Monday, June 29, 2009

Find Your Inspirational "Happy Place"

We all have a "Happy Place".

I'm not talking about a location we just enjoy.

But a place where we really feel at home, and connected to our "true" selves.

A place where we are able to think clearly, remember what's important to us, and get back in touch with what we really want and believe.

Mine is a house on a lake in Western Massachusetts that belongs to very close family friends.

Many of my happiest childhood memories involve family outings to this place.

I was lucky enough to spend some time there this past weekend.

Up early before anyone else on Saturday morning I sat looking over the still lake, and I felt rested in a way that I haven't in a long time.

I didn't realize how much I had been missing and needing this place, until I was back there.

While I am lucky enough to get back to this lake once a summer... I was thinking how can I harness the energy of this place when I need it on a more regular basis?

I started to think about other places where I felt this kind of peace that, for me, often leads to a renewal of creative energy.

I realized there were a few other more local places that gave me a similar feeling:

- the second floor of my local library overlooking the Hudson river
- the quiet car of the Amtrak Acela train along the coast to Boston
- the sanctuary of my synagogue

These places seem to be quite different from one another on the surface.

But when I thought about it they have a lot in common.

Many involve a view of water, all are relatively quiet, all involve reflection and an ability to be with other people but also be alone with my own thoughts at the same time.

By identifying these similarities and realizing I had more options than a scenic (but somewhat impractical) 3 and a half hour trip to Western Massachusetts, I immediately felt better.

The renewal I need to keep the creative juices flowing is here and accessible.

It's just up to me to make the time and conscious effort to visit my local "Happy Places" more often.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?
Where's your "Happy Place"?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Keep Your Ideas in a Drawer

Not forever, but at least for a day or two.

Sometimes we get so caught up in a new idea that we want to shout it from the rooftops or share it with the world...right away.

But my experience is that most ideas actually benefit from a little marination.

I always try to adhere to the 24 hour rule.

I'll work feverishly on something, then put it away in a drawer for a day. Then when I take it out, if I am still as passionate about it as I was 24 hours before I will share it as is.

But most often what happens, is when I read it a day later, there are a lot of things I'd like to keep the same. But also a few tweaks I'd like to make.

This doesn't mean watering it down.

It just means taking a second look to see if it makes as much sense as I thought it did during my burst of creative energy.

And often it means showing it to someone else for a second opinion.

However, I've found if I do show it to someone else, it's really important to be clear what kind of input I'm looking for.

The smart folks at ?WhatIf! call this "signalling". In other words, inviting commentary in a positive way.

For example, "I'm excited about this idea, I am still working on it and was wondering if you could help me build it?" or "I am looking for input in this specific area..."

This will avoid some of the well-intentioned but often soul-crushing input we often get when opening our ideas up to others.

In either case, letting a idea breathe for a day or so often helps it to become stronger.

And by the way, this 24 hour rule applies nicely to those impassioned late night emails we all write, usually when we're fed up about something. Put the email in your drafts folder and see if you feel the same way in the morning.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?
Do you give your ideas some breathing room?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

5 Ways to Be a Better Client

I got good response (many via Facebook) on Monday's post on "5 Key Agency Mistakes".

A few people suggested I turn the tables and outline some criteria for being a good Client.

The following is based on reader suggestions (thank you, you know who you are) as well as my experience (again) having been on both sides of the table.

So here goes:

5 Ways to Be a Better Client:

1.You hired the Agency for their expertise- now listen
Clients spend a lot of time seeking out just the right partner to help them attack a particular problem or maximize and opportunity. And then many end up questioning and pushing back on every suggestion. Some challenging is definitely healthy, but pushing back on everything signals either a bad fit, a lack of trust, or the inability to cede control. Let the experts do the job you chose them for.

2.Ask for ideas outside of your Agency's core competency
At the same time, it's great to bring your agency into decisions that are outside of their immediate zone of expertise. It shows that you really value them as a strategic/creative partner and it may also lead to a fresh point of view. I've gotten fabulous naming suggestions from a graphic designer, and terrific partnership ideas from my research company.

