ROI and the Intersection of Exploration

When chemists at Oregon State University discovered a brilliant new blue pigment serendipitously, they were not thinking about creating art. But in a true art meets science moment, an applied visual arts major began using the blue pigments in her artwork as part of an internship in Subramanian’s laboratory. This was also her first foray into the world of chemistry. Human history is filled with examples of innovation that occurred at the juncture of art and science, whether it’s as profound as Leonardo da Vinci’s explorations of anatomy or as mundane as liquid nitrogen ice cream. The point is simple – creative inspiration, whether in product development, advertising, or any other activity, is a matter of rethinking how we look at a problem.

Driven by CEOs that want to see ROI and engagement for every cent spent versus the equally valuable but often nebulous idea of “brand impact,” campaign and branding initiatives can be particularly challenging for CMOs today. Seemingly competing world views clash in large part because we take a binary position – it’s an either/or mentality where art and science are somehow in conflict. But is that fair or is it a modern construct? Are art and science so divergent or have we slipped into a lazy pattern of thinking.

Brands that want to take advantage of the intersection of art and science can start by simply acknowledging the fact that creative and metrics are not mutually exclusive concepts. By blending these two components of the creative process (and yes, science is a creative enterprise) and giving them a common goal to work towards, we see focused innovation. We see new expressions of a common undercurrent.

Blending art and science is about collaborating in ideas generation: the inter-relationship is critical, you can’t have one thing without the other. A bunch of code or data is just a bunch of numbers without the art. A visual masterpiece that produces no action is inspired but not inspiring. Science enables us to be more creative, and creativity allows us to get the most out of our data. But consider “the multiplier effect”. If either the data or creative are bad, the idea will fail. Or worse yet, if they work alone, without the cross-pollination that happens when different ways of experiencing the world come together, then the result can be flat out detrimental. It’s not one or the other that we need, it’s both. It’s not science plus art equals results, it’s more science times art, so a zero for either means failure.

That is where the interesting ideas are – at the intersection of exploration. The future is all about ideas connecting. Those who can bridge art and science will be in demand, will be powerful. If our ideas are going to change hearts and minds, then we need to find expression that can move freely between the boundaries of art and science.

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Myths, Symbols, and Advertising

Mythology is perhaps the most archaic and profound record we have of our collective spirit. It creates and defines our experiences. From the inception of cave art, and presumably long before that, we find myth and myth-making as a fundamental element in relating to the mysteries of life, the cosmos and the world around us. It goes beyond recounting the day’s events and the mundane, giving life to the essence of what it means to be human. Myth is the symbolic revelation of eternal “truths”, an expression of our collective psyche and our role in the unfolding of the universe. As it relates to brands and marketing, it reminds us, or should remind us, that while features are central to a product, they are only a portion of what drives us to select one thing over another. If we think about brands as myth, as stories conveying something grand and extraordinary, we generate more than a passing interest in the consumer, we establish a connection to something transcendent, something that speaks to the underlying need to find meaning in the world.

In this case, I return to the idea of the universal hero in myth. Why? Because beyond buying a product to fulfill a functional need, we frequently seek out products and brands that allow us to step into a role that is greater than ourselves.  There are certain patterns which recur across cultures regardless of time and distance. Jung called these patterns and Joseph Campbell immortalized them for the non-scholar. And while there undoubtedly flaws in the possibly essentializing nature of their analyses, the fact remains that the underlying currents of these archetypes hold true, regardless of the minutia.  Archetypal images embody the most essential elements of the human drama. The trickster, the hero, etc. manifest themselves across space and time. They are a repertoire of instinctive human functioning. As an example, consider the archetype of the universal hero.

As it relates to marketing and advertising, we pay attention to stories that have conflict, resolution and challenges that allow us to project ourselves into the role of the protagonist.  A problem (i.e. monsters/struggles) is overcome by brands (i.e. hero/ heroine) reestablishing order in the universe.  The hero myth tells us that the character’s courage to suffer the burdens of fear and the conflicts within his personality set him apart. In myth, the ego is banished to a world full of opposites which war with each other within the personality. Out of the conflict something new and marvelous emerges. The journey of the hero typically includes most of the following stages:

  • The Call: the character leaves his ordinary life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world.
  • The Trial: there she/he encounters one or a number of challenges.
  • The Reward: a boon the hero receives as a result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self and the cosmos.
  • The Return: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, sharing the new-found knowledge. Here the hero applies her/his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place.

