What strategists could learn from standup comedy

A while ago 4 of the best comedians of all time met and talked about their profession, sharing a whole bunch of insites that are valuable for all of us. It’s impressive to see and hear how much preparation goes into a good standup comedy show and that it’s not because they make it look like they’re inventing the jokes on stage that they haven’t prepared it in the tiniest detail. Here’s what I believe strategists could learn from Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock.

Find the unique human insights. Those things that we all recognise but that are often remain unsaid. When talking about how all 4 comedians find their jokes, they all make a reference to 2 very interesting things. First of all they don’t like ‘easy’ jokes. If you or I could have come up with the joke as well it’s probably not good enough. I like that. Secondly, while searching for their unique form of comedy they often get to human behavior that most of us recognize but don’t often talk about. At Duval Guillaume we search for what we call the ‘provocative insight’, those insights that are recognizable but often left unsaid. It’s there that we find a territory that will help us search for those creative ideas that will get people to talk about brands.

Keep a notebook with you all time, write down every little idea or piece of information, quote, … that you think has something of interest even if you don’t know what exactly what that something is when you write it down. Most comedians also develop their shows based on things they’ve read, heard, got annoyed by, … which eventually mixes up into a gread night out for all of us. Often in developing a good creative strategy it is about connecting the dots, it’s about making the connection between a piece of research, an article you’ve read somewhere, a drawing on the white board from another meeting, … Whether it’s a paper notebook or something else (I almost religiously chose for Evernote) write down everything that you thing sounds interesting when you hear it. You’ll find out later whether there is a use for it or not.

Talk about your ideas frequently with other people, also outside of the strategic department, also outside of the agency. By telling the idea you’ll find thing that don’t really sound right or still aren’t perfect match with your idea. And by the feedback, questions you’ll get you will refine your thoughts. Comedians will often try out their jokes (or partial jokes) on their friends, not only to see if they respond but ultimately to help develop the jokes. Jokes become better by sharing. It’s not that people will have to say whether they like the joke or not, it’s to see how they react so you can use that learning finetuning the joke. Same goes for strategy.

Deconstruct things / issues to the smallest little detail. While listening to Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld & Chris Rock I learned that they go to extreme lengths to tweak each joke in their show to the finest details. They say that it’s often the little things that make the greatest differences. The specific choice of words, the facial expressions, the posture on stage, … every little thing is tweaked to make sure it works perfectly. A strategy should be developed in the same way. It’s important the general vision of direction is the right one, but it are the little details that make it really come to life. Very often those little things are even more inspiring to creatives than the overarching thinking.

Know who you’re talking to and tweak your idea along the way. Even when you’ve done everything to prepare yourself, made sure that it will work every show is different, every audience is different. It’s a different city, another vibe, … but it’s important for comedians to ‘feel’ the room they’re performing in and add little tweaks to the show while they’re doing it. So apart from the obvious ‘hello city x’ which is different every time there will be more things that will need to be different every show. Of course when you’re a skilled comedian, it’s still you on stage so you can be agile throughout the show. Strategists need to apply that same agility. The strategy might look good on paper, allow it to evolve throughout the process. Maybe it’s the client that added a thought worth including or the creatives find ideas that will influence the strategy. None of that is bad as long as you focus on what the end result is so let it happen, tweak along the way.

Put the hours in. But that’s what you have to do in any job that you want to be successful in. Put the hours in, there’s no such thing as a free ride. I’ve blogged about this before and when you watch the video you’ll see that it’s a common element of success for all 4 comedians, they are all – still today – working very hard.

Watch the full ‘Talking Funny’ video to see for yourself how those 4 talented comedians look at their work:

Don’t just think different, hire different

Not that long ago a write a bit on ‘hiring omnivores‘ trying to highlight again that we need to rethink the way we hire people if we want the advertising of the future to be any different than the advertising we’ve grown up with. And which we hate, or at least most of it. It’s not even a new idea, read on what Bill Bernbach wrote when he resigned from Grey long time ago:

“There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this sort or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier reading. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

And he continues:

“In the past year I must have interviewed about 80 people – writers and artists. Many of them were from the so-called giants of the agency field. It was appalling to see how few of these people were genuinely creative. Sure, they had advertising know-how. Yes, they were up on advertising technique. But look beneath the technique and what did you find? A sameness, a mental weariness, a mediocrity of ideas. But they could defend every ad on the basis that it obeyed the rules of advertising. It was like worshiping a ritual instead of the God.”

All of this ain’t really new and yet very little agencies hire differently. Agencies hire out of other agencies, people are presented to the same type of ‘tests’ everywhere, test that need to reassure that the people hired know their ad basics.

And it goes beyond that. Not only is it interesting to hire different kind of people than what you would regularly find in advertising, it’s also interesting to hire people that haven’t followed a clear path. People that have been in various jobs with various experiences as they will use of all those learnings on the job. When Ian Fitzpatrick (Chief Strategy Office at Almighty) wrote about his 5 provocations, the fact that his experience before landing the job was all but planning-related made him stronger.

