A Copywriter’s Guide to Generating Ideas: Halloween Edition

Let me tell you a scary story.

A copywriter lies awake in bed at night, spooked by a challenging creative brief. The deadline’s presence looms like a ghost in the room, and fear begins to set in—fear of forgettable ideas, or worse, no ideas at all. He falls asleep, and in his dream, a big idea comes to him. He wakes in a cold sweat and races to his desk, but he cannot find a pen in time. The idea has vanished, never to be seen again.

A new brief and a blank page. On one hand, it means freedom. Anything is possible. But on the other, it can be a source of sheer terror. Just ask David Ogilvy—“The copywriter lives with fear. Will he have a big idea before Tuesday morning? Will the client buy it? Will it get a high test score? Will it sell the product? I have never sat down to write an advertisement without thinking THIS TIME I AM GOING TO FAIL.”

While fear can be inspirational in its own twisted way, it’s not the best place to start creative from. As they say, if you’re having fun writing, your audience will have fun reading.

Taking the fear out of the creative process means having a plan. A methodology to fall back on. Generating ideas is far from a science—some people describe the process as otherworldly (spooky!)—but the closer to a science we can get it and more repeatable the process is, the less scary it becomes. Here are some methods and resources that help exorcise those fear demons to get the ideas and words flowing.


Immersing yourself in your client’s business, audience, and competitors is a must. Without a foundation of background info, there’s nothing to stand on. As an agency we are there to provide insight that nobody else has thought of. Having all the info allows us to do that.

Learn From Veterans
Suzanne Pope provides great resources, such as her advice for writing headlines and generating ideas. Ask the people in your office what they turn to for inspiration. Read “A Systematic Approach to Advertising Creativity.” Chapter 11 is called “A limbering-up Exercise: 201 Ways to Get an Idea.”

Headline Dash
Set a timer. Write 50 headlines as fast as possible. 45 will be bad. 3 will be ok. 2 will be decent. Start with those and do it again.

Make Unusual Connections
Write headlines for your product or company based on completely unrelated images. For instance, if you’re working on a campaign for a bank, flip through cooking magazines or National Geographic and write to what you see. Some of the best ideas come from making not-so-obvious connections.

Talk to People
Your coworkers, you neighbors, anyone. All you have is your own perspective, rife with blind spots. Other people hold the key to unlocking ways of thinking you may not possess.

Be Iterative
Say yes. Add to ideas, don’t shut them down. Contrary to the popular saying, there are bad ideas, but bad ideas can turn into good ideas with the right twist.

Walk Away
Sometimes you’ve bashed your head against a brief for a little too long. Take a walk. Go to a movie. Read a poem. High-five a stranger. Scare a pigeon. Do what you need to to empty your head and get unstuck. And go at it again.


Searching for big ideas and punchy, memorable words can be a daunting endeavor. But these methods provide a roadmap to follow that is sure to shake something loose and get the petrified copywriter on the path to not just one good idea, but an angry, pitchfork-wielding mob of them.