The advertising for Dodge Ram trucks often follows this motif, tying the truck (and the driver) to overcoming a series of challenges that only this brand can cope with. The driver is able to step in where other brands fail and vanquish the problem. He emerges stronger, wiser and more powerful than his counterparts. Similarly, cleaning products frequently do this.  The would be heroine is confronted with an impossible task of cleaning a bathroom. Armed with a specific brand, she not only vanquishes the problem (the monster), but is able to demonstrate both her prowess and knowledge to other members of the family, sharing the product/hidden knowledge with other members of the group.

Another mythological archetype that appears frequently in advertising is the Trickster. The trickster is a figure who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior.  The trickster figure, whether as a deity, folk hero or literary figure breaks the rules of the society, the gods or nature, usually, albeit unintentionally, with ultimately positive effects.  With the help of his wits and cleverness, he evades or fools monsters and dangers with unorthodox manners. Therefore the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. The character of Mayhem as a representation of the Allstate brand or the Trix Rabbit represent the archetypal motif of the trickster. And they work because, like the hero, they conform to an underlying, universal storyline that entertains, teaches, and makes sense of the world.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because advertising and marketing far too often engage at the superficial level of the mind. They sell features and, occasionally, benefits. While that may be good for point of purchase or short-term gains, it does nothing for establishing a brand as something enduring. If you think in terms of designing a message or a campaign from the standpoint of mythical archetypes, you create something powerful, moving and universal. You create devotion. It certainly does nothing to turn a brand and its story into something iconic, something we share. And without that, a brand isn’t a brand at all, it is a commodity.

 

Inspiration and Venice

It’s been a while since I was in LA, and while I’m in Venice-Beach-4.jpg
Culver City today, my mind keeps being drawn to Venice Beach. In 1905, Abbot Kinney imagined a “Venice of America,” a coastal replica of Venice, Italy, down by the ocean in west LA. Of course he did; in a city built on dreams and dreamers, anything should be possible if you imagine it hard enough. And Kinney’s imagination was strong. Over 110 years later, many of the canals he built remain today. Like the rest of LA, the community has changed, is always changing. But that’s Venice, a very particular blend of sea air and freedom that stays in your skin however far away you travel.

What this city always reminds me of is the human ability to imagine other worlds and ways of being that don’t necessarily fit what people already see in front of them. Whether in Venice or anywhere else, you never have to stop imagining. The trick is letting creative inspiration come to you freely, whether you’re a chef, a banker, or a mechanic.

Shades of Blue: Marrying Art and Science

When chemists at Oregon State University4.jpeg discovered a brilliant new blue pigment serendipitously, they were not thinking about
creating art. But in a true art meets science moment, an applied visual arts major bean using the blue pigments in her artwork as part of an internship in Subramanian’s laboratory. This was also her first foray into the world of chemistry. Human history is filled with examples of innovation that occurred at the juncture of art and science, whether it’s as profound as Leonardo da Vinci’s explorations of anatomy or as mundane as liquid nitrogen ice cream. The point is simple – creative inspiration, whether in product development, advertising, or any other activity, is a matter of rethinking how we look at a problem.

Driven by CEOs that want to see ROI and engagement for every cent spent versus the equally valuable but often nebulous idea of “brand impact,” campaign and branding initiatives can be particularly challenging for CMOs today. Seemingly competing world views clash in large part because we take a binary position – it’s an either/or mentality where art and science are somehow in conflict. But is that fair or is it a modern construct? Are art and science so divergent or have we slipped into a lazy pattern of thinking.

Brands that want to take advantage of the intersection of art and science can start by simply acknowledging the fact that creative and metrics are not mutually exclusive concepts. By blending these two components of the creative process (and yes, science is a creative enterprise) and giving them a common goal to work tow
ards, we see focused innovation. We see new expressions of a common undercurrent.

