Archive for May, 2007

I love rants. Especially rants that relate to the world of business. And most especially rants about things that I myself have had to endure. I found this brilliant little bit of catharsis on adliterate.com this week, and since it is relevant to this blog’s theme, I thought I’d share.


I hate brainstorms.

I hate running them, I hate contributing to them and I hate using them to solve problems.

They waste huge amounts of time and talent and they are no fucking good at delivering decent ideas.

And so six months ago I cleansed my professional life of this Trojan horse of mediocrity, favoring aggregated individual working or two person thinking sessions.

I suggest it’s time you gave them the boot too.

Death to the brainstorm. Long live great ideas.

The idea of the brainstorm was developed in the 1930s by Alex Faickney Osborne, the O in BBDO (which he founded in 1919 with his mates Batten, Barton and Durstine) and popularized in a book he wrote on the subject called Applied Imagination.

Osborne believed that when creating ideas quantity breeds quality – that if you can generate enough ideas somewhere in all the swill will be gold dust.

And so that’s what he built his brainstorming technique to do – deliver quantity over quality. Kind of like a Starbucks for creative thinking, you know once in a while they make a decent cup of coffee. Brainstormers are supposed to focus on quantity, not criticize other people’s ideas, be as ‘wild’ as they want and to combine and improve existing ideas.

These rules are so pervasive in contemporary business that even the cretins on The Apprentice seem to have learned them. And it is these rules that are at the heart of the ghastliness of the brainstorm experience . An experience in which too many people, with little ultimate responsibility for the quality of the outcome whitter on for far too long to the increasing frustration of the problem owner. Frustration manifestly worsened by the cult of facilitation.

A facilitators main task is to ensure that ‘everyone goes home with a balloon’ after a brainstorm – that they all feel that their pointless lives have been made somehow better by this semi cathartic experience and by the lovely little warm up games that they all played. Not to mention that they all got to vote on the most simplistic and incompetent ideas with a little stash of post it notes like some kind of mutant pin the tail on the donkey game. Facilitators like participants to have a nice time more than they like delivering actionable output.

But the thing that really pisses me off about this whole technique is that it brings an unwelcome democracy into the process of idea generation. Democracy is great as a way of ensuring that the will of the people is brought to bear in governing of their lives. But it pretty much ensures that blandness is the output we most readily associate with the brainstorm. In particular democracy leads to production blocking which is the loss of great ideas while people are waiting for their turn or having to listen to the irrelevant ramblings of other participants. And if that were not bad enough it ensures that the more polarizing and interesting ideas are lost at the evaluation stage as everyone showers the flip chart with their ‘stickies’ endorsing the familiar and feasible.

And there is no evidence they actually work beyond increasing morale, team building and other such airy fairy shenanigans. Productivity loss in an inherent part of the brainstorm approach (Mullen, Johnson and Salas, 1991; Diehl and Strobe, 1987) which results from evaluation apprehension, social loafing and the production blocking I mentioned above. Much of this research shows that brainstorms are in fact less effective than individuals working independently.

for my money the optimum number of people for an idea generation session is two with no facilitator hanging on. Two people that have a vested interest in the quality of the outcome and can switch seamlessly between divergent and convergent thinking until they get to the right idea which they both then build upon.

It is one of the reasons that Bernbach was a genius in putting art directors and copywriters together and a reason that strategists should also be paired, or paired with individual creatives.

And if you need any more convincing that brainstorms (and their euphemistic offspring like ‘thought showers’) are shit think about how easy it was to get people into the room last time you ran one. The only endevour people want to be involved in less is a four hour powerpoint presentation on the new phone system and they will make up the most outlandish excuses not to spend 3 hours in an overheated room with some idiot prancing around in front of a Nobo board for no apparent reason.

Sure have a brainstorm if you want to do a bit of team building and you don’t really care about the outcome.

If not pledge today that you will have nothing to do with the bastard offspring of the advertising industry. Refuse to run them, refuse to contribute to them and never ever find yourself voting on lackluster ideas with post it notes again.

Amen. And well put.

Have a great weekend, everyone. 😉

Photo by Chris Wray McCann

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You probably remember Tim (IDEO) Brown’s Strategy By Design article in Fast Company back in June of 2005. (You know, the one that mentioned T-Shaped people.) The article shed some light of the fact that innovative companies – or rather, companies who have shown an ability to innovate regularly – tend to favor hiring T-shaped people and fostering the types of cultures that work best for them, over hiring and managing employees the way our grandfathers did, which essentially consists of assigning specific linear jobs to people who were trained to perform the specific functions of these jobs – no more, no less. (The good old nose to the grindstone mentality.)

