Lightning Strikes Twice

The 2nd in a series about how big ideas are good for business.

Some ideas are so big that if they work once, surely they will solve other problems, too.

I’m not opposed to recycling ideas for different clients. In fact, a creative director I worked for years ago encouraged it. Now, I hate to think we would commoditize our creative output, but when you’re in the business of generating lots of solutions, you start to see how the same answer can solve multiple problems. This approach saves the agency time and money when the same answer solves multiple problems. But is this good for clients?

Back in my agency days, we landed a plum account, doing national recruitment advertising for Compaq Computers. For younger readers out there, Compaq was swallowed up by HP back in 2002.

Compaq made solid hardware that did nothing flashy, but their products worked well. And all the computers, printers and other bits they manufactured were all a lovely shade of beige. What’s funny is that their industrial design was a mirrored reflection of their own corporate culture. Not a lot of sizzle, not a lot of sexy, but that is exactly who Compaq was looking to recruit.

Our assignment was college recruiting. Because it was a new account for us, one of the bigwig CDs from the New York office sat in on the initial client meetings where strategies were discussed. Since Compaq was local to Houston, it was decided to bring me and my writing partner, David Morris, in on the project to add a little local flavor.

So this jack-wagon from New York calls to brief us. In the meeting with Compaq, it was decided the “theme” for that recruiting campaign would be “water.” Dave and I just looked at each other, rolling our eyes (good thing there wasn’t any Zoom back then). Then Mr. Jackwagon instructed us to not show him any of that trite, predictable, low-hanging-fruit crap — or else! (I don’t recall if he actually threatened us, but we’ll say he did just for dramatic purposes.)

So Dave and I banged our heads together. After some brainstorming, doodling, crying, hand-wringing, fist fights, a few beers and the like, we agreed the coolest thing about “water” had to be Aqua Man, especially pre-Jason Momoa. In fact, we really liked that over-the-top drama from the mid-1960s DC Comics.

For our initial comps, we went to a comic book shop, bought an old Aqua Man, scanned it in and created a story about an underwater superhero who used Compaq technology to defeat the forces of evil. Captain Q was born. No one saw this concept coming. Our CD loved it so much that this was the only idea pitched to Compaq, and they jumped in head first.

I won’t go into all the production details because that is not the point here – and that is an adventure in and of itself – but I have to mention the immense talents of the dearly-departed George Toomer, the illustrator who helped bring our vision to life. Using George’s art, we crafted  messages for mailers, a 12-page comic book, ads, handouts, booths, banners, and all the usual campaign trappings. It all worked extraordinarily well. So much so, the campaign exceeded all projections and goals way ahead of schedule. A big win for Compaq and the agency. A big idea in action.

When I first decided on writing this post, this is where the big idea ended. I was planning on going into excruciating detail about how the Compaq project went. But then I had another idea:

Does lightning strike twice?

Before we go any further, let me clear the air. I’m not above stealing, even from myself. Austin Kleon is right, but I am a professional and do not condone outright copying or plagiarism.

Maybe the big idea is not about the success we had for Compaq, or creating a superhero, but more about using a medium again for another project.

Comic books are surprising versatile. As a medium, you can do just about anything with them because they are both visual and verbal. You can cheat the boundaries of conventional narrative, play with the defined spaces and create entirely new universes. What’s even better, rules and conventions keep getting broken as artists push the boundaries even further. Comics are an amazing art form.

Since most of my work is in the B2B world, seeing comics in a corporate environment can be downright shocking, and the unexpectedness creates both impact and memorability.

*COE = Center of Excellence, PR = Project Request, POS = Point of Sale

While at Sysco, I was charged to come up with a new position that would help the Brand Managers’ push their heavy workloads more efficiently through the design production process. We created a position replicating what the agency world would call an “Account Manager.” Briefly, the role would be like the account executive you’d call at your agency to get your projects knocked out, but for our purposes, this would be an internal position, not outsourced one.

This was not the big idea. How the Account Manager was introduced to the marketing staff was.