3 All great work begins with a great brief. Or at least a well thought out one. Take the time to write down and think through, what you really want. What does success look like and how will the idea/output need to be socialized before it is implemented? This can be a collaborative process with the Agency, but take the time up front to do it and really listen to the Agency's suggestions and concerns. They've seen lots of briefs (both good and bad) and can recognize pitfalls early on (see point 1).

In case you haven't seen it hilarious video about the process of creating a "better stop sign". Notice how the brief keeps evolving.

4. Be demanding, but not completely unreasonable. It's fine to push and we are all under a lot of pressure for deadlines and fire drills from management. But too many "I need this by tomorrow at 8 am" (when you are calling at 6pm) will just burn out the Agency and over time the work will suffer. It's a bit like the boy crying wolf. Step back and think is it really an emergency, or just poor planning. If its the latter, think what changes you can make to minimize this.

5. Say thank you, often and loudly. Nothing motivates like genuine praise. It will keep your partners going the extra mile, forgiving some minor transgressions on points 1-4 and keep the best people wanting to work on your account. Consider going beyond the one on one thank you to a more public acknowledgement. Allow them to present your work at conferences, thank them publicly when presenting the ideas internally, even share some credit in the press. Acknowledgement for work well done, helps keep Agencies strong by attracting high caliber talent and clients. This will benefit you in the long run.

Plus it's just good manners to acknowledge other people's hard work and positive contributions and ...god knows we could all use more of that.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?
How do Clients shine or stumble?

Monday, June 22, 2009

5 Key Agency Mistakes

I spent the first 20 years of my career on the agency side (Grey, Interbrand) and then I became a client (Virgin).

Boy, do I have a whole new perspective now.

It’s like that movie “Switch” by Blake Edwards

Don’t know if you seen it, but this man womanizes one too many women and is shot by his angry jilted lover. Instead of dying, God sends him back to earth in the body of a woman to see what it really feels like to be on the receiving end of all his wrong doing.

The body he inhabits, by the way is Ellen Barkin’s body ( not too shabby).

Anyway, it’s full of lots of funny sight gags and some touching insight into how the “other half” lives.

I feel lucky to have this unique, albeit somewhat different, perspective now too.
After almost 3 years as a client, I’ve sat through a fair number of pitches and worked with all sorts of agencies (e.g. advertising, branding, web, and research) and I think I’ve gained some valuable insight.

Most of this is actually blindingly obvious and probably things that you already know. But the question is, are you following these principles? Or do you get lazy, or tired, or scared and revert back to bad behaviors?

Here’s my advice for Agencies (from someone who’s been on both sides. Note: these are my personal opinions- they don't represent a formal Virgin point of view:

Top 5 Agency Mistakes

1. Stop showing your “proprietary” model. You may think your pyramid,triangle, hexagon, trapezoid is unique. Trust me, it's not. Everyone's got a shape. The more important thing is how do you think? And the best way to demonstrate this is to actually come in with a point of view about my brand. It can be way off base. It doesn't really matter. As long as you've done your homework, maybe some man in the street research, and made some logical assumptions. The important thing is to show (not tell) how you get from point A to point B.

2. Choose the right team to bring to the meeting. Don't bring people who genuinely don't like each other. You may think it doesn't show but it does. After meeting one agency, we weren't ready to hire them...but we did seriously discuss pitching in for their group therapy. The dysfunctional nature of the team was that obvious. Also don't bring too many people, and people who don't have a role in the meeting. It's a foreshadowing of large, ineffective and expensive project teams to come.

3. Once you win the business start right away. It's like having a great date and then having to wait days and months to see each other again. It takes the buzz off the romance. The contracts and terms need to be worked out, but don't let that get in the way of harnessing the positive chemistry and beginning to work together. The day after you get the good news, take the client to breakfast or drinks, and just start talking and maybe even a bit of back of napkin sketching.