Blending art and science is about collaborating in ideas generation: the inter-relationship is critical, you can’t have one thing without the other. Code or data are
just a bunch of numbers without the art. A visual masterpiece that produces no action is inspired but not inspiring. Science enables us to be more creative, and creativity allows us to get the most out of our data. But consider “the multiplier effect”. If either the data or creative are bad, the idea will fail. Or worse yet, if they work alone, without the cross-pollination that happens when different ways of experiencing the world come together, then the result can be flat out detrimental. It’s not one or the other that we need, it’s both. It’s not science plus art equals results, it’s more science times art, so a zero for either means failure.

That is where the interesting ideas are – at the intersection of exploration. The future is all about ideas connecting. Those who can bridge art and science will be in demand, will be powerful. If our ideas are going to change hearts and minds, then we need to find expression that can move freely between the boundaries of art and science.

 

Embracing the Whiteboard

Navigating nearly any company today means being well acquainted with whiteboards, sharpies, and post-it notes. But how they’re used differs from setting to settings. In most corporate environments, you rarely see them used as a tools for innovation. Whiteboards in conference rooms are often devoid of any meaningful content and those hanging in offices are typically to-do lists.  Post-its are reminders to call such and such department, mini to-do lists, or notes to pick up milk on the way home. In contrast, agencies (whether design, advertising, or any other creatively inclined job type) use them as tools for ideation and collaboration. The reason is simple: in any creative firm, we sell time and thinking. Whiteboards and post-its are the tools by which we bring these things to life.

This isn’t to say that corporate environments lack the creative spark, but deign and idea generation follow a different pattern and are one of a number of functions. Additionally, most corporate environments are not designed spatially to drive collaboration in what is, ultimately, a very public, very exposed way of creative problem solving. People are spread out over multiple floors and grouped by departmental function rather than by task. What this means is that cross-functional teams are difficult to bring together in a single space where they can have discussions and working sessions with a shared work pallet. In an agency setting, because we sell ideas above all else, the shared space becomes the norm out of necessity. Collaborative ideation is the central theme of most interactions, and therefore the public expression of the ideas are emergent. In other words, we must come together and work very collaboratively in order to fulfill our central functions – design and innovation. You have to see thoughts develop in real time, respond, build, break, and build again.

Why does any of this matter? Because what I’m suggesting is that for a corporate setting to become more adaptive, more creative, and more inspired, it needs to embrace the idea of an iterative, public work process. It needs to take a design thinking approach to daily problem solving. Design thinking is an approach that can be used to consider issues and resolve problems more broadly than within professional design practice, and has been applied in business and to social issues. Design thinking includes “building up” ideas, with few, or no, limits on breadth during a “brainstorming” phase. This helps reduce fear of failure in the people involved in the work and encourages input and participation from a wide variety of sources in the ideation phases.

In order to survive in today’s complex world, organizations need to generate, embrace, and execute on new ideas. That takes creativity and a creatively capable workforce. It also means embracing the whiteboard and ideation in an open forum.  It’s the secret sauce, or in evolutionary terms, it’s what keeps you fit. Organizations without it can’t compete. So, pick up the sharpie, break out the post-its, and step up to the board. The end results will transform your company and your brand.

 

Finding Balance: Data, FIeldwork, and Creativity

There is perhaps nothing new about the ongoing battle between data and qualitative work, and the influence they have on creativity and design. Data is everything, creativity is dead vs. the argument that creativity is paramount and data is a distraction. Neither position is true, though there is some truth in each argument. The goal is to deliver insight that inspires creativity, regardless of the methods by which we gain those insights. The central need is to determine how data and inspiration work together to drive change.

As advertising, marketing, and design come to rely more on technology, we are forced to reconsider what constitutes creative quality. It also means being honest with ourselves and recognizing that data is not a panacea. It, like qualitative work, is part of a thinking process that helps identify the underlying story we need to divine and craft tools that inspire action. At times that can be found in the data alone, but more often it’s found among outliers. Without the two sides working hand in hand, we get half truths.

