, basically. If they don’t, brainstorms can be horribly bad (basically what you just said Rob).

Comment by Will

Will – I will not discuss this with you here. I’ve pitched my war tent over on Richard’s blog for the day.

Comment by Marcus

It’s about control, management and focus Will … and as much as big groups can fuck things up, they also have the ability to make great things happen.

Besides, if you read the Wisdom Of Crowds, you’ll see that their is scientific proof they tend to be right, ha. [No, I don’t totally subscribe to this point of view, don’t worry!]

Comment by Rob

Marcus – I’ve posted over on Richard’s blog.

I don’t buy in to a crowd mentality (yes, I’m disproving science 😉 ).

Enough of this – I’m off to the Tate Modern with a certain sweary Australian. Expect me to return a cultured man. Hah.

Comment by Will

coffee is going to be very interesting this morning…

Comment by lauren

There will be HELL to pay if my ears burn.

Comment by Marcus

We’ll just be discussing the Gold Standard, the markets, corned beef and vegemite. Nothing else.

Don’t you worry. 😉

Comment by Will

I absolutely agree with the idea that its not brainstorming that is the problem, but the control, moderation and feedback within that group.

Brainstorming is also good for getting rid of half-decent ideas.

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Hi Rob … you’re right, brainstorming is good for getting rid of half-decent ideas … but then so is just a bunch of ad people who think they are better – and know better – than the consumer.

Comment by Rob

I think the government should keep ou of the gold standard, in order to keep our exports at a level that is competitive…

Indeed Rob!

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Didn’t you say you want to do some work today, Rob? And now I find three posts…GREAT. Anyway I think of brainstorming just like you do. And just like Richard does. Both of you are right in some points. I don’t like brainstorms when you pack a whole football team into one room with a brief and then say: “Well, brainstorm about it, guys!” That’s crap. And the outcome will be below mediocrity. But I like to think on a brief with my partner (which always is somehow brainstorming, because that’s what creatives do, when they work on something. they throw ideas into the orbit and see what their partners will say.) and then sit together with some other teams and a planner and talk about the stuff we thought about and brainstorm or develop stuff on this basis.
Maybe that’s not brainstorming as most people understand it (just come together, hear a brief and then talk everything that comes to your head). But I think you have to think a bit on your own, read some stuff about the problem and doodle around before you can start a good brainstorm. Because it’s nothing without substance and some knowledge about the topic. But then it’s great fun.
We used to have a senior creative team here (they left what is really sad). Me and Nina worked out some stuff, they worked out some stuff and then we came together (not as a meeting where people present ideas), talked about the work, doing some crit and development and eventually started to come up with ideas in that group. Then we would split up and work on that and come together again. I really liked this process. But I am not sure if you would call this brainstorm. Does this make sense?

Comment by Seb

Yes it does make sense Seb and I almost agree with it all, hahaha.

The scariest point is that you quite rightly reminded me I should be working today and yet again I’ve done the best part of fuck all. I haven’t procrastinated this much since I had to do my School project on Queen Victoria.

Unfortunately the precedent was set when I did it all in 3 days when I had 6 weeks to do it but still got a distinction – which means I have an evil brain gene in me that says I can leave it to the last moment and still get it right – which is of course bollocks and why my lovely partners insist any presentation/pitch I/we do has to be finished 7 days prior to the meeting. And amazingly we keep to it. Except in this case – but it is not a cynic preso, hence my tardiness.

Finally I’d just like to point out that ‘brainstorming’ means ‘thinking about stuff’, it doesn’t mean you HAVE TO USE AN IDEA generated – and yet that is what it seems to have become, which seems rather crap. Thank God I live my the definitions of my mind rather than the ones it seems Richard experiences in London – no wonder he is so pissed off with it all. 🙂

Comment by Rob

As someone said, I bet he has the problem that everyone just agrees with him because they respect him!

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Emperor’s new clothes syndrome …

That’s why I like the fact no one respects me on this blog, stops me getting too big for my boots. [If only that worked for Andy, ha!]

