Where Do Ideas Come From?

Blair and David share the places they find good ideas that they turn into content, the best of which end up being incorporated into their services.


Emily Mills, Illustrator/Designer


BLAIR ENNS: All right, David. I have to produce some content for next week to go out to our list of people who kind of somewhat regularly expect content from me.

DAVID C. BAKER: You must be terrified at the notion of needing to come up with something intelligent within just a week.

BLAIR: I'm being a little bit glib here because I know what I'm writing about. It's half done. I've got to come up with something, David. Where do I go? I've got a deadline, it's got to be done Tuesday. Imagine I didn't have a bunch of half-started, half-finished articles, what would I do?

DAVID: Oh yeah.

BLAIR: The topic of today's podcast is "Where Do Your Ideas Come From?" Where do good ideas come from? And then I guess we'll talk about how do these ideas translate into content, and then things beyond content. But a lot of people that I talk to, agency principals who, they understand that they should be in some form of content marketing, they struggle with coming up with ideas. How about you?

DAVID: I hear the same thing. And there are times when I struggle with coming up with ideas too.

BLAIR: Well, that's what I really wanted to know. We'll talk about our clients in a few minutes, but do you ever struggle with coming up with new ideas?

DAVID: I don't struggle with coming up with ideas, but I do struggle with which ones I want to write about because sometimes I'll look at this long list, I already have the illustration and the outline, and none of them strike me at the moment with any sort of passion, and I have to just put it aside and say, "Okay, I'll look at this again tomorrow and see if any of them pop out at me." But it does vary. It just depends on ... That's why I have to have all kinds of things that I can choose from because at any given moment, there's only one or two ideas that I really want to write about out of 50 or something.

BLAIR: Yeah, the moment really is fleeting, isn't it? So I use Evernote to store my ideas, so I'll get an idea, I'll put in the headline, and then I'll just write as quickly as I can until I pause or stop or until I run out of energy. Then I'll just stop because I feel like, okay, I've captured the idea enough, and I'll come back to it. And I don't know how many times you go back there and go, "Yeah, that's not such a good idea after all." And then maybe things change down the road and all of a sudden it becomes a good idea again.

DAVID: Right. So where do you come up with the ... physically, where do you come up with your ideas? Is it when you're on a long drive, or on a plane, or in front of a client? Is there a particular pattern around the moment when an idea hits you before you even develop it?

BLAIR: Oh yeah, it's very specific. I can identify it exactly. It's in the shower on Saturday mornings. How about you?

DAVID: For me, and I don't know why it's exactly this way, but I cannot remember the last time I had a good idea by myself, without being in front of a client or on the phone with them or maybe speaking with a prospect or making a presentation at a conference. Those are the only times when I seem to think really clearly, and it's so important, for me anyway, to capture those things, even if it's just scribbling down a sentence, and then when I get back to my hotel room or back to the office or whatever, expanding that into a paragraph or two so that I remember what I'm talking about when I get back to it. I don't come up with interesting ideas to think or write about when I'm by myself. I have to be, sort of, on with somebody.

DAVID: I have heard so many of my clients say the same thing. They buy the argument they need to be doing more content marketing and so on, and then they're stumped because they're not sure what to write about, but that's just a mental block they have. So what I usually recommend that they do at that point is to have somebody attend meetings with them and watch when the prospect or the client nods or makes some indication that they've said something really interesting, and then just write down that thing that the principal or the AE or whoever it is, new business person, just said. And those are usually the ideas that are worth developing later. The problem is that we say those things so frequently, we've heard ourselves say those, that they don't strike us as intelligent anymore, so we have to rely on how other people react to them. Does that make sense?

BLAIR: Yeah, that is so insightful, and I've never really thought of it that way before because I just imagine that I'm coming up with ideas on my own. I read a lot of books, as I know you do too, and listen to some podcasts, and there are some other sources. My pat answer would be I just come up with them while I'm reading books, while I'm in the shower, or on a plane thinking, when I have thinking time. But as I hear you describe it, I identify the situation because I've been in a lot of training situations with clients where we're doing some exercises around content creation, and they'll say something and I'll write it down.

