Five suggestions for creative strategists
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.
@faris Well, I have been called out on that one. In fact I added a disclaimer so that people understand what I'm talking about.
@faris Haha! I immediately thought of you Faris when I read that part.
What was the campaign that won hundreds of creative awards? I want to steal that - I mean collide with it. : )
I was with you until the last paragraph, Edward. Because I think it is still VERY much about relationships to brands and categories. For an advocate certainly there is a sense of ownership and a desire for community and influence, but even at that level people are attracted to the commonality that a brand represents. We don't choose brands because they bow to our wishes. We choose them because we aspire to their image. We see something in the brand that fulfills us in some way and we mold ourselves and our lives to the brand, not the other way around.
The heart of your thought is true, that content and community play a bigger role than ever before in this equation. But all of that only serves as overlays that we tile onto a brand to give it life and depth and relevance to our lives. But the best brands know that at their core they need to stand for something that belongs to the brand's own objectives. These objectives should also be in line with what we believe will be the best interests of the customer, but when they are dictacted by the customer we end up with a communist brand of competing Bolsheviks. And that never works out well. ;)
Great post and awesome food for thought.
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@BobKnorpp You are dead on and that was a sloppy oversight on my part. Went back and fixed it to not only about relationship to brand, also about relationship to media and tech. Have to understand both. That's what I get for writing and proofing at 4 am with jetlag. But thanks for pointing it out. It's fixed and better now.
@Missmc I agree with you ... we're always involved in the new somehow. Great strategies create something new. Retrospectively it's an innovation path, when viewed historically.
I really enjoyed this post. I did a little research myself and I found that a guy called Sternberg said that if you’re really creative you “Buy low, sell high” in the realm of ideas. He meant that you pursue ideas that are unknown or out of favour, but that have high potential. Apparently this means us creative strategist types often encounter resistance.
Cool post. One thing I might add, though, is to ask students if they're interested in the world around them and do they have an innate desire to learn about anything and everything. In other words, are they like Curious George? Because if you're not always wondering about the world, you probably won't be able to inspire others to wonder about it much. Quick test: stand in front of a magazine display. You should feel like a kid in a candy store.
@JeffShattuck True. I got the sense that many were. Good questions. Lots of dialog. But what they're really curious about is getting a job when they're done.
For me #3 and #4 are critical. Crashing things together is great, but often we try and crash the same things together. it's the insight to reach into the unexpected sources and then mash them with the familiar that often surfaces great ideas.
Good post! One thing that was shown to me years ago that hangs in my office is Bruce Mau's an incomplete Manifesto for Growth. http://www.brucemaudesign.com/#112942/
Awesome post, Edward. But can I bicker with you about #1 - reductionism won't get you as far as studying interaction. You can't break down why good ads work, you have to study how their elements + culture work together. Old Spice is a great test case for this: W+K tried over several years to test the same elements that were in play with "The Man your Man .." but it struck cultural gold with that last iteration. If you just study the elements, reduced and isolated, you won't come to a full understanding. Study the interactions.
@bud_caddell Completely agree with that, and you might not be surprised to know that I shared that exact same point in talking about relationships with media/content/technology/community. And the inclusion of Iain Tait into a semi-traditional agency.