Season one, episode one of the hit TV show Mad Men opens on a hero in crisis.

Don Draper must devise a new ad campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes. 

But he’s stuck. He’s been pondering the campaign for days, and he’s got nothing.

Then, just as his client’s about to walk away from the table, infuriated that their high-priced ad agency is out of ideas…

.. inspiration strikes. And Draper saves the day with a groundbreaking idea for a new campaign.

But Mad Men isn’t real. It’s a fictional account of what life might have been like inside the high-end advertising agencies that dominated New York’s Madison Avenue in the 1960s.

Which means Draper's story isn’t really how an advertiser would come up with an idea for a hit campaign

… or is it?

Well, my basement has very little in common with Madison Avenue of the 1960s… (with the exception of being the office of an occasionally misogynistic old white guy who laughs at his own jokes far too often).

Yet, I’ve produced my fair share of profitable advertising hooks.

And in my humble experience, great advertising ideas come from eight specific places.

In the rest of this post, I’ll share exactly how you can tap into the eight sources of great advertising concepts. Just be forewarned, ChatGPT did not make the list.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s uncover the best places to find winning ad ideas.

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The Two Ps


I have yet to come across a product where the first time I see it, I know the exact advertising hook that is going to work. 

Unfortunately, like every other person who puts on their pants one leg at a time, I have to work hard to come up with innovative new advertising ideas.

And that hard work includes a LOT of time (way more than I would like) spent on the two Ps.

Pressure and Pondering

The pressure is your deadline. And deadlines suck. They can feel like the grim reaper waiting to bury your career if you don’t have some amazing new idea by Tuesday, April 25th, at 10:30 AM.

However, your deadline is also your ally. It’s what motivates your subconscious to dig and grind until you find something in your research and experience that lights a spark.

The pressure forces the pondering.

advertising ideas

Ever wonder how Don Draper gets his advertising ideas?

Some ad writers are faster on the uptake than others. But most of the great ones I know spend their fair share of time on deep thinking, a.k.a “pondering,” before they can generate a half-decent marketing concept.

Myself, I can’t write a grocery list, much less a winning advertising idea, without at least 48 hours to ponder.

For me, pondering involves going for long walks, talking to myself, and a healthy amount of self-loathing and performance anxiety. 

True to the plot of Mad Men’s first episode, pressure and pondering can produce a momentary bolt of advertising greatness.

Yet, without visiting the next seven places on this list, all the pressuring and pondering in the world will do you no good.

Living in your prospect’s world


As the story goes, when legendary copywriter Dan Kennedy was working on an advertising campaign for Proactiv, he spent weeks reading Teen Vogue.

The mental image of handlebar-mustachioed Dan Kennedy kicking back in his recliner, consuming one teeny-pop rag after another, is almost too much to bear.  

Whether this anecdote is true or not, the sentiment is spot on.

If you want to consistently come up with ads that change markets and produce millions of dollars…

… You can’t just walk the walk.

You have to live the walk.

You need to feel the same struggles, challenges, hopes and desires your prospects do.

Another famous mustachioed copywriter, Chris Haddad, uses a process that’s similar to method acting to climb into his target customer’s skin.

The bottom line is whatever process you use… the best advertising ideas come from going beyond surface-level desires.

This ad from Hollow Socks is a great example of messaging that comes from having an insider perspective.

advertising idea hollow socks

Ever wonder how Don Draper gets his advertising ideas?

It's an ad that screams, “I’m a hunter too, and I know how it feels to have your equipment fail you.”

It's an ad that lives in its prospect’s world.

Story Hunting


If you can weave a story into your ad, it instantly becomes more memorable.

But where do the best advertising stories come from?

Usually, they don’t just drop into your lap.

You have to go on the hunt for them.

I like to start my story hunting by interviewing founders. I have yet to met a founder who created their product or business without intention. 

Revealing the story behind that intention is a great way to show your target audience that the product you're advertising was created specifically for them.

The key to story hunting is to train your ear to listen for stories. 

If a founder or creator reveals an interesting, odd, or unique detail in the design process, that’s when you want to stop them in their tracks and ask more questions.

GameDay Tech Socks Ad

If you hear a customer hint at an experience that sounds almost too good to be true or too weird to be believed… ask questions that reveal the details behind their transformation.

John Carlton referred to this process as becoming a “sales detective.”

I like to think of it as hunting. Every product has a story behind it. As an advertiser, your job is to hunt that story down.