DAVID: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

BLAIR: In my notebook when I'm working with a client for a day, I make this little column where I write down key things that they say that I think, "Okay, that's a piece of thought leadership."


BLAIR: We're going to come back to this. You dropped this nugget, you don't even know how valuable it is, I wrote it down, and sometimes I immediately translate it into a better headline, and then as we get closer to the end of the day, I have a list, and it's usually at least 10 things long that they've said, and I say, "Here's a list of things that you should be writing about."

DAVID: Oh wow. I've never done that. That's interesting. So you're helping them by seeding these ideas, these topics for them. I usually, if I'm trying to pay attention to the things that they say because the good ideas usually come from them, and then I try to develop them. When I count, if you were to ask me, "How many of these ideas do you hear in a given day?" If it's a full day of consulting or advising, I'll hear anywhere from two to five in a day, and then one or two of those seems kind of flat after I think about it, and I just throw it into my Evernote notebook as well, and that's the first stage for me, or I may clip an article or something like that.

DAVID: So the other source for me for ideas is to look at adjacent industries. That's the most interesting, rather than the industry that you and I serve. It's to look at adjacent industries and to see if there's something in there that can be applied to ours. Here's an example. I was just reading one time, I don't even remember how I came across it, but I came across this six part article where a reporter went underground and went through the whole training as a used car salesperson, and it was in Edmund's, it was published in Edmund's, and I thought, "Oh, this is so fascinating." I had just bought a car and I remember how the balance of power seemed so strange as soon as I crossed the threshold into the dealership, how I'm the person with the power and the money in this transaction, but I felt immediately powerless. How is it that they do that?

DAVID: So I read the article thinking, "All right. Is there something in here that I can learn and apply to the industry that I serve?" And that formed this seed thought that I have used so many times, and that's how account people, when they make promises, all those promises need to be delayed, centralized, and remote. And there's all kinds of science behind those three things, but it all comes from that article. So that's, I guess, another big argument for reading widely because a lot of the best ideas come from adjacent industries where we apply them to our industry.

BLAIR: Okay. You need to unpack that insight, and I know that's not the topic of this podcast, but I can't go forward until you explain what you mean by 'all account decisions need to be', what was it again?

DAVID: Delayed, centralized, and remote. Yeah. So you go to buy a car and it's usually a windowless room and they say, "Okay, I know. You've told me you don't want to leave with a car today. Fine." And of course they're just saying that because they don't want to get sold to. And then the salesperson says, "Okay, so you don't want to buy a car, but what would it take for you to leave with a car today?" And you just throw some low ball price out there because you've promised somebody that you're not going to buy a car today, you just throw out some ridiculous price, and the salesperson says, "Ah, there's just no way. There's no way I could sell it for that. But I'll tell you what, I'll go talk to my boss." And of course there is no boss, he's just going to get another donut in the lounge, and this is the principle that all the promises that this salesperson makes are delayed, centralized, and remote.

DAVID: So what the salesperson is doing is borrowing the power from this unknown person in the back, and that's what the resource, the project management person is, it's the foil to the person who wants to make the client happy. So you have an account person who makes promises that are delayed, centralized, and remote. That tempers their immediate response, typical response, to just give away the shop. That's what I meant by that.

BLAIR: Yeah, I did a monthly webcast yesterday for the folks in our training program, and it was on Centralizing the Pricing Function, and I wrote an article about this recently, and I often, when I talk about centralizing pricing, I often go back to that car dealer example.

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: Okay, but we're a little bit off topic. So that's a great example of you reading an article somewhere in an adjacent, or not even adjacent, quite a different industry from the industry that you are in or your clients are in, and then you took the idea and applied it. And did you write a blog post or an article about it?

DAVID: I did, but not right away. So I have to capture enough ... it drops into an Evernote file, this is sort of how the workflow is, it drops into an Evernote file and I have to keep enough of the idea in there so that I remember what I was talking about later. It'll just sit. The next stage, the second stage is to find out, "Okay, which ones are worthy enough to go ahead and commission an illustration?" I work with an illustrator, and I don't want to pay to have an illustration done unless I'm really going to write an article about it. So then I'll pick maybe 20 of these ideas and say, "Hey, here's what I have in mind. I started to outline it. Can you do this?" And I just sketch it out on my iPad and send it to the artist.

