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.
"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."
"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?"
"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."
"Maybe the reason
is all your customers care about
is that you haven't given them anything else
to care about."
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?
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.”
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."
"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
"To define is to kill; to suggest is to create" - Stéphane Mallarmé
"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 the computer mouse.
And the Sony Walkman.
And the cash machine.
And Guinness 'Surfer'.
And Stella Artois 'Jacques de Florette'
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.
"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)
"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'
"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)
"If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse." -Henry Ford
1. Get out of the office
Put down that design magazine and boxes+arrows article. Go out into the real world. Watch. Listen. Observe.
2. Talk to someone
Talk to the people you are designing for. Chances are you won’t be able to relate to them at first. When you get to this point—then you know you’re doing something right. [Don't just rely on market research and focus groups. Actually go out and talk to people. - Olivier]
3. Eat, sleep, dream curiosity
Be curious. Be very curious. Don’t know how? Find yourself a five-year-old, and hang out with them for a while. Then ask the same questions they do.
4. Do what they do
Are you designing for stay-at-home moms? Take the day off and go to a park. Hover around schools during drop off time. Walk a mile in their shoes. Better yet, just walk with them.
Amen.Though the development and management of brands is central and fundamental to everything we do, are the tools we use up to the job? Or do they do more harm than good? Brands are complex, abstract and difficult to pin down. However, in endeavouring to define them we often forget this. With techniques such as brand pyramids,we take something wild and untamed and attempt to constrain and control it. Rather than trying to understand brands in their natural habitat, we put them in a zoo. I recognise that pyramids, onions and similar techniques can be useful internal disciplines. But do they really help define the unchanging core values of a brand? We spend weeks debating the nuances of synonyms, performing semantic gymnastics to prove that Brand X is different from Brand Y, and agonising over whether something is an Emotional Benefit or a Brand Value – a distinction we struggle to understand in the first place. At the end of the day, what does this get us? More often than not, a pile of disconnected words that looks like nothing less than an explosion in a bombed thesaurus factory. Unfortunately, having built our pyramid and agreed that our brand is contemporary, stylish, relevant, inclusive and other usual suspects, we fall into the trap of thinking our job is finished. Usually though, we are no closer to articulating ‘core essence’ than when we began – even if that particular box has been filled in. What should be rich, complex and, by definition, hard to articulate ends up neutered and subjected to death by a thousand adjectives. Ironically, our supposed unchanging brand template is reduced to a fluid selection of meaningless or undifferentiating words that even those close to the process interpret in different ways. The result, to quote Shakespeare, is a brand which is '...a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'.
You may feel this is harsh, but ask yourself how many walking shadows there are out there, and if we struggle to find meaning, think how consumers feel.
There are certain basic characters and storylines that appear regularly in myth, fairytale, literature and film; archetypes that represent core aspects of the human condition, and tap deep into our motivations and sense of meaning. When we encounter these, they resonate in powerful ways that transcend culture and demographics.Bingo. Right from the horses' mouths.
This is why, when penning the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas turned to Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, to help him understand the archetypal narrative structure and characters found in these mythic stories, and why these three films enjoy such strong and enduring appeal. Whether Luke Skywalker, The Man With No Name, Red Riding Hood, Harry Potter, or real people such as JFK, Princess Diana or Marilyn Monroe, there is something primal in archetypal characters and situations that stirs our emotions, stimulates our memory and sometimes changes lives. In developing and managing brands, are we really so different from George Lucas or a budding Barbara Cartland?
Ironically, in this postmodern age when people are supposedly no longer interested in meta-narratives with common understanding, brand development is nothing short of creating a story that people want to be part of; a character with values that have deep resonance which our target audience want to emulate or be associated with.
This is why a Harley-Davidson marketer can say: ‘what we sell is the ability for a 43-year old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him’ Or why Scott Bedbury, in his time head of marketing at Nike and Starbucks, believes that: ‘a brand is a metaphorical story that … connects with something very deep — a fundamental human appreciation of mythology … Companies that manifest this sensibility … invoke something very powerful’.
I find it more exciting to think of myself as the author of eternal brand stories than as someone who writes strategy documents and brand pyramids.
Bruce says: "Be formless... shapeless, like water”Here's another:
Translation: don't impose structure on a problem too early or stick rigidly to a process for process sake. Explore freely and allow your mind to wander; work adaptively and flexibly.
Bruce says: "Here is natural instinct and here is control. You are to combine the two in harmony, now if you have one to the extreme, you will be very unscientific. If you have another to the extreme, you will all of a sudden be a mechanical man, no longer a human being. It is a successful combination of both. Therefore, it is not naturalness or unnaturalness. The ideal is unnatural, naturalness or natural, unnaturalness."
