The Power of an Athena Brainstorm
By Christine Rudloff, Director of Strategic Marketing & Events
The task of curating an innovative and creative marketing strategy can feel monumental to start. I relate it to the feeling of starting this article – the sheet of paper is clean and crisp, and I don’t want to dirty it up with the wrong pencil strokes. The pressure to have a stroke of genius mounts. But eventually, I give in to the process and start to stress-test my ideas – good or bad or ugly – until the words begin to make sense. I look back at my work and start to feel a sense of progress as my thoughts are refined into tangible and creative concepts.
This individual process of developing an idea can be even more effective when you bring others into it. A brainstorm welcomes all thoughts into the room and allows them to grow bigger and better by collecting insights from all involved. Athena leverages brainstorms every day to strengthen our work and ensure we are putting out the best product in the end. I have seen firsthand many moments where one small idea encourages another and another until – like magic – THE IDEA is found. Some of Athena’s most impactful projects began with a cross-section of our team gathering around the conference-room table and sharing their insights: NFL Huddle for 100, Ready. Set. Philly., Comcast’s Internet Essentials Back-to-School Campaign, and (my favorite) Philadelphia’s bid to host World Cup Games in 2026.
These powerful moments can happen time and time again if given the right environment and stage. Here are my tips for curating an engaging brainstorm that brings results.
Gather A Crowd
A worthwhile brainstorm starts with the brains in the room. Select a decent number of individuals (10 – 12) of varying backgrounds, ages, skill sets, and career points. This expands the types of ideas that will be contributed and allows for feedback from many demographics to be heard. If you only bring together subject-matter experts their ideas may fall flat because they have been heard before and feel stale to the group. Combining insights from newcomers and experts alike creates an energy that will drive the conversation forward.
Pro tip: Let the junior employees speak first. Their voices will grow louder if given a stage early on.
A well-thought-out agenda will be the backbone of your brainstorm. Planning when and how you want to introduce information will create a focus for the discussion. With a considerate agenda, you can build upon topics thoughtfully without overloading your participants with all the information at once. And, if you stick to it, you should be able to address all your topics in the allotted time – leaving no stone unturned.
Pro tip: Consider sending a simplified version of the agenda to attendees and preparing a more robust one for yourself. This allows your participants to feel prepared coming into the meeting without your revealing too much too soon.
Prepare Your Attendees
Do the work ahead of time to provide participants with a baseline of information needed to inform the discussion. Utilize pre-read materials such as background documents, previous brand work, videos, etc. to set the stage for the discussion. This also levels the playing field for all involved as they are all working with the same information. When helpful, include prompts or thought starters ahead of time for people to ruminate on.
Pro tip: Be mindful of when you share materials in advance, sometimes a day ahead is enough time but, in some instances, people will benefit from a week or more out to absorb the materials.
Create an Experience
A brainstorm encourages creative thought, so don’t stick to the normal meeting back and forth. Encourage an honest dialogue by starting with a lighthearted icebreaker that creates a space that welcomes any and all ideas. Identify exercises that take participants out of their comfort zone and make room for out-of-the-box ideas. This can be as simple as a sticky note exercise or dividing up into groups on specific topics. Whiteboards or easel notepads can be helpful tools for collecting ideas as they arise.
Pro tip: Breakout rooms are effective for large gatherings. Smaller groups tend to invite more discussion and participation from team members.
Write Every Idea Down (Yes, seriously)
Don’t let a good brainstorm go to waste by poor notetaking. Assign a team member to capture the notes of the discussion and use these to debrief following the session. I like to use these notes to create a word cloud to identify the concepts that participants returned to frequently during the discussion. This can be the visualization that sticks with everyone when conversations continue post-brainstorm.
The Athena team had to think big for Philadelphia’s bid for the FIFA World Cup. From brand building to social media messaging, find out how we brought the concept to life after the last brainstorm here.