What we wanted to do was be able to show the Account Manager in action so that the Brand Managers could see how much easier their lives would be with this person’s guidance.

The initial presentation took the form of a skit, where I played the role of the Account Manager, and four of my peers played various characters who would touch the project as it went through the production process – the client, a coordinator, designer and Quality Control. To support the story, I created a comic book, where each frame described a step in the process.

After the presentation, each member of the staff was given the comic in the form of a puzzle, something colorful and fun that they could keep at their desk as a constant reminder of how the new Account Manager was going to help them.

There was no room for ambiguity. Understanding was crystal clear. A couple of Brand Managers told me this was hands-down the best presentation they’d ever seen at Sysco.

The big idea here is about using mediums differently. There are always opportunities to recycle ideas, turning them into something fresh and new. As these two stories started coming together, it occurred to me: maybe Marshall McLuhan is right – often times the medium is the message.


Needs

NPR’s TED Radio Hour is like Reader’s Digest for brainiacs. In one commute, you can wrap your head around a whole plethora of ideas about a variety of subjects. Endless fun.

The show on Maslow’s Human Needs, originally broadcast in April 2015 but re-aired recently, was the riffing-off point for this post.

As a reminder, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is (from bottom to top):

  • Physiological – Are basic needs of survival being met? Food, water, breathing, etc.
  • Safety – Health, resources, a good job, personal matters fulfilled
  • Love & Belonging – Friendship, family, intimacy
  • Esteem – Confidence, achievement, respect
  • Self-Actualization – Morality, creativity, fulfillment

This past year, I have been involved with re-thinking and implementing a new “playbook” for how my company go to market with new products. The previous version was found to be mostly useless because it required a fairly extensive knowledge of marketing in order to fill it out properly, and most of the managers who were tasked with this were woefully unqualified to do so.

So the Brand Manager took it upon herself to re-imagine this document and brought in a consultant to help out. There is some good thinking and fresh ideas in this new document & process they are rolling out, but after listening to this TED program, it got me to thinking.

Creative briefing documents, playbooks & marketing plans are all meant to help guide the strategy to most effectively reach new and existing customers. But with all this analysis, data, features & benefits, etc., how many of these briefs actually address basic human needs?

Worse yet, these documents are often filled with assumptions and the information we want you to know.

Shouldn’t one of the key ingredients be “How does ‘X’ solve my need? A lot of times, that information is there in the document/process, but rarely is it articulated into something very basic, touching a core value to the individual.

This is danged hard to do in a B2B environment, but not impossible.

I think Nike does this inherently as part of their branding and this is a key ingredient as to what they are so wildly successful. From the products all the way to the branding, Nike touches each of Maslow’s needs:

  • Physiological – I need shoes to protect my feet.
  • Safety – Because I have the shoes, my health will improve.
  • Love & Belonging – Because I run, I become part of a community of like-minded people.
  • Esteem – As I get healthier, I become a stronger, better person.
  • Self-Actualization – Just do it.

In contrast, I think Apple often times does a poor job of it. They are particularly good at telling you what you need. What they have been particularly adept at is guiding people down a path that eventually becomes a need. I never truly needed an iPhone, but now that I have one I find that I cannot live without it? Does that make Apple evil?

In a world that is becoming increasingly more digital,automated and with less of a human touch, addressing basic human needs should be at the very core of how we approach every piece of communication.

As Charles Eames said:

Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.


Thoughts on Creative Direction: Be Invisible

I was with a number of executives recently reviewing a huge project. They were presenting to their boss while I played the role of fly-on-the-wall, observing and taking notes. The review went extraordinarily well.

As we were leaving the meeting, a thought occurred to me: I was invisible. Not just during the review, but throughout the entire process. The executives I worked for were the heroes here, as were members of my team who contributed to the project. But I was completely invisible. This got me thinking.

As a Creative Director, you should be invisible. The last thing a presentation, or just about anything for that matter, should be about is you. The work should be the center of attention. Your client should shine. Your boss should be the hero. Your team should get the credit. If everyone around you is getting the accolades, you did something right.

