How to select ideas: a 3-stage process

Selecting which ideas to execute is the hardest part of all. [Credit: Royalty-free image from        
“Genius is editing”, said Charlie Chaplin. And that’s because editing is choosing –            the hardest part of the whole process; the one demanding the most expertise and skill


The second hardest thing in PR, guerrilla and viral marketing is coming up with breakthrough ideas for generating buzz, creating “viral moments” and winning attention in an insanely competitive market.

The only thing that’s positively harder – and that, in my view, demands even more skill – is SELECTING which of the various ideas that you’ve come up with are the ones to  progress and execute.

“Genius is editing”, said Charlie Chaplin.

What I think he meant by that is that actually SHOOTING lots of film was the easier part of making a film. (Indeed, the average film director reportedly ends up selecting and using in their final film barely 5% of the footage they shoot.)

The hardest part was CHOOSING – selecting which of the many different lengths of film that you’ve shot you are actually going to use; and then choosing which other bits of film to combine them with and in which order.

Editing is CHOOSING – and the reason that editing is genius, I suspect Chaplin felt, is that choosing is the thing that demands the most skill and expertise and that’s easiest to get wrong.

That may also be why Richard Bailey, a top PR trainer and educator, contends that, “Judgement is the most valuable and underrated skill in PR.”

If Henry Ford was right that “Thinking is the hardest work of all”, then perhaps he should have added that choosing is the hardest kind of thinking.

When I facilitate brainstorms, I tend to find that even “amateurs” (meaning those who don’t earn their living in marketing, PR or media) can and do often come up with some great ideas. Provided they have the right facilitation, their inexperience seems to matter far less than you might expect.

It’s another story, however, when we switch from the generating of lots of ideas to SELECTING which ideas to progress and execute. Even with the right facilitation, they tend to find that part harder, and to be worse at it.

That’s perhaps less true than once, at least when it comes to social media, since nowadays most folks have some level of experience with social media and a sense of what they might themselves be inclined to click on, consume and/or share.

It’s still true to a larger extent, however, of “traditional” media ideas, where non-professionals will generally have less knowledge of what turns on editors, as well as of which ideas are practical or not to exercise . Their gut instincts, you might say, are less educated.

That is not to advise against asking them their feedback and opinion, since doing so tends to be useful, sometimes really useful, and I would strongly recommend it.

It’s best, however, not to rely unquestioningly on it – or to let them be the final arbiter or to let the final choice be made by committee (on which more below).

While everyone’s feedback is valuable, not everyone’s feedback is EQUALLY valuable, since not everyone consulted has the same level of experience, expertise or pattern recognition; the same skin in the game and, say, the same knowledge of how easy or complex, affordable or pricey it’s likely to be to execute a particular idea.

In the end, therefore, idea selection is not a referendum – and shouldn’t be. Some people’s votes are more informed and should carry more weight.

Ultimately, someone needs to make the choice – and some are more qualified than others to do so.

A three-stage process for selecting ideas

I use a combination of three methods – a kind of three-stage process – to select ideas, as follows:

1. Gut instinct: Ask your gut

First, I try to gauge my gut instinct. And the longer that I have been doing this and the more failures and successes that I’ve had, the more informed and “educated” my gut becomes.

Hal Prince, the great theatre producer and director dubbed “King of the Broadway Musical” once said, “I don’t do a lot of analysing of why I do something. It’s all instinct.”

I agree with Hal Prince that instinct is a key tool, if not even the single most important – and if not just your own instinct but everyone’s gut instinct is that something’s a terrific idea, that can be a good enough basis for going for it.

But I also agree with both Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and with Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of the book, Don’t Trust Your Gut, that can be dangers in always and unquestioningly trusting your gut instinct.

There is also also skill in knowing exactly when – at what stage of the process – to trust your intuition and when to be more wary of it.

That is at least partly why, unlike Hal Prince, I also think that there’s also value in trying to analyse ideas, with the aiming of trying to assess intellectually its odds of success based on its key features.

2. Analysis

Next, therefore, I use my intellect, reason and conscious mind to try and analyse and unpack the idea, with the aim of identifying its active ingredients and key mechanics.

So, I ask: What’s going on with this idea? What’s the underlying device? What makes this idea likely to work … or not?

Does it, for example contain the elements and tick the boxes that I’ve found tend to work?

So, is it, say, simple, visual, amusing – and does it have the element of what I might call “appropriate incongruity” that can help make it fly?

As well as asking simply, “Will it work and get attention”, another possible three-part framework for evaluating an idea is doing so on the basis of the following three criteria:

a. Relevance to/impact on core target audience.

b. Ease (and cost) of execution

c. Viral potential. (Another way of asking, “Will it fly?”)

For each of these three criteria, I might either score the idea out of ten or just rank, “High, Medium, or Low”.

I sometimes apply this framework at this stage, when we have an initial, longer list of ideas, and sometimes delay doing so until a later stage, when we’re dealing with a shortlist.


3. Feedback: Ask others

This means asking both professionals (colleagues, PRs, journalists) and “amateurs” (those who don’t work in media, PR or marketing) how much they like the idea or not.

I try to ask a mix of people – of different ages, genders, backgrounds and, if relevant, different nationalities. Asking at least half-a-dozen is ideal.

I send them both an outline of the ideas themselves and also a “Feedback form”, containing the headline and potted summary of each idea. Indeed, I often offer various alternative headlines, representing different angles or just nuances, and later ask people which headline/angle they like best.

This form is a Word file rather than a Google doc, since I don’t want respondents to see how anyone else has responded, in case that then influences their own response.

