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The Idea in Idea Planet

I met Mike Ableman about 20 years ago at Skywalker Ranch, when the two of us were working on Star Wars, Episode 1, The Phantom Menace. He was working for Tracy Locke, and I was working for Tic Toc, The Imagination Company. We instantly hit it off and found we had very similar thoughts on how to engage consumers – Mike would glean key insights that we’d use to concept innovative ideas that I’d then bring to life. After numerous crazy days and nights at the Ranch, we knew we wanted to do something great together!

You’ve heard me pontificate quite a bit in the last few months, so I thought you might be ready for a change of pace and a little more insight on how we get to the ideas behind Idea Planet.

Without further ado, here’s Mike Ableman, my friend and business partner extraordinaire:


Thanks, Fleck – always loved visiting Skywalker Ranch, that particular visit was a life-changer, and it has been a wild ride ever since!

Ideas are my passion – and although I believe that there is no perfect formula for creating great marketing ideas, I have learned some lessons along my journey.

When I was just starting out in the marketing world as a copywriter at FCB, Chicago, I had the opportunity to see Cliff Freeman speak.

For those who don’t recognize the name, Cliff was an “ad god,” famous for his work that included the fast-talking FedEx Guy, the Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” campaign, the Snapple Lady and Little Caesar’s “Pizza Pizza.”

I sat, with my jaw dropped, as Cliff showed his reel. What most impressed me was simply how prolific he was. You see, I was in my third year working as a copywriter on a very large packaged goods business, and I already was, at least in my mind, tapped out. Fried. Completely void of good ideas. I had seen my sparks of brilliance quashed by the bureaucratic engine of my mega-client, and I sat behind mirrored glass, eating M&Ms, as “consumers” dissected and rejected my ideas in focus groups.

When he was done, Cliff asked if anyone had any questions, and my hand popped up and words tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop them.

“How do you come up with such great ideas?”

Without hesitation, the ad master responded, “I find great clients.”

It took me a long time to truly understand what Cliff was talking about.

About six years ago, Idea Planet had the opportunity to pitch the Chick-fil-A Kid’s Meal business. I will never forget meeting our client, David Salyers, for the first time. He sat at a table and said, “I promise that every time I sit across from you, I will be thinking about how I can add value to your business. If you promise to do the same, we will have a remarkable relationship.”

To me, there is nothing that defines a great client better. In fact, someone like that isn’t just a client – we call them Client-Partners.


Client-Partners have a few other key characteristics:

They challenge us.

At Idea Planet, we believe it is our job to challenge clients, but we also love clients that push back, to make us better. When Activision asked us to create a Destiny Ghost replica that could communicate with an Amazon Echo during game play, we had to create new software from scratch – and we did it. It is a never-been-done-before idea that we would have never done without a client pushing our boundaries.

They trust us.

Trust isn’t something that is handed out lightly. When Idea Planet is facing a challenge, we have a policy of full disclosure. If we are struggling with an idea, we share our thoughts and collaborate. When we are having a production challenge, we confront it and bring back solutions. Likewise, when we see an opportunity, we are quick to share it. Trust is a two-way street, and it has to be earned.

They take risks.

If a client trusts you, they are usually more willing to take risks. Lyft recently came to us with an unusual idea. They wanted to transform some SUVs into mobile, midway-style games to celebrate the Texas State Fair. It was only a thought, and they only had a month to make it happen. Our team of creatives and engineers developed viable concepts within 48 hours. Our client then had to believe in them enough to get internal buy-in (and budget). Four weeks later, a fleet of Car-nival Ride vehicles hit the road and Lyft social media blew up.

Client-Partners are a key component to doing great work, but now, some thirty years later, as I look at Idea Planet and some of the amazing work that we have done (thanks in large part to our Client-Partners), I believe Cliff Freeman only gave me part of the answer to the “How do you come up with such great ideas?” question. After-all, even the best Client-Partners need to be inspired by great thinking.

So, what are the other ingredients in the secret sauce that creates big marketing ideas?


Here is Idea Planet’s recipe:


When we hire team members, the number one thing we look for is that spark. That desire someone has to explore new ways of thinking. That restlessness that comes from what I like to call Wild Mind (thank you Natalie Goldberg!). The simple truth is that anyone can come up with the next amazing idea if they are willing to open up their eyes and ears to listen and learn.


You can’t expect consumers to be passionate about what you produce if you aren’t passionate about it first. Idea Planet has been working with movie studios including Disney, PIXAR, Universal, Sony and Fox for years. It just makes sense that our team members love movies. The same is true for our video game business. If you’re going to develop limited edition collectibles for Ubisoft, Sega, Activision and Microsoft, you really need to be a gamer. But those are pretty simple examples.