“If I impart nothing else today, I’d like to convince you that there are many paths up the mountain. Most of you are going to be graduating soon, with an advanced degree in advertising. I imagine that many, if not most, of you imagine that you’ll take a junior planning role at a large agency, work your way up to Planner, to Senior Planner, VP of Planning/Strategy, etc. I’m not here to suggest that this is the wrong path for you, just that it’s not the only one.”

Never underestimate the potential impact it can have to mix very different type of people with various backgrounds together. How can you in advertising, or anywhere else for that matter, trying to solve problems in a different way when you’re trying to solve it with the same people that tried to solve it years ago.

And not just agency side for that matter. I remember Guillaume (one of our agency’s founders) writing a few years ago:

“The lesson is this: If you want something new to happen, ask it to people with zero experience. Chances they come up with more of the same are small.”

Think about it. Who did you hire recently that didn’t immediatly seem to fit in? Who did you hire recently that you would have to define his/her role on the job, because it doesn’t exist yet.

The strategy is delivery: it’s not complicated, it’s just hard

Neil Perkin does many interesting things. One of those things is organizing the so called “Google Firestarters” which he curates for Google UK. Last Monday he had invited Russell Davies, planning legend and now creative director at GDS, to come and talk about his learnings and insights working on GOV.uk. Fascinating talk, well worth crossing the channel for.

For those who, like me, don’t know what GDS stands for: Government Digital Service. They lead the digital transformation of government.

Back to the talk. Russell talked about GDS and how they started working on GOV.uk, what their design principles were, how they made decisions about what to do and maybe more importantly what not to do. And every single thing they do is shared publicly, which is as you can see on the the principles, something they thoroughly believe in.

  1. Start with needs
  2. Do less
  3. Design with data
  4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  5. Iterate. Then iterate again.
  6. Build for inclusion
  7. Understand context
  8. Build digital services, not websites
  9. Be consistent, not uniform
  10. Make things open: it makes things better

Read all about it on the GDS design principles right here. The second part of his talk was about why all of the GDS’ learnings building GOV.uk are interesting for anyone in marketing & advertising. In the past it used to be difficult to make a brilliant product, but marketing was easy. The craft and machinery needed to make something brilliant was not accessible for many, the few media channels with immense reach to advertise to people was pretty easy to use. Today that has changed said Russell. Today making a brilliant product has become far more easy than it ever was, but marketing it has become very complex. And thus marketers today are focusing fully on trying to digitize the marketing part of things, whereas we should think about complete digital transformation of the business we’re in.

Other things they found out during the whole process. Things that we all need to think about and see how we can learn from it are:

Attention. It’s one thing to win people’s attention, it’s a whole different thing to make sure you respect the attention you were granted. There’s generally too much focus on getting people to notice what you’re doing and too little focus about making sure you do something with that attention. To quote Russell:

“If you made something brilliant and it doesn’t explain itself you haven’t made something brilliant”

Reputation. A brand is a promise, reputation is delivery. You can’t build a brand based on what you’re going to do.

Culture. When you want to transform your whole business like you should, everyone should be on board for this. You need to work on the culture of the company that digital thinking becomes the default mindset.

The product is the service is the marketing. Ask yourself: what would Amazon do? They would get it wrong for a while, then have more data than any traditional business ever will and they’ll win. Because of their digital thinking habit, not because they’re smarter.

Thanks for a great event Neil. Thanks for a great talk Russell.

Bonus link – From April 2014, digital services from the UK government must meet the new Digital by Default Service Standard. For that GDS developed the Government Service Design Manual, and yes also that is publicly available for all of us.

Image creditScriberia made the visualization of the talk.

Design is not just what it looks like. It’s how it works.

Design. Is Apple losing focus on one of it’s most essential unique strengths?

For a big test we did for Belgian Cowboys recently some members on the editorial team including myself switched from iOS to Android for a while. Not just to see if we liked it or not but also to find out if that switch was so hard as we expected it to be. “What about all those apps I bought? Why start all over again? Will it be as easy to use as what I’m used to now?” A whole series of questions which I presume most of us will recognize come to mind when thinking of such a switch.

Since this article isn’t about that switch I can tell you quickly that that test went really well. I’m currently switching between the HTC One and the HTC One Mini for another test and I don’t miss my iPhone for a second. Actually I find it better on many levels. That made me wonder about a few things.

How come for instance that I find the notifications in Android really useful whereas I don’t even look at them on my iPhone? The set-up is kind of the same so why is that? Looking at both from a basic UI design point of view they are very similar indeed. It’s a drop down menu you pull from the top of your screen with several notifications pointing to apps that need your attention for whatever reason. On Android I will open that screen and either swipe the notifications away or take action. On iPhone I open that view once every month or so to delete these notifications, app by app.

Another example is the on-screen keyboard. On Android I’m using Swype, probably the most productive add-on for a touch screen devices in a long time. Whenever I need to use my iPhone or iPad again I cannot help but be annoyed by the fact that I have to type in the ‘traditional’ way. And that’s not even mentioning the re-design of iOS7.

