What If You Run Out of Creative Ideas?

Changing the World Is the Only Fit Work for a Grown ManHoward Luck Gossage is one of the great unsung advertising heroes of the 20th Century.

I didn’t know this until recently when I read Changing the World Is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man by Steve Harrison.

I picked up a copy on Drayton Bird’s recommendation, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a remarkable book.

As I read about Gossage’s life, I recognized many parallels between his career and mine — mostly in terms of feelings and thoughts I’ve had about doing client work.

For example, Gossage often feared that he would run out of creative selling ideas. Harrison writes:

Given Gossage’s inability to work in a team, and the agency’s promise never to palm clients off with secondary talent, it was he who was responsible for all the creative ideas. This put him under tremendous pressure. Sally Kemp was witness to this: “At times he was literally in despair and I can remember him tearing his hair and saying ‘I feel like I’m digging in my skull for gold and my skull is going to be empty and I’m going to have nothing but gold fillings under my nails and there’s going to be this empty skull.'” (Changing the World Is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man by Steve Harrison, p. 35)

I don’t know whether or not I’ve ever reached Gossage’s level of despair, but I’ve certainly felt the pressure of trying to come up with a big selling idea while under deadline.

When the ideas don’t come easily, it’s easy to let stress and fear creep in. What if the creative well has run dry? What if I run out of time?

It seems all copywriters struggle with the creative process and the business of actually writing copy.

I’m reminded of David Ogilvy’s arduous writing process, which he once described in a letter. In Step 9, he says, “If all else fails, I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone. This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy.”

It’s my personal belief that good selling ideas come from good research. The better the research you do, the better your ideas will be.

And if you are really worried about running out of creative ideas, you may want to try these three idea generation tips. I’ve used all three with good success.

Oh, and a few drinks never seems to hurt either.

-Ryan M. Healy


  • Walt Goshert

    November 28, 2012


    I like Ben’s approach… I read everything and load up with research and info before I write.

    Also, the Seinfeld approach works. Everything is a story.

    Got out of bed. A little stiff. Missed with one pant leg.We all make mistakes. Even right outta bed. Do something RIGHT. Before your first cup of coffee, head on over to …


    Or, forget it- your day is off to a rough start.

    Load your coffee up with rum.

    • Ryan M. Healy

      November 28, 2012

      Good stuff.

      I think Gossage was probably under more stress than the average copywriter because he had some spectacular successes early on. It’s difficult to have breakthrough ideas for every project you’re working on.

  • Ian Brodie

    November 28, 2012

    That rang a lot of bells – thanks Ryan.

    Creativity is a bit easier for me as I write for myself rather than for clients. So I can sort of choose what I want to focus on (though that choice in itself can make thinking difficult) rather than having to come up with something good for a very specific purpose.


  • Michael White

    November 28, 2012

    I’ve found this little book handy. A Technique for Producing Ideas. By James Webb Young.

    • Ryan M. Healy

      November 28, 2012

      That’s a good one. I’ve got it on my Kindle.

      • John Thomas

        November 28, 2012

        That is a particularly excellent book. And it’s brevity is convenient for review, too. :-)

  • Bruce Bendiner

    November 29, 2012

    Want more on Gossage? Do try The Book of Gossage.

    • Ryan M. Healy

      December 6, 2012

      I plan to pick up a copy. Thanks, Bruce. :-)

  • Steve

    December 6, 2012

    Sounds to me like good rum produces good ideas (assuming talent to begin with, of course). He’s not the first writer to have discovered the power of a little alcohol to loosen things up. Other use grass. Jazz musician were (maybe still are) notorious for this. Whatever floats your boat. Of course, these human realities are not trumpeted from the roof-tops; society has need of hypocrisy to protect itself from those who exaggerate these human foibles, so it keeps silent about them.

    • Ryan M. Healy

      December 6, 2012

      Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was born out of his use of LSD. And Stephen King was once so addicted to cocaine that he doesn’t remember writing a single word of Cujo.