It went a little like this:

“We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them “T-shaped people.” They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T — they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That’s what you’re after at this point — patterns that yield ideas.”

Good stuff. Since IDEO pretty much pioneered the innovation by design business model, Tim knows what he’s talking about. And having suffered the rigidity and lack of flexibility of forethought commonly found in many corporate environments, I have been a BIG fan of the T-Shaped thinking concept ever since I first read about it. It has been my experience that when putting a project team together, opting for one composed of people with diverse backgrounds yields much better results than one composed of specialists in a specific field. Especially if the project involves solving a problem or improving a design or process.

But this month, Dave Armano, from the Logic & Emotion blog, gives us this, which proposes an exciting next step in T-shaped thinking evolution:

“Lately I’ve been wondering—is there another way to look at this? What if we took a more basic human truth. Most of us have some kind of passion in a specific area. For some—it’s a hobby or interest. For others, it’s directly related to their work. I fall into the latter category. If you were to ask me what my “passion is”—I would probably say that at the core, it’s creative problem solving. This is pretty broad and incorporates a lot of disciplines that can relate to it. But that’s the point. What if we start with our passions regardless of discipline, and look at the skills which radiate out from it the same way we think about how rays from the sun radiate warmth?”

Excellent point. The radial pattern is definitely an improvement on the theme of the T-shaped individual. We’re adding new dimensions here and painting a more realistic, accurate picture of the breadth and depth that an engaged multitalented individual can achieve in the workplace.

Assuming of course, that the said workplace a) recognizes the value of this type of individual, b) is able to foster an environment which takes full advantage of this potential pool of talent and innovation, and c) incites these types of people to want to keep working there.

Sadly, this still seems to be the rub in far too many offices across the US.

Here’s more from Dave:

“The majority of those reaching out to embrace this trend have their roots in the UI industry rather than industrial design. While traditional product and graphic design practitioners enter the field with a foundation based on design history, emphasis on form, method and process, those in the UI field come from myriad backgrounds such as software engineering, marketing, and brand strategy. Without a common heritage and education, these designers are more comfortable working with disparate client groups and in interdisciplinary teams.”

Food for thought. We’ll continue this discussion over the next few days.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone. 😉

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The price question.

On Seth Godin’s blog today (and from more board room conversations than I care to count):

“Maybe the reason
it seems
that price
is all your customers care about
is that you haven’t given them anything else
to care about.”

If price is all you hear about, if cheaper imports are kicking your butt, it’s time you changed the conversation. Give everyone something more interesting and exciting to talk about other than… price.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone. 😉

Photo by Chris Wray McCann.

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Celebrity Birthdays Today: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sir Ian Mc Kellen, Jessi Colter, Anne Heche, Lauryn Hill, Mike Meyers, and… Evan Tishuk (a.k.a. Gustav)!!!

Happy Birthday, orange coat‘s creative & technical honcho!

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From Only Dead Fish Swim With The Water, here is your thought for the day:

In marketing, we like predictability. The more we feel we know the likely consequences of what we do the more comfortable we feel with it. The accountability of online media helps us to believe that more than ever, the game of the future will be all about data and optimisation. Behavioural targeting offers us the opportunity to deliver and adapt our advertising based on how our recipient has acted in the past. With econometrics, we even go so far as to model likely outcomes based on what has happened in the past. We seek to apply science to what we do wherever we can. We like to get as close to certainty as possible.

In many ways this is just good business practice. But in a future shaped by a ruthless pursuit of efficiency and over-optimisation, will there be room for the kind of happy accidents that can be transformational? Will it all simply serve to make brands too predictable? Is randomness really such an enemy of good marketing?

If that wasn’t enough, here’s a little more thought fodder:

Unpredictability and randomness clearly have a role in the generation of great ideas. The guys at ?Whatif! (‘the world’s largest independent innovation company’) have built their business on their concept of ‘Freshness’, defined as “finding surprising solutions to problems. The habit of always trying new things, of being comfortable with the unpredictable.” One of their four ‘R’ s of Freshness (the others being Re-expression, Related World, Revolution) is Random Links – “making connections and links between the issue and random items found in the world”. One of my favourite quotes on this, from Albert Einstein, captures perfectly why this is so important:

“Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which they were created.”

Or with the same vocabulary, for that matter.


Rohit Bhargarva makes a good point about what makes ‘randomness’ such a powerful marketing tool:

“…most theories today focus on how attention can be driven by credibility, trust or brand authenticity. While I agree with these theories, there is another force that works outside of any of these. Curiousity. Randomness drives curiousity, and curiousity drives attention.”

