What is concepting, and why the heck should anybody pay for it?

By Mike Turner | September 14, 2016

When we describe the process for developing communications for our clients, they sometimes ask, what is concepting? Here’s an explanation of creative concepting, and why it’s important.

What is concepting? Concepting is an activity—but it doesn’t always seem like one. The participants are typically sitting—perhaps with their feet propped on a conference room table. At times, they talk. At other times, they seem to be studying the fascinating pattern of pockmarks in the acoustic ceiling tiles—possibly dreaming up new constellations. (“If you squint you can see a bunny rabbit.”) Is this really necessary? Also, isn’t the term “concepting” hugely pretentious?

Yes and yes. Starting with the second question and moving backwards (just because), the term “concepting” has an unfortunate air of snootiness. (If a client wanted to know what is concepting, we could just show them a desktop-sized reproduction of Rodin’s The Thinker and win gold in the World Insufferable Poser Championship.) We could possibly use “brainstorming,” a term most are familiar with, but a brainstorming meeting, while similar, is not precisely the same thing. It typically involves more people, often from many disciplines within the organization, and it’s a bit more of a free-for-all. A concepting session usually involves two or three people whose primary job is conceiving and executing ideas for strategically planned content. (“Content” is another unfortunate word, but I’m going to stay on task here.)

Why do we need a concepting meeting?

Most projects sound deceptively simple. Our client PrimeSouth Bank once asked us for an ad that would convey the bank’s long history in four south Georgia communities. It wouldn’t have taken us long to bang out an ad that said something like “Serving your communities since 1891.” But our writer/designer team came up with something much more engaging. They proposed a photo of a couple and their daughter, with copy that promised to serve the couple today and the daughter down the road—just as PrimeSouth has been doing for generations. What really gave the ad emotional resonance, though, was its playful reference to a college rivalry everybody in the area is familiar with. It’s the kind of gesture a big national bank would never do—and it’s proof that PrimeSouth truly understands its customers. That kind of idea only comes out of a concepting session. Our team had to come up with—and kill—many lesser ideas before they were inspired to create this one.


The first thing we do is review the creative brief.

Actually, that happens before we even go into a concepting meeting. It’s impossible to have a productive concepting meeting without the brief information not only on hand, but in mind. The creative brief informs the direction of our thinking. It tells us why we’re taking on the project, its aims, its audiences, and how we can measure its success, among other things. In short, it takes a good creative brief to bring about good creative.

Next, we get all obvious ideas out of the way.

Whatever ideas first come to our minds, the things we’ve seen before and are most familiar with, we immediately get that out of our system. If a client tasks us with selling a breath mint, we write every Tic Tac® association we can imagine on the whiteboard, then make every attempt to work outside of those listed associations. This is key to ensure your project is not some reheated version of a competitor’s. Nobody is truly excited about a microwave-ready meal.

Then, we chase down lines of thought.

It’s a game of “What if we did this,” in which a charade ensues and we try to quickly sell our counterpart on the notion. If something clicks, we go down that rabbit hole. If not, we wait for the next one, and pitch it twice as hard.
Each resource—that’s what we call copywriters, designers, illustrators, etc.—functions as a sort of check to the other’s ideas. If all works according to plan, an idea arises in which neither party can poke a hole; the idea floats despite the copywriter’s darts and the designer’s blades. We generally aim to have two, often three of these buoyant concepts before exposing them to a more abrasive rigor.

That next test? Strategy and sandpaper.

Now we ask ourselves: how difficult would it be to produce ideas A, B, and C, respectively? How expensive is each likely to be? Assuming a budget of X and a timeline of Y, we can easily rid ourselves of option B, and so on. If we’re lucky, we’ve got two ideas left standing. We’ll then take those to our Creative Director—the one here to remind us that whole lemons can still float.

We also bring in the Strategic Account Director. (This person doesn’t suddenly appear at this point in the process, but rather, early and often.) Strategic Account Directors understand the client and their target audience better than anyone, so they stand by to confirm that the creative remains in line with the brief, the client’s needs, and most importantly with the brand and its buyers.

We have lift-off.

Eventually, an idea passes our gauntlet, and it’s time to make a mock-up that we can show to our internal team and the client. The mock-up goes to the Creative Director, who puts a smiley-face sticker on it (sometimes right away, other times after some adjustment), and then it goes on to the Strategic Account Director. She has her own set of stickers and once she has applied one, the mock-up is ready for client eyes.

After all that, when the concept is out in the world and proving its worth, we might think back to the time spent bouncing ideas around and remember that this is why we love our jobs. It’s hard to come up with an idea, fall in love with it, and then push it aside when it doesn’t measure up. It’s hard but it’s also the most fun thing ever. And when it solves a problem for an appreciative client, we’re ecstatic.