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How to create ideas that will outlast you, or: Inspirations from a cactus


I recently attended The One Club’s Creative Leaders Retreat in sunny Tucson, Arizona. To use the word  ‘literally ’ correctly (instead of using it to mean ‘figuratively,’ as so many people do), it was literally the best creative conference I have ever been to.

Creative Leaders Retreat

Amazing location, amazing presenters, amazing people to hang out with and get to know. But even better – amazing inspiration. Here are a couple of patterns I Identified from my three days there.

1. Working in/running a business in our industry today is hard.

John ButlerMany of the presenters, including John Butler (Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners), Tracy Wong (WongDoody) and Steve Mykolyn (Taxi), talked about this. They talked about how budgets and timelines are squeezing the life out of them from all corners. They talked about how in order to properly be in business today, you can’t act like it’s 20, or 10, or even 5 years ago.

Butler talked about how at BSSP they changed their business model/refocused their focus/blew up their agency 10 times in 20 years. 10 times!

The takeaway: We all must keep changing. Holding onto what worked yesterday is a slow journey to irrelevance. We must be willing to change how we worked yesterday, and how we are working today, because it likely  won’t work tomorrow.

2. We need to build a creative democracy between our staff, our clients, and ourselves.

Tracy WongTracy Wong believes that even though we are taught that the path to great ideas is to leave the geniuses from the creative department alone and let them make “magic,” this is not actually the case. Tracy urges us  – creative, account execs and clients alike  – to kill our big fat egos and let go, because you are not your ideas. Throughout the history of the advertising business, agencies (especially creative types) have a strong tendency to fight suggestions, changes and revisions – it’s in our DNA.

However, since we have already agreed that things are changing so quickly, we probably also agree (whether we are on the agency or the client side of the business) that it’s pretty hard to come up with great solutions at the speed and in the volume we are being asked to do so. So for me, it’s pretty simple: If somebody has a good idea that furthers our cause, we ought to be self-actualized enough to take it.

The takeaway: Listen with an open mind. Listen to the ideas you get from your agency, or your client, or your office manager and take them seriously. There may be a game-changer in there somewhere. After all, the only way to succeed in any business today is to deliver killer ideas. Consumers don’t care where they come from, so why should we?

3. Creativity is the only way to survive.

Rob ReillyRob Reilly, Global Creative Chairman of McCann, talked about elevating the words and the pictures that we often think  of as “creativity ” or “advertising” and making more of an effort to think about how we can create new pieces of culture instead. In other words, don’t make ads; instead, try to solve marketing problems with relevance and novelty. (This should sound familiar to any of you who know Stefan Mumaw).

Examples he used of how advertising had transcended the words and the pictures on a piece of paper and transformed themselves into a part of popular culture were many, and they were awe-inspiring. All of these ideas will outlast the agencies, the writers and art directors and the client teams who helped bring them to life. And that is a very good thing. Here are links to three of them: American Express’ Small Business SaturdayHyundai’s Assurance program, and Help I Want To Save A Life.

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All of these are creative marketing ideas that took themselves higher and became much more than they could have been. The teams involved didn’t settle for making ads, or TV spots, or today’s favorite buzzword, “content.” They used their brains and their smarts and the “What if we did something totally crazy?” gene that all of us possess, and they went out and made things, they made ideas that will outlast the teams themselves.

The takeaway: By making the idea bigger and more shareable, you’re making it better. When you start thinking of ideas that are not ads, but are instead movements or events or touchstones in popular culture, then you are buying into the belief that creativity is the only way to survive.

4. There is no such thing as a mistake.

RiswoldThis came from Jim Riswold, former creative director at Wieden+Kennedy. He’s famous for such Nike work as “Be Like Mike,” “Bo Knows” and pretty much everything else that came out of W+K that you have seen and remember. His advice was simple:

There is no such thing as a mistake. So long as you learn from it.

The takeaway: Stop worrying and keep creating. Stop looking to point fingers and start coming up with new solutions. Stop getting so mad about suggestions and outside thoughts and use that energy to generate new stuff. And when you foul all of this up, learn from all of it and try not to repeat it.

And when you do repeat it (and you will), see the above takeaway.

Go out and embrace each other’s unique takes on the world. Collaborate, solve problems, make mistakes, learn from them, make more mistakes, and then wash, rinse and repeat.

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