And the next place on our list is one of the best sources for finding advertising stories.

Reviews


If I have to come up with a new idea on short notice or I am struggling to get the creative juices flowing, I turn to customer reviews.

And the best reviews to study are usually the four-stars and the one-stars.

In my experience, those are the most honest reviews.

Also, those reviews typically include more detailed feedback than the 5-star reviews.

Detailed feedback that shares specific outcomes, problems, or experiences is what you’re looking for.

Those real-life experiences with your product often hold the key to discovering a unique advertising concept… one that will come across as relatable and desirable to your target customer.

Snowbird Ad, Too Advanced

Copying


The dad joke about copywriting is that it’s called that because all copywriters do is copy other ads that have worked.

There’s an element of truth to that horrible joke.

It goes without saying that plagiarism or ripping off another advertiser is for dirtbags. 

But there’s nothing wrong with taking a winning ad idea from another campaign and adapting it to yours.

For example, look at the headlines written by two advertising legends, John Carlton and Gary Halbert.

advertising idea carlton
advertising idea halbert

Which of these ads was published first? I actually don’t know. If you do, please share the answer in the comments below.

However, the point of these is NOT to identify who copied who.

It’s to show that even the greats… especially the greats… emulate what works.

One of the best ways to nourish your idea machine with proven ad concepts is to keep a swipe file… (or follow someone who shares their swipe file with you).

In addition to my swipe file, one of the best resources in my idea arsenal is David Garfinkel’s Advertising Headlines That Make You Rich.  

A quick flip through this book is enough to get the ideas flowing.

Testing


If there's a cheat code I’ve learned about advertising over the years, it is this….

… the best advertisers never test just one ad idea at a time.

Take, for example, legendary copywriter Carline Anglade-Cole.

She revealed in her book My Life as a 50+ Year Old White Male'' that she would submit four covers for every ad package she wrote.

advertising idea carline

Why not just pick the best one and submit that to her client?

Because you never know which one’s going to win. 

By submitting four covers with four different headlines and images for her ad packages, Carline quadrupled her chance of finding a winning ad. 

Testing more than one ad idea at a time is the fast track to finding your winning idea.

Every ad test my team runs includes 12 variations of the advertising concept.

We create variants of the copy and the headline and pair them with a different hook, creative or image. 

This method of testing does more than allow us to turn one ad idea into many.

More importantly, it helps us to learn about our customers, ideate, and iterate much faster than if we only tested one idea at a time.

Collaborating with your complement


When I first started in copywriting, I was NOT good at collaborating.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to team-up or with others. It’s just that I couldn't find another like-minded direct-response writer I was open to sharing ideas with.

I dare to say these types of solo efforts happen a lot in the golden age of work-from-home freelancing.

Yet what I learned more recently is I was looking for the wrong type of person to collaborate with.

Advertising is equal parts written and visual message.

So, the best collaboration happens when the ad writer collaborates with the ad designer.

One vantage point can inspire the other.

In fact, these days, I find the visual ideas of the content creators I work with fuel my ad writing as much as anything.

So, I’d encourage all writers to find a worthy visual creator to work alongside. And vice versa.

When two like-minded people approach the same goal from two complementary perspectives, you enhance your output.

The Magic Combo


The 8th source of great advertising ideas on this list is by far the best because it is a combo of all the others.

Every campaign is different. Every product has a unique appeal. And every market behaves a little differently from another.

So, you may or may not have a need to leverage all seven of the aforementioned sources of great advertising ideas.

But, in my experience, you’re going to combo at least two or three.

For instance, the magic equation for one of the most profitable Facebook Ad campaigns I've ever worked on looked something like this:

Step #1) Discovery of a unique product creation story after interviewing my client
Step #2) Adapt that story’s concept based on almost 40 years of experience living in my prospect’s world
Step #3) Ad test the rough draft to prove the concept
Step #4) Collaborate with an A-level content creator to give the ad more visual appeal

And that’s it.

Those four steps helped produce a winning ad that sold out the product I was advertising several times over.

Your best sources for great advertising Ideas


If there’s one takeaway I’d share, it’s that great advertising ideas rarely happen by chance. 

You have to constantly search for them.

And the more you search, the more you’ll notice similarities in how you discover those ideas.

Once you start to see patterns, you can go back to the sources and methods that spawned your ideas every time you need to produce another winning ad.

What's you go-to source for advertising inspiration? Share it in the comments below.


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