Got a creative creative process

Rumpelstiltskin's managerial style definitely wouldn't cut it in today's business world.

Rumpelstiltskin’s managerial style definitely wouldn’t cut it in today’s business world.

But his success in getting his staff to spin straw into gold on demand would be the envy of marketers and agencies alike – if you substitute brain power for straw and competition-clobbering creativity for gold.

We asked industry experts what they do to get the creative juices flowing within their own cubicled hives and how they ensure that the results are profitably channeled.

Sandra Enns Arnell, CD for the D71 and dramatic networks divisions at Toronto’s Alliance Atlantis Communications, starkly expresses exactly what’s at stake in this context: ‘Creativity and innovation are vital because only the strongest brands will survive.’

Everyone agrees that the ‘gold’ that captures today’s ad-besieged consumers is innovative distinctiveness. What’s not as well understood is how to produce this treasure with Rumpelstiltskinian reliability.

Yet all our interviewees concur with brand consultant Mike Welling that there’s never been a greater need to stimulate the steady production of creative ideas ‘because now, people are so pushed they don’t feel they can look at the big picture in growing their brands.

‘And many [marketers] know they’re not creating the circumstances that make it easy for their agency partners to do great stuff,’ says the former VP of brand development in Unilever Canada’s food division.

Now a principal at Toronto’s LeveL5 Strategic Brand Advisors, Welling says he and his colleagues work with clients in the manufacturing, telecommunications, financial services and computer gaming industries. ‘And it never ceases to amaze us the number of people who, because of the silo mentality, don’t leverage their internal resources to collaboratively come up with ideas and strategies.’

Adds Ian Mirlin, CCO at the Toronto headquarters of MacLaren McCann, there’s a mistaken assumption that creativity is solely the responsibility of the creative department.

‘That’s wrong,’ he says, ‘because what’s needed is to capitalize on all the talent cross-departmentally in an environment that allows everyone to bring their best to the table. And that includes fresh perspectives from people who may not be on your formal creative team.’

Here is more sage advice from Mirlin, Welling and other marketers and agency experts. All are dreaming up techniques to foster creativity within their own walls.

Schedule eureka time

‘No one knows where innovative thinking comes from,’ notes Graham Robertson, director of marketing, consumer health care at Toronto-based Pfizer Canada. ‘A lot of times, it comes from out of nowhere. So you need to set up times when your people actually can think up things from out of nowhere.’

In his division, Robertson says that means scheduling what they call ‘no meeting’ Thursday afternoon sessions for which staffers are invited to the company cafeteria, away from distractions.

‘Each session is hosted by a specific brand, which poses a particular problem and makes a game out of getting people to solve it,’ he explains. ‘For example, the Reactine team might pose a riddle having to do with taking advantage of the [antihistamine] product’s non-drowsy effect.’

To foster both creativity and ‘work/life balance,’ says Robertson, his division also recently became the first unit of Pfizer worldwide to ban all e-mails and voice mails on weekends and after 6 p.m. on week days. As well, no meetings are scheduled past 4:30pm.

‘After all,’ he explains, ‘if you’re sending out e-mails at 10:36 p.m., how can you possibly be fresh when you get in at 8:30 the next day?’

Having this mandatory 12-hour break has translated into not only a higher-quality flow of ideas, says Robertson, but also a morale boost that saw the results of the company’s annual internal survey soar from 67% who said they were proud to work for Pfizer to 97%. (See sidebar below for some interesting empirical back-up for such policies.)

Blue sky it

Encourage your people to think as big and as boldly as they possibly can, initially ‘blue skying’ every concept as if budgets were no object, advises Muriel Solomon, Alliance Atlantis’s director of marketing and publicity for lifestyle channels.

‘What’s interesting is how much broader the thinking of our creative team has become,’ notes Alliance’s Enns Arnell. ‘When they approach a campaign now, they’re thinking of viral, mobile content, innovative media possibilities, guerrilla marketing stunts. Their purview has had to extend to all these areas.’

What has that broadening effect led to? Plenty, says Solomon. She points to the concept of Mike Holmes, host of renovation show Holmes on Homes, becoming a

comic book superhero. ‘We dominated subway interiors and had Mike Holmes lookalikes at consumer shows to distribute postcards featuring our print creative and renovation tips.’

