Using placeholder ideas in the creative process

Surrogate comments make surefire concepts

Jun 5, 2014 · 3 min read

All creativity begins with the moment of conception.

That little piece of kindling that gets the fire going. That initial source of inspiration that takes on a life of its own. That single note from which the entire symphony grows. That single spark of life that signals an idea’s movement value, almost screaming to us, something wants to be built here.

And so, in this new blog series, I’m going to be deconstructing my favorite moments of conception from popular movies. Each post will contain a video clip from a different film, along with a series of lessons we can learn from the characters.

Today’s clip comes from the Nike scene in What Women Want:

What can we learn?

Finished is the new perfect. Both executives agree the advertising copy needs work. Good. That’s the point of a brainstorming session. Not to have ideas that are complete, but to have ideas that are catapults. Now, if you look closely, the phrase on the storyboard reads, find the time. Which is insightful and interesting, but wrong. And that’s okay. It’s supposed to be wrong. It’s a placeholder idea. A surrogate. A dummy. Songwriters are famous for using this technique when writing lyrics. In fact, Paul McCartney famously used the phrase scrambled eggs as the placeholder lyric for the song Yesterday, until he found an appropriate title. And so, whether you’re writing songs or writing ads, the goal is to budget time so it’s not all sucked up by one step of the process. To prevent yourself from getting stuck on one particular idea, lest it holds up production for too long. For now, it’s not about thinking something up, it’s about getting something down. Order comes later.

Leave people’s campsites better. Darcy, the high powered executive man eater, the infamous bitch on wheels, speaks from a place of honesty and maybe even a little sexual frustration. She casually mentions the phrase no games in reference to the customer’s mindset. Nick’s radar senses that, not only because he can read her mind, but also because he’s equally infamous for being a player himself. What he does right, though, is unearth a valuable new opportunity in the midst of a conversation. He notices the phrase, affirms its potential and volleys the idea back to his partner. And, he shuts up before trying to add too much value the conversation. Instead of projecting his own meaning onto the other person, rushing in with the answer, he sits in companionable silence and gives his partner the space to breathe. And he puts himself in a supportive, encouraging position to help keep the momentum going until they come up with a solution. No game, just sports.

You can’t perform without an audience. Creative people have a tendency to fall in love with their own ideas. To disappear into their own heads and work from a myopic perspective. But the reality is, nothing happens until a sales is made, and nobody knows how good your product is until they give you money. Everything has two births. First as an idea, then as the real and tangible output of that idea. And without that kind of market feedback, you’re winking in the dark. You’re the tree that falls in the forest. I remember the first time I played one of my songs for a girl. At the tender age of sixteen, it was the first time I ever shared my original music with anybody. I was trembling, sweating, probably crying and possibly peeing. It’s hard to recall. The point is, I got the idea out of my head and into the world. And even though she broke up with me three weeks later on my birthday—that wench—at least I executed. Proving, that we don’t need an idea, we need an “I did.”

What’s your favorite movie moment of conception?


Written by

Author. Speaker. Songwriter. Filmmaker. Gameshow Host. Inventor. World Record Holder. I wear a nametag 24-7. Even to bed. My TED talk:

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