The truth is that sometimes you need to discover a passion. When we do idea development for Kimberly-Clark around childcare, we need to put ourselves into that mindset – even if our kids are in college. When we are brainstorming new candies for Topps and Bazooka, we have to fall in love with gummy worms (it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it!). If Southwest Airlines needs to capture the imagination of Milwaukee Brewers baseball fans, we need to know our balls and strikes. No matter what our challenge is, we embrace the passion of our client’s products and services – and the people that use them. We become fans. Actually, we become raving fans. And that passion comes through in everything we do.


At Idea Planet, inspiration is a sacred word. It is what our inquisitiveness strives to discover. It is what our passions feed on. We are constantly looking for new forms of inspiration, but here are three places we are most likely to find it:

1. History –

When we think of inspiration, we often think about the future. How will this idea be better than any idea before it? How will it change the paradigm forever? I can’t tell you how many times a client has asked us to come up with a never-been-done-before idea. But, in reality, one of the easiest places to find inspiration is in the past.

When Corner Bakery wanted us to help them reverse sinking sales, we flew to Chicago and met with the team that baked their first loaves of bread. We listened to them express their passion for sharing food and their belief that “food is love.” Many years ago, when Coca-Cola was experiencing a dramatic slump in sales, my team had the opportunity to spend days rummaging through the company archives. We found the original design parameters of the first Coca-Cola bottle. It included criteria like “It should be identifiable even if broken” and “It should be identifiable in the dark.” Earl R. Dean took on that challenge to develop a bottle inspired by the soda’s two ingredients, the coca leaf and the Kola nut. That history had been lost, and Coca-Cola had forgotten the importance of the shape of the bottle. This inspiration launched redesigned packaging featured in a new ad campaign – which quickly grew sales to new heights.

Sure, the future is important…but the past is priceless.

2. Elsewhere –

This may be the hardest place to look for inspiration, but it can be the most game-changing. When we are seeking new ideas, our natural tendency is to look in a very defined space. Back in 1989, I worked on the introduction of the Mazda Miata. The input briefing was filled with consumer research that presumably told us everything we needed to know. Consumers wanted to see sports cars racing down winding roads. Wet winding roads. They wanted to feel the car’s speed and energy. But when our team began developing concepts, we discovered a simple truth:

If you ask a box of questions, you get a box of answers.​

​In fact, almost every sports car ad you could find in 1989 featured a wet winding road. Some were mountain roads. Some were ocean roads. Some were race tracks. The most creative were rollercoaster roads and blender roads. But they were still winding roads. Instead of looking at the category, we looked at how other products were introduced. And we took things even further. We looked at how art museums showcased their new work and how jewelry was displayed. In the end, we introduced the Miata absolutely still. Framed like a piece of art. Guess what? People noticed.

The best place to look for inspiration is in the most unexpected places.

3. Consumers –

Everyone likes to say they are inspired by consumers, but in fact, most consumer inspiration is bogus.

There, I said it.

Let’s go back to my Miata story for a second. The research department thought they were giving us consumer inspiration. In reality, they were asking consumers a very defined set of questions that had absolutely nothing to do with their lives. People simply can’t articulate how they want to be introduced to a sports car, or what kind of kid’s meal toy they want, or what would get them to buy a new video game.

The best they can do is simply regurgitate what has been done before. Ask someone what would get them to buy a new shampoo, and they will probably use words like lather and fragrance. That’s because their reference point is most likely a Head & Shoulders commercial. Ask them to describe their ideal ketchup, and they’ll talk about richness and thickness, because that is what Heinz has been teaching them for over 100 years. That’s no knock on anyone – it’s just a simple truth that people report back what they know. And, what they know is what any given category has been telling them.

We do a lot of research at Idea Planet, but that research is quite different. We passionately believe that consumers should be the inspiration for ideas – not the target of them.

Think about it.

The whole concept of a Target Consumer is really a very antiquated one. Nobody wants to be the target of anything. On the other hand, everyone wants to be the inspiration of an idea. Have you ever had anyone write you a personal letter, a poem or a song? It’s kind of awesome. So, we put consumers in the enviable position of being the inspiration of everything we do. We spend a lot of time with consumers. In their homes. In their offices. Where they live, work and play. We talk to them, and we listen to them. But we don’t talk about our clients. Or their products. We talk to consumers about what’s important to them – and then we use that as inspiration for our ideas.

Big ideas are not created in a vacuum. And nobody has a monopoly on them. Cliff Freeman taught me that you can’t have great ideas without great clients. And I’ve learned over the years that if you are inquisitive and passionate – and willing to actually listen to what your consumers really care about – your imagination will soar, and chances are your ideas will fly, too.

Keep on Truckin’


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