Create ego-free zones

‘If anyone tries to intimidate others to show that they’re the big cheese,’ says Welling, ‘that’s not going to be a great catalyst to getting people to contribute.’

So, to ensure that the lower-downs aren’t too inhibited to freely voice their thoughts, Mirlin says ‘always remember what Quincy Jones told all the musical greats who were recording ‘We Are the World’ – to check their egos at the door because the only star in the room was the song.

‘We tell people ‘Check your egos at the door because the only hero in this room is the idea.”

Enns Arnell concurs and believes ‘the most important thing in any brainstorm session is to create a safe and supportive environment.’ So make sure your people know that ‘there really is no such thing as a bad idea.’

As well, she adds, it’s important to keep in mind that a good idea can come from anyone. ‘It doesn’t really matter where an idea comes from as long as it’s the right idea for the campaign.’

Henry Wong, CD at Toronto’s Campbell Michener & Lee agency, agrees, saying that ‘what creativity is really all about is being able to break from the formula. So the best ideas [may come from non-creatives who] see things from a completely different perspective.’

That’s why he says people ‘who have nothing to do with a particular project but chime in anyway, and perhaps provide the spark of an idea’ are valued. This happens not only during informal chats at the agency, but also at lunch sessions on specific challenges.

‘We got some great stuff, for instance, out of [a recent lunch session] about possible innovative uses for Benecol, which is a cholesterol-reducing margarine product.’

Wong also believes in allowing staffers to take water cooler breaks to get them thinking freely. ‘My responsibility is to create a breeding ground for ideas,’ says Wong. ‘[That's why] I encourage Monday morning water cooler time. Instead of people [going straight] to work, we talk about whatever we did over the weekend.

‘It’s really surprising how much you learn about parts of life other than advertising – whether it’s rock climbing or someone planning a wedding. And we find that the ‘anything goes’ discussion at the beginning of the week really nudges people into thinking in different ways about what they’re working on.’

Leverage peer power

A peer review system has been in place at DDB Canada’s Vancouver headquarters for well over 10 years ‘and it has worked really well for us,’ says agency CD Alan Russell.

‘The idea is the opposite of what happens at many traditional agencies, where people tend to hide their work and only show it to the CD for approval. We think that’s crazy because, when you’ve got all these very talented creative people, why wouldn’t you tap into that?

‘We also believe in exposing the creative while it’s still in the embryonic stage,’ says Russell. This involves ‘having the creatives pin their drawings up on a corkboard in very rudimentary form. Then they invite people in, one by one, to comment. That works as a litmus test to see what’s working and what’s not, and what people are gravitating towards.

‘We purposely don’t do actual layouts because it’s really all about the idea, and if people can see that an idea is working even as just a squiggle on a piece of paper, we know it’s going to work when it’s fleshed out properly.

‘Sometimes,’ adds Russell, ‘we even invite clients in at an early stage to narrow down the possible directions. Doing that at this stage means we haven’t spent a ton of the client’s money developing something on computer or getting storyboards made up. Plus, it makes clients feel a lot more involved in the process, and being collaborative like this can only make for a better product in the end.’

Russell also believes it’s beneficial to get his teams out of the office. They regularly take early-stage sketches out at lunchtime to show them to passersby and videotape their reactions. ‘It’s sort of a disaster check for comprehension and to see if people laugh and smile and get the message.’

Sometimes, he says, this practice can result in client-mollifying evidence when a proposed approach ‘might seem pretty out there’ – as happened in the past with a campaign for B.C. Dairy. ‘It was a bizarre sort of thing with heads stuck on feet, and we thought the client might worry. But every kid we approached on the street – and they were the target audience – just howled with laughter and thought it was tremendous.’

Similarly, to get his team at Campbell, Michener & Lee thinking, ‘one of our philosophies is to actually get out beyond the walls of the agency from time to time,’ says Wong. To get themselves in the right frame of mind for the launch of a new product from Siena Foods, for example, he took his team to a farm ‘to hang out with the people who actually produce the food.’

