As a public relations agency with clients in constant need of creative solutions for their marketing problems, we are constantly challenged to bring new and innovative thinking to the table. In fact, this is the reason most people get into the world of marketing in the first place--the desire to challenge conventional thinking.

The biggest driver behind creative problem solving is a brainstorm in which the client's challenges are clearly shared and, through open discussion and intelligent banter, new ideas on how to address them are put to the test. It's important to remember, however, that brainstorms drive ideas, but ideas must be laced with strategy. The following "Five Plus Five" list of idea generators and idea killers is our approach for ensuring we get the most out of our brainstorm sessions.

Idea Generators

1. Set the Stage

Prior to conducting a creative session, make sure all participants are versed in the client's challenge, the target consumer or end user, and the brand's overarching positioning, and that they come to the brainstorm with some ideas to share. This will ensure the meeting kicks off with thought starters and that the time is maximized and not spent educating the participants. The worst situation is for everyone to learn the details of the challenge during the brainstorm.

2. Encourage Free Thinking

When launching into the brainstorm, encourage everyone to share anything they think might be interesting, relevant, challenging, or provocative. When you open this door, everyone feels more comfortable sharing their thoughts, and they are not intimidated by the situation. This is particularly true for junior staff members, who may easily get intimidated by joining a brainstorm filled with more senior people.

3. Facilitator Must Facilitate

The key to an excellent brainstorm is to make sure the facilitator is asking questions, initiating thought starters, encouraging participation, building on ideas, and moving the brainstorm forward. A poor facilitator can easily get caught up in sidebar conversations or get stuck on an idea that derails the creative flow.

4. Brainstorm in a Creative Environment

One of the best ways to think freely is to take the session outside of the typical conference-room environment and into an open space that encourages new thinking. Many agencies have creative rooms designed specifically for open discussion and brainstorming, with comfortable couches, bean bag chairs, brightly colored walls, and whiteboards. If a room like this is unavailable, consider an outdoor or inspirational environment like a park, the beach, or even a coffee shop.

5. Utilize Props and Product Samples

One of the best ways to get the creative juices flowing is to have the client's product(s) you are brainstorming about available at the meeting for sampling. Additionally, using magazines, construction paper, markers, coloring books, Play-Doh, etc., are clever ways to help people think creatively. For example, you can clip images from a magazine that are representative of the brand's positioning and glue these to a poster board to stimulate conversation.

Idea Killers

1. Don't Let the Brainstorm Be Dominated by One or Two Persons

Make sure that all brainstorm participants are actively participating. It is very common for aggressive personalities to try and take over a creative session; it's the facilitator's job to not allow that to happen. This is best managed by asking quieter individuals questions and encouraging them to participate. Being a more passive person doesn't mean they don't have something worthwhile to contribute.

2. Don't Denigrate Ideas

During a brainstorm, the old adage "there is no such thing as a dumb idea" prevails at all times. One of the quickest ways to frustrate participants or stop a brainstorm dead in its tracks is for anyone to start kiboshing ideas or new thinking. When an idea is off base, the facilitator should try and add some context or additional thinking to the idea to give it more legs or relevance.

3. Never Come to a Brainstorm With Your Mind Already Made Up

The quickest way to turn your brainstorm team off is by coming to the creative session with an idea that has already been solidified in your mind, making you less open to innovative thinking. If you feel an idea is strong, offer it up for adding to or to get the perspective of others. This will yield more involvement and challenge the idea from both a creative and strategic standpoint.

4. Don't Get Trapped Into "the Client Won't Like It" Mentality

Remember that brainstorms are designed to bring new thinking to the client. One of the biggest obstacles to overcome is thinking on behalf of the client by saying, "I know them, and they will never go for this!" Clients love when you are bringing fresh thinking, regardless if it is a departure from what they have done in the past. They will applaud the commitment you have made to the brand and appreciate the contrarian point of view.

5. Know When to Say When

Recognize when a brainstorm should end. True brainstorms should not last more than an hour, as most people's creative juices will be maximized at this point. The brainstorm facilitator should read the room and recognize when the topic has hit a wall and should be taken in a different direction, or when the creative ideas have been exhausted and bring the session to an end.

Brainstorms are an enormous investment--in people's time and creative energy. If executed incorrectly, they can be a wasted effort for participants and, more important, the client. However, if done right, brainstorms can be a powerful, collaborative tool to help you crack that client challenge or leverage new, strategic thinking to move the needle forward.