4. Once you pass the honeymoon period don't disappear. I understand the economics of many of the Agency pricing models. It certainly doesn't make financial sense to maintain 100% of the Creative Director's time as the project moves from the idea to implementation phase. However, that doesn't mean they should become a ghost. There are low cost ways to keep in touch. Give a call from time to time, drop in for lunch etc. It's by staying in touch when you are not really needed that you prove loyalty and stay top of mind for the next project.

5. Ignoring your own internal culture. Many brands like Virgin have strong internal cultures. We gravitate to Agency's that also do. They have a good time, don't take themselves too seriously, and celebrate their people and their culture. This could mean sending out fun and inexpensive tchotchkes, sharing interesting facts about their own people on the walls or website (even in the bathroom stalls) and generally putting some action behind the overused assertion that "our people are our greatest asset/differentiators". Often I'm invited to Agency celebrations, and most of the time I can't or don't go. But it's important to know that they are happening. Because usually that means they are attracting and keeping talented people. And that's good for everyone.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?
How do Agencies succeed or fail on your eyes?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Becoming Digitally Fluent

I’m on a journey…to digital fluency.

It’s a long and bumpy road, but I’m glad I’m on it.

Everyday I encounter new obstacles and things I don't know. But I am committed to staying on course.

I've been thinking alot about the lessons I've learned in the relatively short time that I've been climbing this mountain.

I thought it might be interesting, helpful, dare I dream...inspiring share what I've learned so far.

To make it seem a bit less overwhelming I’ve come up with this acronym, which incorporates 5 key steps to digital fluency. I call it SMART.

S- is for Start. Take the first step. Every journey begins with one. Depending on your current level of fluency that could mean joining Facebook, signing up for Twitter, or in my case… starting this blog.

M- is for making connections. The real point of social networking is to connect with people. So it’s not enough just to join a network and ignore it. You’ve got to reach out to other people. Leave comments on their posts or updates, retweet interesting content. Get involved in the conversation.

A- is for Ask. Ask questions when you don’t understand something. I spent most of the day at the Wired conference on Monday wondering if "the cloud" everyone was talking about was the real one looming omninously outside. I finally asked my seatmate and realized it was the computing one.

R- reach out to people that have a higher level of fluency than you do and ask them to teach you. Twitter is actually an amazing way to engage with experts. I reached out to Steve Farnsworth on Twitter and he was incredibly generous with his advice.

T- is for making time to actively explore this new world. It doesn’t mean you have to drop everything to Tweet all day. But it does mean recognizing that technology, like all skills and hobbies, can't be mastered in a day. Set aside 15 minutes every morning to surf interesting blogs or read a magazine on technology (like Wired), or even just the wikipedia definitions of terms you keep hearing but don't understand.

SMART. Maybe a oversimplification, dare I say a dumb, way to look at it.

But as I said, hey at least I'm trying.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

What are you doing to improve your digital fluency?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Disruptive by Design

Monday I went to a Wired Magazine conference called “Disruptive by Design”. (Twitter#WiredLive).

It had great speakers like Jeff Immelt (GE), Elon Musk (Telsa Motors/SpaceX), Shai Agassi (Better Place)and Vivek Kundra (the Information Technology czar for the Obama administration) just to name a few.

All of these guys were mesmerizing with their passion and conviction around technologies and business ideas that are disruptive and game changing.

But far and away my favorite of the day was Jeff Bezos (Amazon founder).

He made the pursuit of innovation personal and accessible. He talked about his conviction even in the early difficult days that Amazon would make it and his passion for his latest invention, the Kindle.

Here are a few choice tidbits from his speech (quoted semi-accurately, but you'll get the meaning):

"If you are going to be disruptive, you have to be willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time."

"Companies over dramatize failure. Failures of commission (taking action) are rarely that expensive. The real danger is in failures of omission (not seizing an opportunity)."

"Amazon makes decisions on business extensions by working backwards from consumer needs or working forwards from our skill sets."