Take time to play

‘Physiologically, more blood flows to the brain when you’re laughing than when you’re all scrunched up and tense,’ Welling points out. So he advises starting sessions with ‘silly little exercises that are completely unrelated to the topic at hand to get people laughing and talking. That kick-starts things when you’re ready to get down to business.’

Meanwhile, at Nike Canada, whenever what Derek Kent, head of communications, calls ‘creativity sessions’ are held the participants’ imaginations get a bit of prompting from the passing around of pertinent objects.

To come up with the concept for a TV spot tied to the recent Winter Olympics, for example, the product was hockey skates and the objects included hockey sticks and pucks. ‘The seeds for what eventually ended up on the air were definitely planted during those sessions,’ says Kent.

Nike teams keep the ideas that come flying organized by having someone write them on whiteboards in different colours to indicate distinct potential directions.

Similarly, says Enns Arnell, at Alliance Atlantis, ‘we do a show-and-tell with case studies in innovation – be it strategic partnerships and guerrilla marketing or simply creative that really cuts through. This inspires us to push harder and achieve greater heights with our own creative.’

Try virtual collaboration

Pfizer Canada is one of a growing number of companies that is recreating the good old suggestion box online, says Robertson. ‘We have an Intranet site called Project Speak Up, where anyone in the company can submit ideas and win prizes. One of the initiatives that directly arose from that was creating a feeling of urgency with one of our products by positioning it as being available for a limited time only.’

Going a step farther, according to a recent article in Fortune, are such large U.S. companies as Georgia-Pacific, Sun Life Financial and ChevronTexaco, all of which run brainstorming sessions online with specially designed software.

The idea is to enable staffers located far from one another to collaborate on solutions to particular problems, building on each participant’s contributions.

Brainstorm with external partners

Innovation is the life blood of not-for-profit organizations such as Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, says its director of corporate partnerships, Sharon Jones.

‘That’s why,’ she says, ‘about three years ago, we set up a volunteer advisory board that includes people from some of the top advertising and brand strategy agencies along with PR folks, media relations and promotional people.

‘We bring them together with donors and potential donors to brainstorm about how we can create win-win situations with companies that might benefit from co-branding with Sick Kids.

A good example of this was the [recent] Change for Change promotion in which Volvo dealers throughout the Toronto area gave a portion of the price of all their oil changes to the hospital. It not only raised about $50,000 for us, it also raised their profile in terms of charitable giving.’

Something that’s currently being explored by her advisory board – which may prove to be even more profitable for Sick Kids and its eventual commercial participants – says Jones, is ‘entering the new cyber frontier of fundraising with promotions that persuade people to add a dollar or two to their online purchases for Sick Kids.’

Get boss buy-in

Welling and others are adamant that none of the above is likely to happen if the top brass aren’t solidly behind the concept that creativity can come from within as well as without.

‘Management itself needs to get involved,’ he says, ‘because they are the only people who can ensure that an organization harvests what’s growing within its own walls.’

Proof that you need to love your staff

Interesting empirical back-up for many of the practices discussed above was produced last year by the head of Harvard Business School’s Entrepreneurial Management Unit – Teresa Amabile, who is regarded as the only tenured professor at a top American business school focusing exclusively on the study of creativity.

In an interview in the Harvard University Gazette, Amabile described spending eight years analyzing more than 12,000 daily journal entries from 200-plus people who were working on creative projects at high-tech, consumer products and chemical companies.

To cite one of her myth-busting findings, Amabile produced data indicating that people are actually the least creative when they are fighting the clock. This confers legitimacy on practices such as Pfizer Canada’s banning of e-mail and voice mail after hours. Additionally, she found that competition and fear of retribution obstruct employees from doing their best creative work and that salary isn’t a factor in creative output.

Amabile also found that managers and leaders need to give employees the time, space and mental energy necessary for creativity, suggesting the companies profiled in the accompanying piece are on the right track. As well, they must guard their staff against ‘all the garbage’ in the workplace, check their staff’s feelings about their work, and protect resources.

‘Positive feelings – joy, love – are positively related to creativity, and the negative emotions – anger, fear, sadness – are negatively related to day-by-day creativity,’ she told the Gazette.