DAVID: Then the artist comes back with something, and almost every time, she comes up with something that's right on target. If not, then we'll work back and forth. Then, those sit in a file. Right now, I think there's about, I don't know, 60 or so of those. So I have the illustration, I have the topic, and I have an outline. Then, third stage is, "Okay, I need to write something for, say, Tuesday. What am I going to write on?" I just fly through the 60 options and say, "Which of these really, really grab me at the moment?" And it helps me to have thought about it beforehand, but I also have to be passionate about it. If I'm not passionate about a topic, I just cannot write about it. And then I'll just write, and then I'll just put it in the archive. So it's a pretty simple process for me, but that's how it unfolds.

BLAIR: What really strikes me about this is the size of your funnel and how many things you throw into the top of the funnel, whereas my ... if I throw something into the funnel, it's more likely to come out the end sooner because I throw fewer things in at the top, and I had you quantify this if you were able to, and you said, "Yeah, I've got 228 ideas, 27 ready for illustration." I'm reading an email you sent me. "And 58 all ready to go with Outliner clipped articles to digest." That's an impressive funnel of content. I'm sure everybody listening, without exception, has some content creation envy.

DAVID: Well, but you know, you and I talk a lot about how the deeper you focus, the more you have and the more that you can talk about. You don't run out of ideas the deeper you focus, and I worry about that sometimes. Like, at what point am I just going to run out of things to talk about? And I just don't see that happening, but for me, it's driven a lot by panic. I remember four or five years into this advising journey, I kept getting these questions on the phone from people, and they were legitimate questions.

DAVID: They weren't that hard, they were just very legitimate, fair questions that any advisor worth his salt should know the answer to. And I didn't have a point of view, and I remember stammering a little bit and not making stuff up, but sort of diverting the conversation, and I finally got so embarrassed about it that I decided that, "Okay, this is a real moment." It was a shining light moment for me, and I said, "Okay, I have got to start being honest here. I need to develop a list of topics around which I need a declared point of view. A substantiated point of view."

DAVID: So I sat down and I came up with 55 topics. So I set out to write on those 55 topics. I knew it would take me a long time to do, and it was kind of a fun exploration, but a little bit panicky, and then I thought to myself, "Oh, I should make money doing this. Why in the world wouldn't I make money?" So I started a publication and then published 55 issues and basically just wrote each issue to try and develop a point of view.

DAVID: I still go back to those articles all the time, even though they're outdated now because it forced me to figure out what I think about certain things, and it also, it gives me a starting place so that I can keep changing my perspective as I learn things. And rather than just mushy something-or-other, you have to put a stake in the ground or you don't really learn the next phase. If you just keep throwing stuff in the pot, it never really works. You have to put a stake in the ground, write something, and then you can improve it later, and maybe you improve it two or three times. It changed my life maybe more than anything else in this space by just being honest with myself at some point, like, "Goodness gracious, there are a lot of things I don't know and I need to start learning more."

BLAIR: So the vehicle was called Persuading. It was a newsletter because you used to print it and send it out.

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: And that may be the way I first became aware of you back in probably 2002. That's a long time ago. We're getting old. As you're talking about it, I'm thinking, "Yeah, I remember all these things. I remember as you were getting close to shutting it down." I didn't know you were close to shutting it down, but I look back and I think, "Oh yeah." It made sense because you had emailed me to say, "Hey, do you want to write for Persuading again?"

DAVID: Yeah, right. I was running out of topics.

BLAIR: And then you shut it down. But it was very widely read.

DAVID: Yeah.

BLAIR: You charged. I remember, I think you charged $360 a year for it.

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: And I guess it went out in electronic version too, but from somebody who didn't know you well and was kind of getting to know you through your thought leadership, I can say it was an impressive vehicle. It looked beautiful. Everything about it was beautifully designed and the content, you are a good writer, but the content and the writing style, it just really communicated a level of professionalism that just wasn't there in the space at the time. So I think with that, you kind of immediately rose to the top of the heap, and maybe today, now that everybody's into content marketing, it's not so easy to go to the top of the heap via your content.

BLAIR: There's a couple things that you mentioned that I want to circle back on, but first, a word from Marcus.