"I always told my staff not to take fluctuations in stock prices too seriously. If you feel 30% smarter the day our stock goes up by that amount, are you going to feel 30% dumber the day it drops down?"

He says he knew that Amazon was going to make it even when the stock was tanking partly because it's harshest critics were among their best customers.

He talked about the power of the Kindle being that it is a singular focused device. He thought multi-taking devices were often over-rated.

"I love my smart phone, I love my Swiss army knife, but sometimes when I'm sitting down for a great meal, I love my steak knife."

I think it's fascinating that he's taking on books, which for many are sacred objects, and declaring "they've had a good 500 year run" but it's time for something new.

His problem with books? Too heavy, hard to turn the page with one hand, hard to find your place again, always closing at the wrong moment.

His problem with reading on another "multi tasking device" like a laptop? Too hot, too cumbersome, and not that easy to curl up in bed with.

I haven't tried a Kindle yet. But I'm curious. The people I know who have them seem to be passionate advocates. (Always a good sign).

I think time will tell if the Kindle really is a better mousetrap. But I know for sure that whether it fails or succeeds, Jeff Bezos is someone who is not going to stop disrupting.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

Is the Kindle a disruptive innovation or a fad destined for failure?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Name that Tune

Music is such an incredible way to make connections and evoke emotions.

Why is it so under-leveraged in branding?

I can't remember a lot of things I did last month, or even last week...but hum a few bars of my favorite childhood jingles and I can instantly recall all the words.

"My Baloney has a first name. It's O-S-C-A-R.

"Honeycomb's big, yeah, yeah, yeah."

or even more recent ones...

"Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's Maybelline."

Aural or sonic branding isn't just about jingles.

It can also be about associating songs with commercials (Apple's "New Soul" for the Airbook is a great example of this).

Or a unique sound that is tied with use of that brand (e.g The T-Mobile sound when you turn your phone on or the Intel Inside notes that accompany that brand signature).

It can be a particular voice that's connected with a brand (e.g. James Earl Jones intoning "This is CNN").

Brands seems to spend so much time on the look of the product and the campaigns.

Who is thinking about the sound?

In my current job I've met a few agencies that focus on Sonic branding. But it still seems to be a relatively niche discipline, although one I believe is worthy of more attention.

Next time you are brainstorming ways to make your advertising and branding work harder, shut your eyes, open your ears and think about sound and how it could work to your advantage.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

How are brands effectively leveraging sound? Should they be doing more?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Go Out and Explore!

Too often we substitute the ease of exploration on the internet for actual experience. But it’s really not the same.

Maybe we’re too busy, maybe we’re lazy…but I think if you are really serious about innovation you’ve got to get out and experience the world.

A few years back I was working as part of a team of consultants on a re-positioning for a pet food brand.

We met with the clients, read the research decks, did our competitive scavenger hunt online.

But it was months into the project when I realized we had yet to come face to face with an actual dog or cat, or their human companions for that matter.

So we quickly turned that around. We went into pet stores and talked to people who worked there and people who shopped there.

We went to the famous “dog run” in Central Park and observed and interacted with pet owners and their offspring and got to see first hand the behaviors and rules of social interaction on “doggie play dates”.

We did an in-home interview with a puppy owner who calmly told us how she didn’t treat her dog like a human baby, but her body language revealed something all together different as she lovingly stroked her Cockapoo.

The reserach decks and internet gave us valuable information for the project. But the real world and person to person efforts gave us something that was much more valuable...insight.

A great team exploration activity that I’ve used successfully for both clients and internal audiences is a Brand Safari.

Here's how it works: split the group into smaller teams, pick neighborhoods or landmarks, equip each with a map, a camera and a list of tasks or questions and then send them off into the real world.

Set a time limit so there’s a sense of urgency and healthy competition. Encourage interaction with real consumers at their destinations. Re-group when everyone comes back to the office and share what you’ve learned.

The best way to get insight into consumers and brands is to go out and experience the world - not the computer generated world- the real one.

