Chemistry Lesson in Ideation

What does chemistry, a science, have anything to do with a creative effort like ideation? It’s silly. It’s preposterous. It’s ridiculous. If that’s how you feel, consider this document an entertaining work of science fiction. Or maybe you are intrigued, curious, a bit skeptical but interested to learn more. That’s exactly how I felt when I watched Google’s Dan Cobley speak about how physics explains branding. You can check it out @

Which industry spends the most on R&D? Pharmaceuticals. ABPI conducted an interesting international research study showing pharma companies spend an average 34% of their sales on drug research and development (down from 43% before recession / next highest industry is Aerospace at 8% / ref: That is astonishing! Equally amazing is the fact their R&D process is based on producing an infinite number of chemical compounds from a very finite number of elements, 118 to be exact. Every compound has a different chemical reaction. Pharma spends billions every year to find the compounds that cause the desirable reactions and do not cause undesirable reactions. Does this sound familiar? Marketing does the same thing. We use a number of predefined media elements to create an infinite number of solutions that ideally cause certain reactions in consumers (e.g. buy a product) without side effects (e.g. bad PR). But do not assume pharma research is all science. There are too many variables and potential outcomes. Intuition, experience, and talent has a lot to do with finding the right solution.

Let’s look at how we can leverage how pharma companies do their ideation (research and development). I will try to explain in a way that is relevant to marketing. First, let’s summarize their process into:
1. Simplifying the Ask
2. Ideation (1 or more of the 4 approaches used)
a. Traditional
b. Rational (also called Ligand)
c. Structural
d. Viral
3. Compare, not Eliminate
4. Amplify the Solution

1: Simplify the Ask
The first phase of ideation is learning what you truly need. I intentionally say ‘learning’ not ‘deciding’ or ‘describing’. This is probably the hardest step in ideation. Why? Because our nature is to develop solutions by creating walls and boundaries without even understanding which of them are real or perceived. These biases can be totally noble but can prevent you from finding the right solution. You have to understand what you need in its simplest form without the extra baggage that will complicate things later. For example, reduce the need from “a small, easy to swallow, sexy, cheap to produce (with minimal environmental impacts), no side effects… pill that decreases blood pressure” to “something that decreases blood pressure”.

2. Ideation
Most pharma companies use 1 or 2 of the following methods to discover drugs:

A) Traditional is equivalent to the ever popular “Trial and Error” where you create a compound and test it. If the test is unsuccessful, you try creating another compound until you find one that tests positively. Lots of non-pharma companies and agencies use the same tactic.
B) A rational approach involves three steps. First, you create a theoretical model of the target (e.g. cancer cell), oddly similar to agencies creating target consumer personas. Second, you use previous research and experience to create formulas for compounds most likely to cause the desired reaction. That’s very similar to agencies researching for similar solutions in the experience or market as a whole, then adapting them for their current needs. Third, you test your best candidates against your theoretical model and then real-life patients. For marketing, this is the equivalent of pre-testing a campaign with a focus group or small test market.
C) A structural approach relies on knowing not only the exact structure of the target but also specific places to which a compound can connect (covalent bonds). This is not done based on experience. This is about watching how the target behaves in its natural environment. This research is not done to validate previously researched compounds. Rather, this research looks at connections (even if they are considered totally irrelevant) to come up with totally new ideas. In marketing, people also have connections. In fact, marketers rely on emotions and desires to make their product attractive and relevant. We can look at what’s connected to specific emotions to determine our solution.
D) A viral approach is probably the most radical and least common method of research. Viruses mutate as their replication process is disrupted by a host, by another virus, or by random error. Pharma companies use this to organically create variations of specific compound in hopes of finding its best variant. I have never seen anything like this in a marketing context. One way this could work is to take a newspaper into your next brainstorm session. Just words in random news headlines could trigger interesting solution ideas, if not it will certainly provide an interesting distraction to your meeting.

3. Compare, don’t Eliminate
Lab researchers do not benefit from an army of executives and clients constantly looking over their shoulder and shooting down every compound they test. Instead, all the test compounds are compared together across a variety of factors. This is the most efficient way to compare a large number of compounds to identify top candidates. I wish the same took place in marketing. Instead of “this didn’t work the last time” or “the client would never approve this” or “our competitor is already doing it” or “this is too expensive or “we don’t have staff to do this”, you get a map of ideas across various scales like cost, opportunity, impact, on-brand, innovation, risk, ease of execution. Looking at multiple variables will show you the best candidates and if any of them have weaknesses, they are not shot down. They are dealt with in the next stage, amplification.

4. Amplify the Solution
In pharma, developing the solution to different scales carries different costs and different environmental risks. A compound may be extremely successful at addressing a specific sickness with minimal side effects but criminally illegal, environmentally damaging, and financially prohibitive to manufacture. So what do you do when you have the right idea but with a potentially critical weakness? You adapt it and scale it to remove the weakness or you overcome the weakness. I am not trying to encourage the practice of manufacturing drugs in third world countries with well-greased and weak environmental regulations. I am encouraging the practice of trying to overcome solution limitations, for example asking the client for more money if you have an excellent idea. Scaling ideas to their full potential can frequently overcome their weaknesses.

I appreciate there is a lot of creativity and talent that goes into ideation… but adding a bit of science to the process can provide the most explosive and successful solution.

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