BLAIR: Okay David. You mentioned that you look at adjacent industries for ideas, but you and I have talked about this before. You don't look within the creative profession industries for ideas, or do you?

DAVID: Not so much. I think we are so far behind the other professional service branches in terms of how we manage our firms that I'd rather learn from adjacent industries, honestly.

BLAIR: Yeah. I'm fond of saying, this doesn't universally apply, but I'm saying the best of bad practices are still bad practices. When you're pulling from your industry too though, there's this danger, and I see it a lot, and the danger is you start to put forward other people's ideas. And ideas aren't, you can't patent an idea, but I think we all know people who create content who it's not really their content. They're taking the flavor of the day. They're probably paying too close attention to people who are in their industry, and it's easy to see that they are following the leaders in their industry. Does that make sense?

DAVID: It does, and we know when we've crossed over the line in borrowing somebody else's content, but it's harder to know when you step up to it, and you and I talk enough that I worry sometimes that I'm using something that I think is my idea when it was actually your idea, but it's a matter of I guess just being honest in terms of where we're taking stuff. It is just not worth crossing that line and stealing something from somebody without giving them credit. The world will catch us, right? At some point, they'll just catch us, so I think we need to be pretty careful about that.

DAVID: This relates a little bit to the question I wanted to ask you. How do you feel about hiring somebody to write content for you? Is there a place when that makes sense or is it always not a good idea?

BLAIR: I think in theory there's probably a way to do this that's right, but if I just check my own gut and ask myself would I ever hire anybody to create content for me, the answer is no, absolutely not. But that's a personal answer. I don't know that it's fair to extrapolate to everybody else. I'll make an observation, then I'll ask you the same question. And the observation is I've worked with a lot of firms who have outsourced content creation. I don't know that I've ever seen somebody outsource content creation that didn't cost them in terms of their tone of voice or their point of view. And what I mean by that is if you hire somebody to write for you, there is no way they're going to be as provocative as you or take the risks that you would take. You're going to lose your voice.

BLAIR: Now, I say in theory, I think you could do this because I think, and I know there are companies and people that do this, and probably people who believe very strongly that this model works. And here's the model. The model is we sit down with you, we get to know you and your voice, and then we pull the ideas out of you, and then we go write them to, say, 80% in your voice, and you simply finish it off and make it yours. So I actually think that that's theoretically kind of correct and doable. I have a friend who was paid a very good advance to write a book, and he once said to me, "You know, there are pages in my book I've never read." Because he's ... and I know lots of people who have paid ghostwriters to work with them on books. But that line really struck me. "There's pages in my book I've never read."

BLAIR: I don't have a problem with somebody doing that, I can never try that on for myself. But what about you? Do you think it's ever okay to have somebody else create content?

DAVID: I don't, no. And I feel pretty firmly that it isn't appropriate for an expert, and it seems like the content that is developed that way kind of slides into the mass of other content and doesn't stand out as having a point of view.

BLAIR: It's vanilla, right?

DAVID: Yeah. It's Google-ized. It's just not all that interesting. It's not memorable in my mind. So a related question, and I get this question a lot, I would be interested to hear how you feel about it. Let's say you have a firm of 20 people in this space. How many of those people on average should be contributing to the content that the firm produces regularly? Are we talking about one, or five, or 10? What's that usual ratio of people who can be trusted to have a reliable, clearly articulated point of view?

BLAIR: I would be happy with one good one. I would be uncomfortable on behalf of my client if that good one were not the principal of the firm.

DAVID: Yes, yes. Absolutely true.

BLAIR: But I recall something that I've said for years. I guess I haven't said it in a little while, but I used to say that I believe that one of the costs of entry into any leadership position in the firm is the requirement to create content.

DAVID: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right.

BLAIR: So if you want to be creative director, your obligation is four blog posts or videos, and I don't know what the number is, but there's an obligation to think this way and to create some content. You wouldn't make that requirement of your CFO, but the senior people who are heading your account management planning, creative, media if you're in that business, maybe even the DEV department. Those senior leadership people, I think it's an idea worth exploring that one of the costs of entry to a senior leadership position in the firm is the requirement to create content, and then you can put some barriers around that.