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?
What inspirational places would be on your Brand Safari list?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Feeling Butterflies?

When is the last time you felt butterflies in your stomach?

If you can't remember, maybe it's been too long since you ventured out of your comfort zone.

We all need to take risks in order to learn and achieve something new.

Sometimes this can be a big butterfly moment like taking on a new job, moving to a different country, or getting up and speaking in front of hundreds of people.

Sometimes it can be a little butterfly moment, like speaking up in a meeting with a controversial or unusual idea. Or introducing yourself to strangers at a networking event.

I had a butterfly "moment" that lasted about 3 years when I moved to France with my job back in the early 90's.

I didn't know anyone, I didn't speak the language, and I was walking into a new role with a challenging client.

It was the hardest and best thing I've ever done.

The first 6 months were excruciatingly difficult and exhausting. But eventually I found my way. I learned the language. I made friends both in and outside of my job. I got to visit some amazing places in France and all of Europe.

And I met the man who would eventually become my husband and the father of my kids.

It started with an enormous flutter, but at the end of 3 years I count my time in France as one of my life's formative experiences.

I've had many butterfly moments since then (although probably none as intense).

But I've actually learned to be comfortable and even seek out that feeling.

Sometimes when it seems like things are getting too comfortable and complacent (particularly in my professional life) I find myself gravitating towards new challenges and I start to feel the rumbling of tiny wings.

It's definitely not always easy or convenient. But I've learned to recognize that flutter as a positive signal.

Even if we have a bad experience or a difficult time doing whatever it is that's making us stretch, in general it's still growth and learning... and as human beings and as innovators isn't that what life is really all about?.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

When's the last time you felt butterflies?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Start Making Scents

Fragrance is one of the most powerful triggers of memory and emotion, yet it is largely under-leveraged as part of the creative process.

Whenever I smell vanilla or Cinnamon I think of Thanksgiving and watching my mom prepare her famous apple pies. Automatically I feel warm and secure.

When I smell fresh cut grass, I think of lazy summer days of my childhood and I feel like anything is possible.

Polo by Ralph Lauren reminds me of my student days and early crushes.

My list could go on and on, and I'm sure you would have lots of examples of your own to add.

So why is scent such a infrequent part of our efforts to create brands that connect on an emotional level?

Here's an idea, next time you are planning a brainstorming don't just include visual stimulus. Introduce some scents that are related to the benefits and emotions you are exploring.

Bring in scented candles, spices, food, iconic perfumes. Close your eyes, inhale and let the scents and emotions transport you to vivid associations...and perhaps new ideas.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

What scents transport you?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Three's a Crowd?

We all know three's a crowd, but can crowds be the new answer to innovation?

Yesterday I published a post on the right timing for creating, evaluating, and killing (if need be) new ideas.

Thanks to one reader, Sara, I learned about Quirky a community from the creator of Mophie and Kluster set up as a way for people to expose their ideas to a larger groups and get feedback (all for $99 bucks).

I think it's worth checking out.

My own experience with Crowd sourcing has been pretty positive to date. I used the website 99 Designs to create my Brand Twist Logo.

99 Designs let's you launch contests to create branding elements (websites, logos, etc). You write a brief, pick a prize amount, and for 7 days designers from around the world bid on your contest by submitting designs.

You have to keep giving feedback in order for your contest to stay healthy and attract the best talent. At the end of 7 days (some extensions allowed) you pick a winning design, release the money, and go through a file transfer to get the artwork.

While I know this site is not without some controversy in the design community...particularly because the prices are very low (the average for a logo is $300) my experience was very positive. I felt it to be in many ways very similar to the traditional agency design process.

Many of the submissions weren't very good, but a lot were. And the journey of seeing what I liked and what I rejected helped me hone in on what Brand Twist means to me as a brand. The tag line I use "a fresh approach to new ideas" was also an added bonus, it was suggested by a designer- unsolicited.

As in any design process, your output is only as good as your input so it was critical that I had a well thought out and well-written brief and that I gave continual, specific and constructive feedback to my designers.