Again, good point. So… think about your “process.” Your formula. Your mechanism. Think about how you attack a marketing problem or a brand-building project or an ad campaign. Does your methodology allow for happy accidents? Does it create an environment in which transformational randomness is likely to occur?

Or are you just going along the same linear creative process over and over again?

If you’ve been hitting a lot of stale ideas recently, maybe less structure and more randomness is what’s on the menu for you for the next few weeks. 😉

Have a great Thursday, everyone.

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Courtesy of the entertaining and brilliant meme huffer blog, here is a delicious hot bowl of Marketing soup – for better… and for worse:

On why fearing the future is futile:

“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” – John Cage

In my early days as a planner, I remember reading an article by Steve Henry (then of HHCL, now at TBWA London), where he gave his opinion on strategy and effective communication.

The words that stuck with me were “what is = what was” and this simple statement has deeply affected the way that I think about brands and communications.

If we want to cut through the 3000+ messages that the average consumer is exposed to every day, we need to stand out. We need to be different. Merely adhering to the tried and (research) tested category cues won’t work.

By definition, new ideas are scary. No one has done them before, so you don’t have a convenient case study. Qual research is unlikely to help, as people tend to be uncomfortable about the unfamiliar.

But this is no excuse.

Be brave, be bold and find a way to help your clients be likewise.

…which, of course, is the tricky part:

“No amount of sophistication is going to allay the fact that all your knowledge is about the past and all your decisions are about the future.” – Ian E. Wilson

On Messaging – the final word (one can hope):

“To define is to kill; to suggest is to create” – Stéphane Mallarmé

On Innovation and the naysayers:

“The vast majority of human beings dislike and even actually dread all notions with which they are not familiar… Hence it comes about that at their first appearance innovators have generally been persecuted, and always derided as fools and madmen.” -Aldous Huxley

One of my favourite hobby-horses, this.

When the consumer research comes back against your brilliant, ground-breakingly original idea, remind the client that Heineken ‘refreshes the parts’ failed research.

As did the Dyson vacuum.
And the Aeron chair.
And Seinfeld.
And the computer mouse.
And the Sony Walkman.
And the cash machine.
And Guinness ‘Surfer’.
And Stella Artois ‘Jacques de Florette’

On Insight, context, and the human factor:

If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings, and speak my words” -Cicero

Pretty fundamental, this one.

Get to know your customers, not just as demographic segments but as real people. Use your research budget to gain insight into their lives. Find out what makes them tick. Discover their fears, dreams and aspirations.

On being a complete jackass:

“Thanks for this. As discussed please can you reference the message hierarchy from the revised brief on the ‘Revised brief (abridged)’ chart and then explicitly spell out the roll [sic] for each media in terms of that hierarchy.

“I think that the key to the success of the plan is to ensure that we have executional alignment in terms of the creative messaging.
please can you make sure that the role of each media is explicitly referenced on the fusion brief in the same way. Thanks.”

(Unknown – from an email)

On Creative Problem Solving:

“The best possible solutions come only from a combination of a rational analysis based on the nature of things, and imaginative reintegration of all the different items into a new pattern, using non-linear brain power.” -Kenichi Ohmae, ‘The Mind of the Strategist’

On How Marketing is regarded by just about everyone outside this industry:

“Marketing is the art of associating products with ideas to bamboozle consumers. For example, a commercial in which a supermodel drinks piss from a thimble will lead ugly viewers to follow suit – which is good news for you because you’ve got a warehouse of thimbles and an endless supply of piss, and bad news for anyone who hoped the smoking ban might leave the nation’s pubs smelling fresher. People in marketing often talk about the “personality” of a given product. A biscuit might be “reassuring and sensual”; a brand of shoe may exhibit “anarchic yet inquisitive” tendencies. Marketers have built their worldview on such thinking, despite it being precisely the sort of babble a madman might come up with following years alone in an isolated cottage, during which time he falls in love with a fork and decides the lightbulbs are conspiring against him. Sadly, the analogy ends here, for while madmen are rewarded with straitjackets and medication, marketers receive six-figure salaries and round-the-clock sexual favours from people 200 times prettier than the prettiest person you’ve ever seen, even fleetingly, even from afar or in a magazine”.

(Courtesy of The Guardian)

On following your vision… and not everyone’s else’s lack of vision:

“If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.” -Henry Ford

Good stuff. Have a great Wednesday, everyone. And be sure to add jason lonsdale’s blog to your blogroll. As you can tell, it’s always a great read.

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If you work with brands, this is a must-read. Hell, it’s a must-print. No wait… it’s a must-use.

Read or download the PDF here.

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