I think Billy Connolly said it best …

“The Queen must think the World smells of fresh paint because everywhere she goes, there is a man 30 feet infront of her, painting the walls like mad”

Comment by Rob

I always did it that way in school as well. And it worked pretty good, too. That’s why I am still working like that. When I have 2 weeks for a job that doesn’t mean pressure. So I doodle around for 1 and a half week. Now there’s pressure. My brain feels more comfortable with it. Though I would like to work continously and without pressure. But this little bastard denys my offers of peace and pleasure and still is drooling over some pressure. Bloody shitface.

Comment by Seb


Comment by Seb

And Rob, this bloody wordpress told me to slow down. “You are posting comments to quickly”. Yeah, so what. Fuck off. 🙂

Comment by Seb

Bloody hell 🙂 Seb…you on overdrive today?!

Comment by Rob Mortimer

SEB is on fire. Or drugs.

Comment by Rob

Or both…

Comment by Rob Mortimer

no. coffee, cigarettes and an innocent smoothie. hmm. cranberry & raspberry. though it doesn’t taste like any of both.

it’s just that I am a quick-handed and fast-brained typing machine. hahaha.

Comment by Seb

wait, I was wrong. there IS a light raspberry taste in there.

Comment by Seb

Gotta love Innocent smoothies… I was surprised by the Pineapple Banana and Coconut, its wonderful!

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Do you think this is why HHCL/RedCell/United ended up failing? They failed to see their brilliance was no longer as brilliant as it once was because ego and arrogance had taken over?

Are you proud how intelligent this comment is?

Comment by Billy Whizz

You stirring little shit …

Don’t let this discussion fall into a mud slinging contest – especially as Richard and HHCL/RedCell/United were still better than most of the best out there AND in the case of HHCL, helped scuplture the environment and philosophy that you so enjoy working in now.

Bad Billy … Bad, Bad, Bad Billy.

Comment by Rob

So now this blog is serious? Fuck, make your mind up boss. 🙂

Comment by Billy Whizz

I thought bosses were allowed to change their minds, as long as they make it look like they havent actually changed it at all?

Still. I think its a good question Billy. If Rob and Richard are anything to go by then I doubt thats true… but its worth asking.

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Smart arse Billy [though it did make me laugh, ha!]

And Rob, please don’t encourage him, ha!

Comment by Rob

It was a good question though!

Dont forget: Revenge and Fifa07 on Mon!

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Wow – this is a passionate debate! I’m all for brainstorming, but then I am also known as a hippy that wears suits. I’ve worked in a fairly flat hierarchical structure before and I think well moderated brainstorming results in some fantastic ideas. As pointed out above – these are just ideas – they don’t have to be implemented and if they are, they do need to be taken away and worked on by a person/ duo/ team to refine them.

Excuse my ignorance & the fact that I haven’t had time to read all comments – but if brainstorming was outlawed, or blacklisted or something would this mean that projects are run in an autocratic manner??? Oh wait – I know a workplace like that and you have to be a yes-man/woman to survive. I guess some people like that…

Comment by Jade

You’re doing a great job fighting the alternative view of brainstorms so I won’t add anything other than to say without focus, control and truth, nothing great will ever happen in one but without listening and encouraging alternate views and ideas, you rarely discover exciting potential. Like you said Rob, it’s not brainstorms that are at fault, but how most are moderated. I’m off to Virgin to actually do a brainstorm, I’ll see if they’re happy being told they’re all inferior to an ad persons ideas. 🙂

Comment by George

Oooooh it’s been going off while I’ve been away and even George has felt compelled to write. If only Andy was here … ha.

The other thing I think is important to point out is that quite often brainstorm meetings are held for the sake of errrrrrm having a meeting … and so if the agency and client haven’t decided the specific reasons to have one, then that only will add to the frustrations felt by Richard and his ‘posse’.

