See more in Creating

All the Steps Your Idea Goes Through Before It Becomes an Ad

8 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, and this is everything I wish I knew about the advertising and creative industry when I got started. And everything I'm discovering as a Creative Director today.
LinkedIn Instagram 

You know how everyone keeps saying, "All that matters is the idea." 

Well, that sure puts a lot of pressure on an idea to stay pure from inception to creation, huh? Well, bad news. It doesn't.

No, no, no. The path of an idea from your brain, through the agency, through the client, through production, and onto whatever screen, board, or speaker you're experiencing it, is long, winding, and usually frustrating. And even for those of us that've been doing this for years, it can be a bit of a struggle to see what you output as something so different from what you first imagined.

Now, this isn't meant to scare all you upcoming creatives. No, what I want to do, as always, is prepare you for the realities of this career. And when you have such complete control over your ideas in school, you may expect the same kind of control in the professional world. Which, unfortunately, you don't have.

So, let's take a look at the arduous path an idea takes, from inception to creation and beyond.

(NOTE: Every agency has its own process. Some are shorter, some are longer. This is a combination of different agency experiences I've had.)

The Journey of An Idea

1) The Brief

It all starts here. The brief is a meeting (or a few) where you're told what the product is, who you're talking to, and what the goal is. And, if you've got a good team, you'll also get an insight to push off of. Not sure what an insight is? Read this article and then come back...don't worry, I'll wait.

This is the time for you to bring up any questions you may have. One of the most important ones: What are you making? A lot of people may disagree with me, but knowing what I'm supposed to be executing changes my ideation process. As they say, "The medium is the message."

2) Concepting

This is the fun part. Here's where you just let your brain run around and think of crazy shit. There's no right way to do this step, and because of that, people have a lot of trouble getting into a groove with their partners during this time. If you are, read this article, where I help you blend your and your partner's work styles.

Process aside, this can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks or months. And somewhere in there, you'll start showing your nuggets of ideas to someone who makes the decisions…this is where Iddy the Idea is born!

3) Creative Director Reviews

Okay, you came up with a bunch of really cool things. One of them was Iddy! Now, you're going to show them to your Creative Director, so she can figure out if it's actually worth putting it in front of the client.

(NOTE: Depending on the agency's size, you may go through a few versions of this step. Maybe an Associate Creative Director is filtering your ideas first. Maybe you're working with multiple Creative Directors. Who knows???)

Okay, you brought 8 ideas. Two are good. (One of them was Iddy!) We need to bring 3. And those two need to keep pushing.

Wait, what? You brought genius to the table, what do you mean "keep pushing?" And what about the other 6 ideas? Why can't the third one be one of those? Well, at least you got your favorite idea through.

Alright, onto the next step…

4) Revise Your Ideas

Okay, those two ideas you brought last time needed some tweaks. Sure, some of the tweaks seemed to be pretty core to the original idea, but Iddy was a little rough around the edges. It's like a marble statue: you have to keep removing parts of it to reveal the sculpture hidden in the block of marble. Yeah, that'll help you sleep at night.

Oh yeah, and that third idea...don't forget about that one.

5) Repeat #3 & #4 Indefinitely

This is the vortex you could get stuck in for a while. Here's how it could go:

  • Your first few ideas were so good that your CD wants to have some just as good as those, and it's taking a while.
  • Your CD has a few ideas of her own, and she's guiding you towards them.
  • Your rounds keep getting better, and so the old ideas don't stand up anymore, so you need to keep revising.
  • Your ideas just suck and it's taking you a while to crack it.

In the end, you're going to fight for some version of Iddy to stay alive. And if you've been getting good feedback from your CD (read this article on how to do that) then chances are, Iddy the Idea is looking...kinda different. Hopefully it's better. But it's definitely different.

6) Leadership's Blessing

Every agency has some form of creative or agency leadership. And depending upon the size of the project, your idea may need to get their blessing before leaving the building.

The good news is, this isn't usually your responsibility. Your Creative Director will brave the lion's den, and leave with feedback.

There's the bad news: there will always be feedback. And it's usually much more "tweaky" than you'd wish it would be. But hey, it's their responsbility to make sure everything is the best it can be, for the agency and the client.