For marketers, nothing could better define both the essence and preeminence of creativity than empathy. We all recognize the pace of technological change and changing customer behaviors. And we all recognize there is tremendous opportunity in being able to derive greater targeting from the data we collect. But behavioral measurement shouldn’t lull us away from using the creative process to intuit what customers will experience, whether we’re trying to convince them to take an action or building a tool to meet a need. Data underpins everything, but meaningful success will come to those who can augment data with a deeper understanding of the audience. What role does symbolism play? What metaphors connect? How does the object we create make sense in their lives? These are the sorts of things we come to understand through deep immersion.

As an example, some years ago I did work on a medication used in treating schizophrenia. Based on the success rates and data collected about patient behavior, it should have been an easy product to market. However, the sales were flat. It wasn’t until we began examining the process of schizophrenia that we were able to tease out where the problems were. Access to transportation, difficulties with case management, distrust of the psychiatric community, and the role of friends and family all had a significant impact on how the medication was understood. This wasn’t the sort of thing you could get at via data analysis. And yet, using the two methods together allowed the team to develop creative work that resonated deeply and was targeted at the right place and the right time.

What we need to be doing is rebooting brand planning as a qualitative and a quantitative art. What designer, strategist, etc. tasked with building a tool or developing an engaging brand experience wouldn’t want to know a bit about how the audience for their art behaves? How they engage with content? How they engage with a device? But the trick is not getting caught up in the numbers at the expense of the human being behind them.

Playtime and Innovation

We’ve all experienced the brainstorming sessions that result in two hours lost and a host of ideas that, upon reflection, are simple rehashings of the same old thing. We lay out a client’s goals, we break out the stickies, and we take turns at the whiteboard. At the end of the session we’re often tired, uninspired, and feeling like we haven’t come close to a real game-changing idea. I would argue that a lot of this can be overcome by rethinking how we approach the process and that we get back to a simple truth from childhood. Quite simple, let’s start playing again.1399364918739.jpg

Without a play-like attitude, insights hide from us.
Our goal to become creative gets mired in the anxiety of producing something that will please the client, change the world, etc. When we don’t engage in activities that involve exploration, imagination, and play, being creative becomes a chore. It is just another task we need to complete.

Multiple research studies have demonstrated the power play has on our ability to think and work creatively. Back in n 1967, Brian Sutton-Smith demonstrated that participants in his study who were given a task to imagine various purposes for an object were likely to come up with more ideas than their peers if they were allowed to play and tinker with the object first. The act of exploration sparked the imagination and produced a wider variety of ideas. Play, whether we’re talking about children or adults, instills a sense of creativity and challenges the mind to think in non-linear, adaptive ways.

But why should this be the case? The research (and there is far more than Sutton-Smith’s original study) shows that play-like activities put us into a psychological state of mind where failure becomes experimentation, allowing us to pose the simple but profoundly important question “what if?” We are given license to explore the unknown and look for solutions to problems without the hindrance of performing a sequence of tasks. From that exploration creative insights emerge freely and we can find connections we might otherwise overlook.

Play involves a very “pretend” type of world where most anything goes. This isn’t to say play is a free for all, lacking rules and boundaries. But it is an open forum for the mind and strips away the need to please. The act becomes the important element rather than pleasing the actors for whom we work. The result of play becomes very real, particularly when it comes to creativity, because we are focused on the act rather than the outcome. By removing the strain and constraints of the real world, play allows us to more openly explore possibilities in our work. But play offers us more than mere escape. It offers us more exposure to diversity of perspectives.

By nature, play is rooted in a higher degree of ambiguity than, say, traditional brainstorming, and as a result produces a higher degree of diversity. The range of ideas we produce and share with others broadens significantly. When we play, we are free to utilize any play items within our grasp as well (balls, paper, glue, scissors, pencils, game boards and pieces, etc.). That means we are not self-limiting and we uncover a much wider range of areas where we can apply what we learn and what we make.

Play removes limits that otherwise constrain us to what we currently know to be possible. By removing those constraints and opening ourselves up to what is possible, creative insights become the norm of what we’re doing.