So how come that on many levels the Android platform is outperforming iOS, whether it’s thanks to core Android development or because of the opportunity to personalise it with technology created by its eco-system? I’m thinking that Apple has actually forgot about the essence of design, a vision it shared openly and that many are taking as an example.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works” – Steve Jobs

When you think of that and the examples I mentioned before (and there are more) you can only come to the conclusion that the focus of Apple lately was on design as in ‘what it looks like’ and that Google has taken the lead on design as in ‘how it works’. In the last 12-18 months, Google and its eco-system have upgraded the better user experience, Apple has overhauled look & feel. And that’s a pity. Not just because it makes the iPhone a less interesting device but it’s a sign of Apple forgetting about it’s own very essence.

My 2 cents.

The age of the micro multinational

“If the late 20th Century was the age of the multinational company, the early 21st will be the age of the micro multinational: small companies that operate globally”

I found this great quote on Neil Perkin’s ‘Only Dead Fish’. It’s a statement from Hal Varian, Google Chief Economist and I can only like what I see here. It supports our own opinion (at Duval Guillaume) that you don’t need to be huge or have offices around the whole world to be able to service clients globally. 

A recent Policy Brief from the Lisbon Council states:

“Traditionally, these small, self-starting, service-driven companies would have been described as small- and medium- sized enterprises, or SMEs, but thanks to the Internet, the emergence of new business platforms and the increased openness of the global economy, these companies can enter markets with a minimum of bureaucracy and overhead. Add to that their unparalleled ability to respond promptly to changing market developments, a collaborative DNA that often translates into superior innovation performance and the lack of the institutional inertia and legacy relationships plaguing larger organizations, and one begins to see the transformative and paradigm-changing potential.”

According the brief the big paradigm shifts that are taking place making all this happen are:

  • Most jobs are created by young companies and start-ups
  • Today technology makes it possible for small companies to gain the reach and traction of big companies at very low cost
  • New platforms and online business services are making it easier for small companies to focus on areas where they add value
  • Internationalization – the key to success for almost all contemporary businesses, large and small – is easier to achieve via the Internet
  • Today’s workforce has changing priorities
  • Experienced and highly skilled individuals are setting out in record numbers to work for themselves

Yet another reason why the future looks bright.

Truth is people don’t actually like creativity

There was an interesting article in Slate a few weeks ago about the bias against creativity, about the fact that most people say they like creativity but that the truth is we really don’t. And since I work in a creative agency often presenting creative ideas to clients the theory based on a 2011 study used in this article makes a whole lot of sense to me.

“We think of creative people in a heroic manner, and we celebrate them, but the thing we celebrate is the after-effect,” says Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley business school who specializes in creativity. Staw says most people are risk-averse. He refers to them as satisfiers. “As much as we celebrate independence in Western cultures, there is an awful lot of pressure to conform,” he says. Satisfiers avoid stirring things up, even if it means forsaking the truth or rejecting a good idea.  Even people who say they are looking for creativity react negatively to creative ideas, as demonstrated in a 2011 study from the University of Pennsylvania. Uncertainty is an inherent part of new ideas, and it’s also something that most people would do almost anything to avoid. People’s partiality toward certainty biases them against creative ideas and can interfere with their ability to even recognize creative ideas .

Clients will come to us for creative tasks since that’s what we’re most known for. You can literally witness though how the creative ideas that were presented and liked by the clients will be softened once they start to move through the chain of command. That is if you allow that to happen, we’re quite protective on the essence of an idea to make sure that while we’re very open to tweak it we will make sure that that essential core idea is never lost.

Most people agree that what distinguishes those who become famously creative is their resilience. While creativity at times is very rewarding, it is not about happiness. Staw says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”

And of course I realize like anyone else that some creative ideas are just not good or are creative but not an answer to the question or briefing at hand. This is purely about ideas that are recognized as good and creative and how they are being judged during the decision process. This is about how people often reject creative ideas even when espousing creativity as a desired goal (as the research so eloquently puts it).

In terms of decision style, most people also fall short of the creative ideal. they are satisficers rather than searcher for the optimal or most desirable solution. They follow a number of energy-saving heuristics that generally lead to a set of systematic biases or inaccuracies in processing information. And, unless they are held accountable for their decision-making strategies, they tend to find the easy way out – either by not engaging in very careful thinking or by modeling their choices on the preferences of those who will be evaluating them.

Especially that last sentence is a problem I think. Not only in judging creativity by the way. When people make decision upon what they think someone else will probably think of it instead of what they think themselves sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. There’s a clear link with management style there as well. How much do you empower your own people? It seems that to enable creativity you need to do that.

Instead of issuing directives and policy statements and hoping that they will be obeyed, innovative firms must encourage disobedience. In fact, those in power should go so far as to encourage active opposition. Innovative organizations are those that harbor multiple perspectives and objectives, not simply a variety of views.

Last but not least, it’s also why creativity takes courage – dixit Henri Matisse. Definitely an interesting read, be sure to check the full article.