I ended up choosing a design and a designer that I created a bond with (albeit virtually). Like most great designers he brought me ideas that went beyond the original brief and that I really liked. He also made some strategic suggestions that helped me in deciding which way I wanted to go.

The main difference, I guess, is that he was an anonymous face in the crowd and our whole relationship was virtual.

Only after I awarded the job did I learn his name and that he live in Greece.

Love it or hate it, I think crowd-sourcing for both evaluation (like Quirky) and creation (like 99 Designs) is here to stay.

The question for me is not whether it's good or evil, but how do we get the most value from it. Not in a monetary sense, but how can it best be leveraged to fruitfully further ideas.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

How are you using crowd-sourcing?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Ready, Set, No!

What's the right timing for innovation?

I'm not talking about developing ideas and getting to market.

I'm talking about thinking something through, making a decision, and if it's not meant to be moving on to the next thing.

Lots of energy is spent about getting ideas to market faster. But I think we should pay more attention to the time lines for killing ideas that just aren't going to make it.

Too often we let ideas linger. Either through indecision, inertia, or sometimes just the lack of courage to take action.

What's the harm? Well, the problem is that most of us has limited creative and literal resources. So if we spend time on dead-ends, it may be keeping us from applying energy to other ideas.

Recently I met with the guys from Ozo Labs and they were very upfront about some mistakes and lessons they've learned in this area. They've spent too much time lingering in the zone of "going nowhere".

So now they either do one of two things: 1) set a finite limit on the exploration of any one idea (ex. 3 months) or 2) give the idea to someone out side of the core group to explore. That way they have a fresh set of ideas looking at the opportunity, and the core group is freed up to move onto something else.

Last month I was on a panel with a terrific woman from Hasbro who is in charge of consumer insights. Given the nature of the toy business, they are coming out with 1,000's of new SKU's every year. They can't afford to waste any time. So they've gotten really good at saying no ...definitively - and early on.

Rather than quash innovation, this actually helps encourage it. It keeps the passion and energy level high instead of letting it get wasted on ideas that don't have a real chance.

Are you spending too much time kicking the same tired ideas around? It may be keeping you from uncovering some better ideas. Next time, try setting a time limit on idea exploration. It might actually help you speed things up.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

Do you have the discipline to move on quickly from dead-end ideas?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Flat is the New Growth

"Flat is the new growth". I heard this expression the other day, and I thought it was witty.

And then I started to really think about it and I thought is was kind of depressing...and dangerous.

I'm a realist (mostly). Well at least I read the paper (when I've finished the crossword) and I know what's going on. Times are tough. But I don't think we can let that be an excuse for complacency.

Flat may be what the markets are aspiring to, but "Flat" should never become the accepted standard for innovation.

We need to keep pressing on and moving upward, even when it feels like an uphill battle. Actually, especially when it feels like an uphill battle.

These are time of great unrest, but from this turbulence can come some fantastic ideas. The trick is to embrace the uncertainty and use it as a force of liberation and not of stagnation.

After all, it won't always be like this. But if for now expectations are low, think how incredibly easy it is to exceed them. It may just be the perfect time to take a risk.

Many categories have quieted down in terms of spending and activity. You can make a big bang for a little buck right now.

Not that long ago I was at the launch of Virgin America's new service to Boston. Amid all the speeches from the celebrities and politicians that were at the launch, one statement really struck a chord.

The head of Massport thanked Virgin for opening a route to Boston in these rocky times. Not just because of the business and jobs it would bring to the city ...but also for the signal it sent to the consumers that life and business were moving on.

He stressed how important it was for consumer confidence for companies to keep investing and innovating and that actions like the Boston launch send a powerful, tangible message.

Consider an action you've been hesitating about in your business. Why not go ahead and start the ball rolling? What have you got to lose?

I believe that negative thinking breeds negative actions and that positive momentum can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That's my point of view. What's your twist?

How are you taking advantage of the current lull to shake things up?