Where do ideas come from?
Published: August 21, 2019

I’ve always loved writing. No idea where this love comes from. My Dad was an engineer. My Mum worked in a shop. But they both shared a love of reading. The written word was always important to them, and it became vitally important to me. Little did I know, that as a young lad, living in a prefab on a council estate in Newcastle, my life would be spent writing, writing, writing.

After gaining a Law degree I sat, wondering what I could do to earn a living. I met someone who’d just finished a course in copywriting.

‘As in copyright?’ I said, somewhat foolishly.

‘No, copywriting, as in writing ads,’ they said.

It was eureka moment number one. I’d seen ads on TV, posters and press. I was sure I could write ones just as good as those. And so began a long career as an advertising copywriter and Creative Director. I loved the job. Writing for all sorts of clients, travelling the world, getting paid for coming up with crazy ideas. What’s not to like?

But deep down I wasn’t one hundred per cent fulfilled. Each ad has to be written to a tight brief. You have to write for campaigns you didn’t always like. Your best ideas were often rejected. I wanted to write my own words, to my own brief. I wanted to write a book. But, as any self-respecting author will tell you, it helps if you have an idea.

My idea came to me in Bath, not the bath, but the place in Somerset. I’d been working as Creative Director for Comic Relief. One day we visited a project supported by the charity. It was a beautiful day. We were in a gorgeous city. But the reason we were there wasn’t so nice – domestic violence. Some of the money raised on Red Nose Day was used to support a refuge for women and children who’d suffered as a result of domestic abuse.

It was here that I can across a teenage boy. He could barely speak about his experiences at home. And that’s when my writer’s block was unblocked. I thought, wouldn’t it be good to look at the issue of domestic violence from the viewpoint of a teenage boy. But as I mulled the idea over, I knew that it wasn’t enough. The story needed to go somewhere, the character had to do something to help his Mam. Eureka moment number two. I thought what if it’s the lad’s Mam’s boyfriend who’s being abusive. To sort this guy out the lad goes in search of the Dad he’s never met. I had all the strands of the story. On top of that, I had the title. Me Mam.Me Dad. Me.

I won’t go into the writing of the book. That’s worth at least another five blogs. But what I will say is how much I loved writing it, and how much pleasure the book has given me in return. The shortlists, the nominations, the Redbridge Award, the newspaper reviews, the comments on Amazon, the books signings at schools, the emails from teachers, the notes from the boys and girls who’ve read it. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

But laurels aren’t there to be rested on. Time for another eureka moment. I’d been thinking long and hard about what to write my next book about. The answer, unfortunately, lay all around me. Homelessness. It’s a topic that never seems to be out of the news. But I didn’t want to write about those on the streets, I wanted to focus on the homeless you don’t see, those who have nowhere they can call home, moving from sofa to sofa to secure a night’s sleep. I also wanted to set the story somewhere different, where perhaps you wouldn’t expect to find the homeless – in a little town in West Yorkshire.

The book is out in February 2020. It’s called Sofa Surfer.

Lessons to be learned.

I believe there are lessons here that can help a business owner uncover the ideas that will help transform their company.

The first is to follow your passion. You can’t write a good story unless you’re passionate about it. You can’t grow a business that you don’t care for. What drives you will drive your company. If you don’t have a clear vision, then how can you expect your team or your customers to get behind you? All successful companies have a strong purpose, vision and values. It’s the superglue that holds the team together and drives them forward.

The second lesson is to keep looking for those eureka moments. I know it’s hard when you’re running a business to be both CEO and brainwave generator. There are so many fires to be put out on a daily basis, so many mouths to feed, it’s difficult to find time for a bit of blue-sky thinking. But no-one got big by thinking small. You need to find time to stare out of the window and think.

The third is to seek help. Even as a long-standing creative, I don’t have all the answers. To get Me Mam. Me Dad. Me. in the best possible shape required an agent, a publisher, a proofreader. To get that extra ten per cent you need other people to cast an eye over what you’re doing. The same is true in business. The most successful business owners didn’t get to the top on their own. They had mentors, advisers, guiding them, helping them achieve their aims.

The fourth is perseverance. I wrote eighteen drafts of my book. I wish I’d got it right first time, but I didn’t. Writing is rewriting. Each new draft was better than the last. The same goes for business. James Dyson didn’t get it right first time either. It took fifteen years and 5,127 prototypes before he’d created a bagless vacuum cleaner that was ready for market. And if your energy’s flagging after many setbacks hire people brimming with ambition and ideas. You need to maintain momentum.

Last, but not least, enjoy the journey. That was the best piece of advice anyone gave me when I set up my advertising agency. Writing a book is a long journey, so is growing a business. The journey won’t always be enjoyable, that’s not the real world, but you must try to make the journey as joyous as you can. In writing it’s about finding a great idea for a story and telling it as best you can. In business, it’s about creating something you and your team can be proud of.

Malcolm Duffy is Creative Director of BGI.