But you can also use Google Sheets, which has the advantage of automatically aggregating the scores of all respondents but sometimes the disadvantage of being more rigid.

I then ask recipients to do two things:

• Give each idea a score out of 10, to reflect how strong/weak they rate it.

• Offer a sentence or two of comments, saying WHY they like or dislike it, and, for example, how they might change and/or improve it.

I even offer them the following template sentence, for them to fill in, complete or adapt: “I like this idea but think only X media would cover it. I prefer your second angle/headline for it but also feel it would be a stronger idea if you also/instead did Y…”

If they are “amateurs” rather than those working the media, then I ask them to base their scores and comments on factors such as: Would they click on and or read or otherwise consume something based on this idea? And/or, might they, say, be inclined to share it on social media?

• Ask for feedback, part I: First write the headline … and opening sentence

Before asking anyone to say what they think of an idea, however, I first try to summarise it in a way designed to help them judge it with the same haste – in the same nano-second – that they would use to judge an idea in real life.

This means, above all, summarising the idea in a snappy, enticing headline and/or subject line. In fact, I often offer several different versions of a suggesed headline.

I also try to write – in a journalistic style – at least a few paragraphs explaining, fleshing out and, if necessary justifying the idea.

Maurice Saatchi, co-founder of the two famous ad agencies that bear his name, advises: ” … a good way of summarising a new idea in the smallest possible number of words is to write your own press release about it.”   

If there’s enough time, and/or if it’s an idea that’s going to cost a lot of time and money, then it’s worth trying to do that too – writing not just headline and at least the opening paragraphs of a press release for it.

In general, however, I tend to ask people to judge an idea on the basis of a headline and a few paragraphs of user-friendly explanation.

What tends NOT to work well, meanwhile, is selecting ideas by committee or other kinds of group discussion, whether a literal discussion or one on, say, email or Slack.

This, in my opinion, is for at least two reasons:

• Committee members are too influenced by what others in the group say/by each other: especially the first in the group to give their opinion and/or the most senior members and, specifically, the boss.

• Members sometimes also end up unconscioulsy almost competing with each other to find faults with ideas – and finding reasons not to progress them.

• Ask for feedback, part II: Interpreting the feedback

Sometimes the replies that I get are either unanimous or nearly so, which makes life easier.

Other times, however, opinion is divided.

In that case, I will then add up the scores for the different ideas, in case doing so reveals a clearer pattern.

I’ll also ask myself: of the various respondents, whose opinion do I value most, perhaps because I’ve worked with them longer and/or come to trust their judgement or, say, because they just have more experience and better credentials. And whose do I value less, for whatever reason?

I might also ask one or two more folks what they think.

When it comes to the crunch, however, I have to trust my own judgement.

Asking the client

In the end, of course, it’s the client that decides, as is their right and their job.

I find that some clients are great at picking the best ideas – as in the ones with the best chance of achieving their objectives. But others are less so.

This is often because they lack the experience to know what’s most likely to appeal to their target media – which, after all, is not their day job. Why SHOULD they have the same kind of expertise or pattern recognition as someone for whom it IS their day job?

At other times, however, it’s because of certain, specific biases.

Some clients, for example, are instinctively drawn to those ideas that feel most like a commercial for their brand and communicate the perfect, advertising-style message – rather than to the ones that will communicate merely, say, a good enough message but win them way more buzz.

Or, to put this another way, clients often like and want more direct, on-brand, on-message, “product-led” ideas, rather than more oblique, under-the-radar ones, even if the latter are – counterintuitive as it might seem – far more likely to win them the attention they crave.

Other clients are more risk-averse than is good for them if they want to stand out by doing something different. For some clients, it can seem that standing out is both their greatest wish AND their greatest fear.

I remember one client, where my contact formed a committee to consider Think Inc’s ideas and asked its members, by way of their brief: Can ANY of you think of ANY reasons why we should not be doing any of these ideas?

Their answer, of course, was that they could indeed think of such reasons.  The idea does not exist – and never will – for which there are not perfectly valid reservations.

And, as Charles Bower, a noted American adman once put it: “A new idea is delicate; it can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man’s brow”. It can only take one person to cast a doubt and the prospects for an idea can collapse like a lemon soufflé.

Yes, it can be not just fine but extremely useful to ask different better members of the client’s team for their opinions.

It tends to be better, however, to ask them individually and separately – rather than in a group or committee, where one person’s opinion will tend to influence another’s, leading to group-think; or, say, folks don’t like openly to disagree, leading to the same.

Hence the observation – of contested origin but much truth – that “A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.”

I’ve had other clients who like to ask the opinion of their friends. And their friends are, well, not always the best judges. Why WOULD they be?

In fact, I tend to end up with the happiest clients when clients first share their feedback, thoughts, insights and scores on the ideas we’ve submitted and also say which ones they definitely can’t or won’t do for whatever reason but then finally ask me to advise, select and decide which idea to execute – in a way that reflects both their feedback and my experience and expertise.

That approach also makes sense if I’m right in arguing that selecting is the hardest part of the process and the one requiring the most experience and skill.

My own judgement, however, is not always perfect either. Far from it.

But it is, I reckon, still probably the single most valuable thing that I have to offer a client.

And what I generally consider the smartest clients are the ones that tend to think so too.

Indeed, the one client for whom I got more coverage than any other was the COO of a B to C startup.

He said to me when I joined, “You inform me that your expert in this. I, on the other hand, am definitely not; this is not my field. So, I’m going to let you decide which ideas to execute and I’ll then judge you on the results.”

And that’s precisely what he did.

The results vindicated his approach made him an extremely happy client.