Translation: In the end, a marriage of qualitative and quantitative insight is most sensible (where possible). But my personal preference is 'culture-led' i.e. cast your net wide and understand the problem/category/brand within its socio-cultural context first (via cultural analysis), rather than restricting your vision at the outset with consumer needs and statistical 'facts'. Like Bruce also once said: "True observation begins when one is devoid of set patterns."
Bruce says: "I do not believe in styles any more"
Translation: Don't get caught up with one one-fits-all models that claim to be the holy grail of branding. Mixing and matching different ideas, innovations, communication codes and media platforms often works best and allows you to execute your brand idea in a much more compelling and interesting way.
"The best fighter is not a Boxer, Karate or Judo man. The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style. He kicks too good for a Boxer, throws too good for a Karate man, and punches too good for a Judo man."
"Some people are tall; some are short. Some are stout; some are slim. There are various different kinds of people. If all of them learn the same martial art form, then who does it fit?"
As a parallel, this captures how the marketing industry prioritizes endless doing over learning, thinking and personal development. There are people who have worked in the industry for many years, clocked up a wealth of experience, and mastered all of the 'core skills' required, but because they have taken little time to read, explore, and broaden their horizons, they have remained trapped inside the paradigms of old, oblivious to the creative possibilities that lie before them.
"[W]hen clans are formed, the people of a clan will hold their kind of martial art as the only truth and do not dare to reform or improve it. Thus they are confined in their own tiny little world. Their students become machines which imitate martial art forms."
It's just like dancing, sports, art and just about everything that stirs the soul and provokes reaction: First, you create the structure. You create a perfect, solid, symmetrical and harmonious architecture. (pause.) And then, you break it. You smash it. You shatter it. You completely destroy it. That's when it becomes powerful. That's how you release its energy.
TRANSUMERS are consumers driven by experiences (instead of the ‘fixed’), by entertainment, by discovery, by fighting boredom, who increasingly live a transient lifestyle, freeing themselves from the hassles of permanent ownership and possessions. The fixed is replaced by an obsession with the here and now, an ever-shorter satisfaction span, and a lust to collect as many experiences and stories as possible.* Hey, the past is, well, over, and the future is uncertain, so all that remains is the present, living for the 'now'.Sounds a little existensialist? Okay... The term initially began thus: transumers are consumers in transition (like travelers). That was it. The trend just focused on them and "the many novel and innovative shopping opportunities at airports, train stations and hotels catering to this crowd."
TRANSUMERS are consumers driven by experiences (instead of the ‘fixed’), by entertainment, by discovery, by fighting boredom, who increasingly live a transient lifestyle, freeing themselves from the hassles of permanent ownership and possessions. The fixed is replaced by an obsession with the here and now, an ever-shorter satisfaction span, and a lust to collect as many experiences and stories as possible.* Hey, the past is, well, over, and the future is uncertain, so all that remains is the present, living for the 'now'.For better or for worse, this trend is growing fast. Think about how most people buy technology now, from MP3 players and digital cameras to laptops and cell phones. Think about recreational gear like golf clubs, triathlon bikes, sunglasses, tennis rackets and fishing poles. Think about clothes and accessories. Even big ticket items like cars and large flat screen TV's. Think about the appeal of Starbucks, Whole Foods, Aveda, and all of the other stores whose bread and butter isn't the quality of the product itself, but the entire experience surrounding a consumer's interaction with that product and the brand in general.
Customers need you to manage their experience.
Great customer service anticipates confusion, concerns, and questions.
When clients face something big, new or scary, great customer service must map out the experience and manage it every step of the way.
I’ve always been mystified that customer service jobs in most companies are among the lowest paid and least respected positions. There should be nothing more important than serving your customer. These employees enforce or kill your brand every time they answer the phone or greet a client. Shouldn’t your most experienced, well-compensated, and engaged employees be serving your customers?
Take a look at how your organization serves your customers from initial contact through follow up customer service. Do you strengthen or weaken your brand at every client interaction?
Ask these questions now, be truthful about the answers, and take corrective action, if necessary.
The real point, I think, is people.Well... actually, you can identify the innovators pretty early on - before they ever earn their first paycecks. (In many cases, even as early as elementary school.) It's just that very few companies in the west (if any) are using the right tools to do so... or are even thinking along those lines.
The best things to ever come out of Yahoo, as far as I'm concerned, have been the work of individuals. Not of some hyperbolic purple and yellow machine, but from people, strong-willed individuals willing to buck the bureaucracy. And all the worst stuff the company has done has come out of committees. (...)
What we haven't figured out how to predict yet is which people will perform breakthroughs, which people are the ones that will change everything. What we do know for sure is that some organizations are more hospitable to that sort of behavior than others. Microsoft has gotten good at developing pockets of this sort of innovation. The challenge of an acquisition is going to be: Can the combined company make it a lot more likely that mavericks actually bring great stuff to market?