BLAIR: So I think that's good general guidance that I wouldn't necessarily say everybody absolutely has to stick to it because I wanted to circle back on this idea, and that's the idea that it's not easy for everybody to create content. I think for you and I, I suspect relative to the larger population, we see ourselves as writers, it's easier for us to create content.

BLAIR: I mean, hell, we're just having ... this is a conversation that you and I might have a couple times in a week, just talking about these things, only we're spending more time on it, we're recording it. This is content. So in some ways, content creation is super easy, but not everybody is comfortable with it. Not everybody is a good writer, not everybody is comfortable articulating their thoughts and recording them, and not everybody is made for video, so I don't know. I think I'm not as quick as you to close the door that this can't be done, you can't somehow outsource content creation or get some help in that area, but I do agree with you, I can't think of an example where somebody else created a piece of content for a firm and I was exposed to that content and thought, "Man, that's good."

DAVID: "That's really good." Yeah, like, you had an aha moment. Well you can get help, and I think it's totally safe to get help with writing skills and you might slowly get better over time. I use editors, for sure, but it's more about thinking. And even if you aren't at the point where you feel like you can write stuff that other people will view as insightful, part of your skillset should be the ability to ask really good questions of other people so that the result of this interview or whatever the format is is really interesting to people.

DAVID: So you need to at least be curious enough and articulate enough even if you're not producing the insight yourself, you need to be able to pull out insight from other people, and that's a skill that I think more people are less terrified of, and I find there are a lot of really, really good listeners and interviewers out there, and some of them may not feel like they have the authority to have a voice, but they can certainly pull great insight out of other people that might have a higher standing. And that would be a way to bridge this gap a little bit for them.

BLAIR: Yeah. And as we talk about it, I think if you're an expert, you're creating these sparks of content ideas, and maybe you don't have the capacity, the skills, or the time to be able to capture those sparks and turn them into embers and then flames, et cetera, to carry on with that metaphor, and maybe there are ways to engage people to help you with that. We only have a few minutes left. I want to talk about what happens with ideas and why it's important to generate ideas beyond content marketing. And I want to come back to your observation about what happens in a car dealership and then how you translated that into an idea of how account people should work.

BLAIR: My theory is that you narrow your focus, so you become an expert in a more narrow area. It's just easier to build deeper expertise when you're narrowing your field of vision and you're observing the same situations and problems over and over again. So you deepen your expertise, you come up with some points of use, some observations, some things you're seeing. You want to challenge convention, et cetera, so you come up with these ideas, you write about these ideas. In this situation, you captured this idea, you wrote about it, but then at some point, beyond writing about it, those ideas get encapsulated into your body of work. Not your content creation, but your advisory work.

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: Does that make sense? So I'm assuming that you take that idea, and then you start to apply that to the advice that you give your clients.

DAVID: Absolutely. And I think there's a specific way to do this. This is a little bit mechanical and maybe this is just me being weird, but this is the way I think you should do it. So you have a concept and maybe you've written about it yet or maybe you haven't, and you want to begin incorporating that into your work. I think you are obligated, here I am being weird, I think you're obligated to write that down on a piece of paper, on your computer, print it out, and then have it with you or even have it as a file on your computer, and then when an opportunity presents itself with a client or a prospect to introduce this concept that you're beginning to formulate and think about incorporating into your work. When that moment comes, you either pull that slip of paper out of your day bag or you pull it up on your computer and say, "Hey, I've been thinking about that. Let me run something by you. These are the observations I've had so far, and I haven't totally formulated this thought, but I've really been thinking about it." End of how that works.

DAVID: If you don't take the risk of writing it down, then you tend to shape your idea around the current moment, which is not a very good test of it. So you need to articulate it as far as you can take it in writing, test it, and then revise it and test it again. So it's a minor little thing, but I've found that you make progress in articulating those ideas so much faster if you actually take a risk at multiple places along that path.

BLAIR: So I'm imagining somebody being in front of a client, and then the client says or does something and it inspires that someone, let's say it's an agency principal, to go, "Oh, you know what? Hold on. I've been thinking about this." And then you go to your notebook, you pull up the note and say, "Let me run this thing past you." And you run the idea past the client and say, "Do you think that's relevant in your situation?" Or, "Do you see any magic in it?" Or whatever. Is that what you're talking about?