Okay, back to #5, or maybe baby tweaks and off to the next step…

7) The Day-to-Day Client

Oh, you thought there was one client? No, no, no. Their structure is pretty similar to the agency's, usually. There's always a hierarchy.

First, you'll pass through the guidance of what's usually referred to as the "day-to-day" client. The ones that give you feedback, filtering the idea through the lens of the brand. The ones that look for the product in the idea, and if it's not there, help it appear.

Usually, when you come to this meeting, you have "proofs of concept" or some basic ad-like objects to illustrate the idea. Iddy's not just some amorphous idea. Now, it's becoming an execution!

And guess what? Iddy's changing again! Yep, there was feedback!

8) Revise the Execution

See, when something evolves past the "idea" stage, something that you can just describe in a few sentences, and moves into an execution, it invites much more feedback. Because the client may not like the language, or the visual, or the location, or the size. Or maybe they just want to make the logo bigger.

And here's where Iddy the Idea struggles to look the same as it did in your mind. Because the client has a totally different goal than you do (sometimes). And your agency has another goal. And now all three of those goals are colliding into a perfect storm. And at the eye: your idea.

9) The Head Client

Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh. You made it! Yep, the head honcho (or honcha) is gonna approve the idea, you just know it!

Fuck. Feedback.

10) More Revisions

Okay, you'll go back to some version of steps 3 through 9 until it gets signed off.

Iddy's looking like like the idea you had. I mean, at least its brother or sister.

11) Producers

Yay! Approved! Now how do you make it? Right, you forgot about some key things, like: budget, timing, talent, location, logistics…

Turns out, it's not as easy as you thought to get Ryan Reynolds to act out your idea in the middle of Times Square on a blimp. So, with the help of your producers, you're gonna have to make some...adjustments to Iddy.

Can you still call it Iddy?

12) Directors

For most major projects, you'll need a director of some kind. If you're curious about how a director can affect your idea, read this article.

But the tl;dr is that most directors will (and should) put their mark on the project. Sometimes they're executors and will bring your exact vision to life. But most of the time, they'll have something to add to the idea. Something to dress up Iddy, which could make it even better than you imagined in the first place!

13) The Production

Video, photo, audio. No matter what the project, no matter how well-planned it is beforehand, you'll make changes on the spot.

Yep, Iddy will get a spontaneous haircut or maybe lose a hand. You just roll with it, trying to make it the best it can be, while still getting it done.

14) Post-Production

Same thing as #13, but this all happens in edit, mixing, coloring, vfx, etc. All those great shots you got, need to be smushed together to make sense. And maybe the original smushed order you thought would work, doesn't really work.

Be flexible, Iddy, because you're going to be cut, shifted, and mixed so much in this stage, you may not even recognize yourself after.

15) Internal Reviews

Oh, all those changes you did need to get through the agency, remember? Yeah, they're not going to give you a blank check. It's not just your butt on the line: it's everyone's.

So, maybe that risky decision you made wasn't really working out for everybody. Take that out, fix it, or do something, because nobody likes that mohawk you gave Iddy the Idea.

16) Client Reviews

Please let this go smoothly. Please let this go smoothly...

17) You Made It!

Wait, it's done? You did it!

Yep, Iddy the Idea is alive, though it may be a distorted reflection of what you originally envisioned in that room filled with crumpled up comps, giant black foam core boards, and half-drank cups of coffee.

And that's not a bad thing.

Fall In Love With the Problem, Not the Solution

Your idea should should solve the problem that you were given back during the brief. And if you focus on that problem, then you'll see lots of solutions.

But when you land on that solution, keep it simple. For example, your idea should be a skeleton. When it's all the way through the process, it may look like Ryan Reynolds (yep, that's two references), but at its core, it's still a skeleton. That'll make it easier to stay true to during the entire process.

Keep that core strong. Let it support whatever reviews, feedback, and revisions it has to go through. Because when it's all done, hopefully it's better than you ever imagined.

Or maybe it totally sucks now. Honestly, you never know.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this, say hello @thejeremycarson. LinkedIn Instagram