Good ideas are worthless until you make them real

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Joel Stein is a freelance content and creativity consultant, and author of Idea Tactics - a card deck, published by Pip Decks, that helps people push past obvious ideas to find and polish the gems.

Biggest fuck up?

My biggest fuck-ups are probably good ideas that I didn’t pursue but wish I had. For example, annoyed by constantly searching for the TV remote, I had the idea for what we now know as Air Tags shortly after getting my first mobile phone in 1998; “What if we could just stick SIM cards + bleepers on stuff?” Now the item tracking market is worth somewhere between $362 million and $1.81 billion (I estimated this with some help from ChatGPT – might be complete bullshit). I could have probably retired by now if 13-year-old Joel was a little more entrepreneurial. 

I guess the lesson here is that good ideas are worthless until you make them real. That doesn’t mean that “ideas are cheap” or “execution is everything” (yawn) – it just means that when you land on a brilliant concept, you owe it to yourself and the world to act on it. 

It’s also a reminder to keep the “what if…?” spirit alive that tends to come more naturally in our youth. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an inventor/mad scientist/cartoonist when I grew up. I’m noticing more grey hairs every day, so the mad scientist bit is coming along nicely. Cartoon-wise, room for improvement, but I’m attending an expressive doodling workshop next week, so watch out Pixar! Invention-wise, I’m cooking up a new thing or two, but if I told you any more, I’d have to kill you (using science – twisted, horrible science).

Rant

I have a love/hate relationship with the word “content”. Content basically means “stuff” – on one level, that’s fine, but I’ve also seen too many instances where organisations don’t produce or maintain content with the level of care it deserves, don’t properly value skills in copywriting or content design, and churn out stuff that’s mediocre at best, misleading and brand-weakening at worst. 

I sense that the word “content” is part of the problem; when people talk about “content”, they often just mean stuff to fill a space, to game an algorithm, or to mindlessly carpet-bomb their audience with.

But we all know that to inspire meaningful action from real humans, you need humour and stories and things that hit you in the feels. You need to treat your audience’s precious attention with respect. Every word and image you offer them is either a love letter or an insult. You can help people feel truly, deeply understood, or you can just bark instructions at them and hope a few lose the will to resist (the default setting in too many cases). 

Think about Alton Towers. “Vertical drop ride” is content. But “Oblivion” is poetry. I wish more people who call themselves marketers understood this. I wish more UX practitioners felt this in their bones. But the black hole of shite only seems to expand by the day. 

Useful advice

I know you asked for one really useful piece of advice, but where’s the fun in slavishly following a brief, eh? So here are three things I’ve learned, thanks to feedback from others and figuring shit out for myself: 

  1. Spend more time making your PowerPoints look nice

The medium is the message, right? I’ve presented some proper ugly slides to clients in the past, but strong thinking needs solid design to be taken seriously. But also, don’t default to communicating everything in fucking PowerPoint! Try writing coherent long-form memos once in a while! 

  1. Broaden your professional horizons

If you’re in brand strategy, for example, learn about UX (or whatever) and follow smart people in that bubble. If you’re a creative director, break out of the adland echo chamber and seek perspectives from elsewhere. Be the person in your field with a unique angle – combine ways of seeing that nobody else can offer.

  1. Write as much as you can

It’s boring and fairly ubiquitous advice, but writing helps you organise and develop your thoughts and is one of the best ways to cultivate and radiate your interests – a great way to invite more serendipity into your life. So yeah, write. Write and get lucky. 

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