I’m teaching this week at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. From what I can gather so far, in conversations with Professor Deb Morrison and instructor Dave Koranda, the program is more progressive than most. Deb plays the role of creative director for the program as well as a teacher, mentor and force of inspiration. Dave is busy inventing new classes that strive to help students learn the importance of widening their interests in order to become strategic problem solvers.
Later this morning I lecture to a class titled Curiosity for Strategists. From Dave Koranda’s syllabus:
The purpose of the class is to explore strategic thinking in advertising from perspectives that are a little broader than usually considered. Great account planners can see connections that most people can’t see. Hopefully each student will leave this class with an idea of what a great strategic or communication or connection planner can do.
It’s a worthy goal given the changing role and influence of modern digital strategists and of the need for traditional creative people to welcome their inputs and inspiration.
I’ve got 10 suggestions I’m sharing with the class. Here are five that I think might be the most important.
Learn to dissect
Anyone can identify a great idea from the past. It could be a story, a film, an ad, a performance. The tendency sometimes is to replicate it. After all if it worked once, why not again? But anything done, of course, is old. The trick is to take it apart and break it down. Why did it work? Was it a connection to culture? The way it portrayed a type of person? What it said about the user? It’s use of juxtaposition? Need practice? Just look at the new VW spot, The Force and figure out why it is so well-liked. It’s not about the car. It’s about the kind of family who owns one, how they raise their kids, and the joy of small creative moments. All of those can be replicated without regurgitating the idea.
Master the art of stealing*
This may seem a contradiction, but it’s not. The trick is to “steal” from somewhere else, outside the world in which you’re actually working. That, of course, means that you seek inspiration from lots of different places. Museums, theatre, distant culture, science, literature. Can’t get all your ideas from watching YouTube videos, you know. Here’s one of my all time favorites. A doodle by Picasso that I discovered on the fourth floor in the Musée Picasso in Paris. Gave me an idea for how to use editorial commentary in new ways and apply it to advertising. Turned into an ad campaign that successfully launched a new product and won hundreds of creative awards.
* It has recently been brought to my attention that some people may be interpreting this suggestion literally, as in take what you want with no regard for copyright laws or the rights of content creators and owners. That is not my intention at all. I use the word “steal” liberally as is inherent in the thought that “there is nothing new.” The example of “taking” a technique observed in a Picasso doodle and applying it to some other medium is a better example. Perhaps “borrowing,” or “building on” are better terms. Anyway, I hope this adds some clarity.
Find unexpected sources and look below the surface
Teachers are everywhere. Listen to Miles and you learn much of what you need to know about collaboration: a leader has to keep everything focused on the ultimate goal; learn to get out of the way; surround himself with young talent; let other people shine. From Atul Gawande, the brilliant surgeon, you can re-think how you get people to change behavior, overcome old habits, and cast aside the blind deferral we sometimes bestow on a single “creative director” who may not always have the right answer.
I’m thrilled to see that Dave has this thought in his syllabus. But nothing is more important to a strategist (or a creative thinker). Ideo shows us how how valuable it is in design thinking and problem solving. It’s already become the driving force behind the best new apps and uses of technology thanks to APIs and what we can to with them. And many of our favorite creative ideas, from Nike’s Chalkbot to Sour’s interactive videos are about crashing things together. Here’s a talk from Steven Johnson on the very topic.
Observe human from different angles
This is the obvious one, so I don’t really need to talk about it. But the one suggestion I will offer is this: it’s no longer only about relationships to brands and categories; it’s also about relationships to content, technology, media and most of all, community. So understand the latter as well as the former. Then start with your customer and what she needs, not your brand and what it wants. Even when it comes to advertising.
I’m assuming that I’ll learn as much as I teach. Will share it here when I do.