May 30, 2024

Winning with content marketing: How to think up game-changing content ideas like a Mad Man


Content marketing is the great leveler today. You don’t need big-time resources to compete with bigger organizations. What you need is relevant content your customers want, need and desire.

Your ability to come up with original ideas for publishing content is the differentiator. Train your mind to produce better ideas and you can win the content marketing game. Napoleon Hill said, “All achievements, all earned riches, have their beginnings in an idea.”

This takes me back to a personal story from several years ago.

When my nephew Ben was seven years old, I was his hero. One day at the kitchen table he asked me, “What do you do at work, Uncle John?”

For a split second I froze. How on earth do you explain direct marketing to a seven-year-old? Then I saw a direct mail sample sitting on the table. Holding it up I said, “This is what I do.”

He studied it a moment. “Did you make this?”

“Well no. I had an artist design it for me.”

“Oh …”

He looked at it again. “Then you wrote the words?”

“Ah, no-o-o,” I answered, shifting in my chair. “I had a copywriter write the words for me.”

Now I sensed his bewilderment. Would his illusions about me hit the ground with a thud?

Then inspiration struck. I explained how the artist and writer created it from my original idea. “I started with the idea, and they made this,” I said.

He lit up in a flash of comprehension. “You were the idea man!” he exclaimed.

So it is with content marketing. Every good piece of content starts with an idea. One of the biggest challenges of content marketing is to consistently come up with new ideas for publishing. If only there was a formula for this …

Meet the original idea man

Turns out there is a formula. It was conceived by James Webb Young, the original “idea man.”

Young was among the first generation of Mad Men and is known for producing several game-changing ideas that are still used by marketers today.

He began his career as a copywriter for J. Walter Thompson in 1912. Besides writing copy for many successful ads, he is credited with pioneering the use of testimonials, coupons and the money-back guarantee.

James Webb Young content ideas

James Webb Young

In 1939 he wrote A Technique for Producing Ideas, a powerful little book that has influenced not only advertising copywriters, but also engineers, scientists, poets and painters. I think we will soon be able to add content marketers to that list.

Young’s study of prolific idea-producers found they use a thought process that aligns known facts with new interrelationships. They are continuously preoccupied with the possibilities of new combinations between facts and data points.

As this relates to creating ideas for marketing communications, he said:

“In advertising, an idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge about life and events.”

His book lays out five steps and two principles for generating new creative ideas. The first principle is that an idea is a new combination. The second is that the ability to generate new combinations depends on your ability to see relationships between different elements.

These principles work together like a kaleidoscope. Several pieces of colored glass viewed through a prism produce limitless geometric designs. Each turn of the kaleidoscope organizes the bits of glass into new patterns in unique relationship to each other.

These principles help you generate new ideas by following Young’s five-step process.

5 steps to thinking up new ideas for content marketing

The key to making the process work for you is to follow the steps in sequence, because each step builds on previous steps.


Gather raw material

This is analogous to the bits of glass. You build a pool of raw material, i.e. research of facts and data for both the immediate, specific problem, and for your store of general knowledge.


Digest the material

This is like the turning of the kaleidoscope. You turn the facts over in your mind seeing relationships and how two specific facts fit together.



Here you step away from the work and let the combinations marinate in your subconscious mind by focusing on another activity. Do something unrelated that stimulates your emotional, creative mind such as listening to music, watching a movie or reading poetry. This is an important step for which Young says you should “make no effort of a direct nature.”


Flash of inspiration

This is the “eureka” moment where seemingly out of nowhere, the idea comes. Often it comes during mundane activities like bathing or sleeping.



The final step is to make the idea ready for real-world application. Submit it to others for criticism to ensure it fits the exact conditions and practical resolution of the problem. The value of this step is that when others see your idea, it can stimulate additional possibilities you had not considered.

Power up your content marketing

The exciting thing about content marketing is you can win with great ideas no matter the size of your competition. It levels the playing field. Sam Walton once said, “Our best ideas come from clerks and stock boys.” You don’t need a team of MBAs or a Fortune 500 marketing budget to succeed. You just need to outplay competitors with game-changing content ideas.

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