As I said – I know WHY he is saying it, but I would point out alot of this can be handled by taking the issue by the scruff of the neck [rather than some 60’s love-in-fest] and making sure honesty, communication and direction are managed by the [none-vanilla] moderator at all times.

Even that doesn’t ensure a great outcome [and that should of been explained upfront as well] but it will ensure there is greater value in the whole process and may – just may – uncover some concepts which can be explored / validated / executed upon further investigation [not to mention broadened the mindset of the people involved]

I’m going to bed – but this issue has really, really, really pissed me off … but not as much as our Virgin clients probably will be in about ooooooh, 20-30 minutes, ha!

Comment by Rob

I wasn’t able to post comments earlier. Let’s see if this works..

Comment by Will

Right – I can now. Sorted.

Billy – the reason United failed was because some of the creatives wanted to make an omelette out of Faberge eggs, using a spoon of solid gold. They mumbled that it was something about ‘creative licence’ and told me to ‘go and make a pie chart, or something’.

It was either that or £75 million pounds of business going walk about. Not sure which.


Comment by Will

I am sorry I am late in this debate but to say brainstoriming is pointless is like saying democracy is pointless.

Sure at some point someone has to make a call, but if you don’t have the views and information, you don’t have the ability to change anything for the better.

The seed of our VW Golf GTI campaign came from brainstorming, the essence of our BK Subserviant Chicken idea came from brainstorming, lots of what we do starts with a brainstorm, the secret is making sure you all have the same goal, don’t dumb down standards and accept brainstorming doesn’t, or rarely, gives you the “answer”, just lots of routes to explore.

I am surprised Richard is so against it as HHCL was all about collaberation, or at least it was when it was in its prime. (Good point Billy)

I can’t help but think Richard is just teasing as this makes no sense at all.

Comment by Pete

Not wishing to revive this debate, but check out Richard’s latest comment.

I agree with the airstrike remark.

Comment by Will

Oh, and Rob – you’ve got mail (with some good news – not ‘THE’ news, but good news).

Comment by Will

Will – the airstike comment is appalling. I couldn’t disagree more.

Comment by Marcus

-Responded to that one Marcus

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Marcus – SOME of the brainstorms are treated like airstrikes.

Usually account management calls them without any thinking as to why they are appropriate – it’s not focused, and generally a waste of people’s time.

Now, this doesn’t happen all the time. But I’ve seen the airstrike approach. To say it doesn’t happen worldwide is a fallacy.

Comment by Will

Well played for speaking up. I’m going to speak my mind and namedrop.
Speaking my mind
I find that people who dislike brainstorms are the unfortunates who have suffered bad ones. I think you’ve made some good pointers – but there is more. I’m going to selfish, and save it for my blog (get me) because I think it constitutes planning basics. I also think managing brainstorms is an essenial skill for planning folk, since brainstorms, at their best, are all about helping a team generate new thinking, and unlocking stuff that’s trapped in all our heads. What else is planning about? From and internal perspective anyway.
The more people that ‘stick their oar in’ the better, as long as there is a clear agenda, a clear chairperson, a clear problem owner and every parks their job title at the door. The more people who are not close to the problem, the better. I’m shaking with rage over this.
Now for the name dropping. I used to hate brainstorms, but I had never actauly sat in one. I had been in pointless free for alls. So I got myself on a course run by Merry Baskin. I’ve never looked back, and at the risk of being sued, I’ll share it when I get back. people can have apop at me if they like.
Right, off to Adliterate to give them a piece of my mind……….

Comment by NP

Oooooh this topic is going on and on and on …

I wonder if Richard regrets beings so pragmatic – I think so given his response is rather lame … which for such a clever and articulate man … is very rare indeed.

I look forward to reading your rant about this topic NP …

Comment by Robert

[…] It’s a bit like brainstorms. […]

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[…] Suffice to say, people quickly understood my goal was to get to great work rather than agreeable and cosy outcomes … something the great Richard Huntingdon rightfully said, was the opposite of what most workshops are about. […]

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