This is a foreign concept for many CDs to grasp. So much of the creative business is fueled by ego, often times the bigger the better. You may be familiar with “Imposter Syndrome”, there also exists “Creators Syndrome” and the myth of the lone creative genius. I’ve even been overheard declaring “if your ideas are good enough, you can be as big an asshole as you want.” That may be true, but being an asshole does not make you a good leader. Getting the best out of people and making certain the work is excellent does.

Do you run a risk by being invisible? Sure. Everyone wants to be seen as being valuable and contributing to the success of a project. When you’re invisible it is hard to quantify what you did; your role as the leader may not become apparent for weeks, months or ever. If all goes well, your success comes later on down the road, like when you are chosen for another plum assignment, or repeat business keeps coming in the door, or you retain employees who are happy, healthy and productive.

It may be hard to put your finger on it, but that is when your success becomes tangible. People around you feel and understand why they are successful. Your role then becomes all too apparent.


What is a Creative Director?

No one outside the advertising industry had ever heard of a Creative Director until Mad Men came out, than Don Draper became that iconic figure and suddenly the role became crystal clear. When I introduce myself as a CD people often ask me if I am like like Don. My stock reply is that we’re exactly alike but I don’t smoke. To know me is to understand the humour in that statement.

I would like to say that the job is all about 3 martini lunches, naps in the afternoon, brainstorming all night and all those things that sound so glamorous to young people in the business. It’s all about leadership.

dondraper-lessons-1024x428Despite what you read here, I identify with Don Draper on many levels. Perhaps another post for another time.

It took me a while to understand what a CD actually is, though. For the longest time I thought the job was the next rung on a tall career ladder. Back in my days at Unleaded, I definitely had that mindset. I felt I had to be the quarterback, much like Don Draper, pushing myself and the team across the field to score. But that is hardly what the job is about, and a large part of what makes me laugh when I see some 25 year old telling me they are a CD. You’re barely out of diapers at that point kid; there’s no way you’re a leader.

The Creative Director is not the quarterback. Furthering the football analogy, the CD is actually the coach, and if you’re lucky you have a good solid quarterback working for you. Your role as CD is to get the team ready and set them in motion to score. (A little more irony: I don’t really like football that much, but like most sports, games often help tell stories.) Being the CD is all about putting the right people in the right place at the right time to achieve a goal. Sounds simple, but when you’re team is comprised of creative folks, here is where it gets interesting.

Simon Sinek said it best in the title of his book, “Leaders Eat Last”. That one sentiment captures the very essence of a Creative Director. There’s very few Don Drapers out there who swoop in to save the account, or be the mighty creative force who everyone relies on to win. Rather, if you’re doing your job right, you are often invisible because the machine is humming along smoothly. No one will see the inner workings. Or at least they shouldn’t, especially your boss. The downside is that you don’t get all the glory, and you will get the blame should things go south. It ain’t easy, but I find it all strangely rewarding.

My team entered 15 pieces into the BMA Houston Lantern Awards and eight were accepted into the show for the presentation on 16 Nov. I could not be more proud. The younger version of me would have been jealous. Most of my creative efforts this year are still on the proverbial cutting room floor, or buried deep on the archive drive never to see the light of day again. Not to say I did not do anything this year, that is just how the year shaped up. Instead, I look at the current environment of the oil and gas industry, which I’m in the middle of, and I see what my team was able to accomplish despite these challenging times. Let me reiterate: Put the right people in the right place in the right time. And defend them, shield them for outside forces. Give them the room to succeed. I’m lucky that I have some good quarterbacks, and running backs and linemen, etc. I had to do my job so that they could do theirs, and it worked.

That’s being a Creative Director.

For other’s insights into the job:
A primer on creative direction as compared to art direction and design… and what they all mean in a digital context.


How to be a great creative director
What qualities do you need to become a top creative director? Five leading creative directors offer their views.


Managing Designers on Two Different Tracks


FROM TRADITIONAL TO DIGITAL – THE MODERN CREATIVE DIRECTOR



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