DAVID: Yeah, exactly. And if you don't already have it written down, then you don't get credit for having thought of it. So you have to pull it out because it's already been to some degree articulated, and that's how you get credit for it with a client. It's very much like you're at the dinner table and you say, "All right. I want all of you to think of a question and I want you to write down your answer before you hear anybody else's." So that other people aren't influenced by it. This is a way to basically build that into this process where you're not too heavily influenced by the client, and they come up with an idea and then you say, "Oh my goodness. I've had the same thought. Look at this." And you pull it up, and then together you start to take this a little bit further. So it's just a real minor tip, but I found it to be really helpful.

BLAIR: It's almost like protecting your idea by writing it down, isn't it?

DAVID: Yeah. A little bit.

BLAIR: It reminds me of a story a scientist friend of mine told me recently. He said he was recently addressing a larger group of scientists and they were talking about a problem he's been working on for his whole career, and he summarized the problem in four words. And he's working on a monograph, which is a big publication based on his research. As he threw out his four word articulation of the lifelong problem he's been working on, everybody started to write it down and he realized the value of those words, and he said, "Stop. You can't use that line. That's the name of my next monograph." So everybody stopped and went, "Oh, okay. It's yours."

BLAIR: So it's interesting. When you're in a client meeting and you pay attention to the ideas that you throw out, the things that your clients start to write down. If your client's writing them down and you're talking in generalities rather than specifically about their situation, and they think, "Oh, that's good." And they write it down, that's probably a sign that that's an idea worth pursuing. And what I wanted to point out here is you write this article, you put the thought out there, and your content marketing attracts people to you, and I've said this before. They read or they engage for the content, your expertise, but they hire you for your point of view, and your point of view of, in this case, you've borrowed from a used car dealer this point of view on how account management advice should be packaged or looked at.

DAVID: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

BLAIR: And if somebody reads that content and they decide they want to hire you because of that, when they hire you, one of the things that they're looking for you to do is to bring that point of view to bear on their business. So my point is, we see content marketing as just, sometimes we just see it as bait, right? Oh, here's a novel idea that will catch people's interest. But if it really is a powerful idea, after you put it out there, you will start working on incorporating that idea into how you do what you do. So the ideas become first the subject of your content marketing, second, they start to get worked into the framework of how you do what you do, and if you extrapolate that all the way out to the end, eventually you're going to develop maybe even protectable IP around that.

DAVID: Right. And this is why we're still excited about the work that we're doing, because we keep learning. I absolutely love it. Using your example of paying attention when people write something down, I like to do that after a speaking engagement or on a break, see what people are writing down because those seem to be the most memorable things, and I've said them so many times that I don't even know that they're all that memorable, right? Or if I'm in the audience, I'll pay attention to what other people are writing down and thinking, "Oh, I need to pay attention. That must be something I should think about."

BLAIR: Yeah. We've covered a lot of stuff here. Is there anything that you want to close on? One last, like, a parting piece of advice that you want to give to our listeners who might be struggling with content creation?

DAVID: Yeah. So if they're excited, let's give them some ideas. If they're struggling with what to write about but they're committed to it, here's some quick ideas you and I have talked about. Like, what are the most common mistakes you see your clients make? Or critique some public example of something in your space. You could even turn it into a series where you repeat it monthly, like, big boo-boos that you've seen happen. Or how did things used to happen historically and why did they change and what's more interesting about it now? Or even just go interview people on the street about some topic that you're thinking about, and that will always spur some additional thoughts for you. Or maybe if you're really feeling brave, predict what your space or what your client space will look like in the future. Even if it isn't right, it will be a little bit provocative. So start with those ideas, and you're going to find that you'll have way more ideas than you can possibly develop. It's a fun process.

BLAIR: I like some of the points you just quickly rattled off. Essentially boring authority by just going and getting the opinions of others. Go find out what other people think-

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: And put that out there. And then once you see the patterns, then you'll start to come up with your own points of view on that.

DAVID: Yeah.

BLAIR: All right, David. This has been really helpful, really interesting too. Thank you very much. We'll speak to you next time.

DAVID: Bye, Blair.

David Baker