Category Archives: Creativity Watch

What happened to our magnetic north? on the decline of the avant garde

Magnet Phil Sheridan offers a new point of view on the music industry. He rehearses the things the music press has always said about the music industry; that it is tone-def, greedy, payola ridden, crass, manipulative, and exploitative. 

And then he offers this stunning change of heart:

we owe the vile and disgusting record industry a lot more than it’s popular to admit.  …  [T]here is a certain value in having a structure in place that more or less served to discover and develop talented music artists. 

I guess this was foreseeable.  In an era of plenitude and the long tail, of a music scene with literally hundreds of musical forms and millions of musical producers, the very structure of "music world" has changed.  Where once there were the studios who played bank and gatekeeper (supplying capital in exchange for the right to choose) now we live in a world with millions of acts and tracks.  In this windstorm of creative possibility, the old regime looks a little less draconian.  And the practical question rises: could there be talents on the order of Dylan, Morrissey, Morrison, Hendrix, Johnson, or Rogers Nelson who will never find the light of day.  In this context, the likes of Ahmet Ertgun and Seymour Stein look less than robber barons and more like talent dowsers we can no longer live without.

This doesn’t take anything away from the imagination and daring Sheridan exhibits when he writes such a piece.  The alternative music press has it’s orthodoxies and this was one of them, no sympathy for the devil.  Commerce corrupts.  Business is bad.  F*ck the man. 

But what is really striking about the piece is the second half.  Sheridan reviews an interesting case: The Clash v. CBS Records.  The argument is intricate but the upshot is clear: The Clash would never have written Complete Control has CBS not tinkered with Remote Control.  Sheridan summons comparable evidence from the careers of the Kinks, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Wilco and the Wrens.

Rock ‘n’ roll needed something to rebel against,  Whether that was a stifling ’50s mainstream culture, a disastrous war in Vietnam or the record industry itself was immaterial.  Without an evil, oppressive establishment, rebellion is just so much jerking off.

This goes to a deeper, culture problem.  A lot of creativity and cultural innovation in our world was predicated on a contest between the center and the margin, mainstream and avant garde, middle class and artist class,  age and youth, privilege and risk, tedium and imagination, orthodoxy and departure. 

But things have changed.   (How much it has changed and precisely why and where this change has taken place I leave to more contemplative circumstances (and bloggers).)  Generalizing a little, we can say that the center now has some of the creativity and risk taking capability of the margin, the middle class sometimes is an artist class, and that increasingly the culture of capitalism beats the drum of innovation so insistently that privilege, tedium and orthodoxy have gone to the margin and all of us must hew to the cause of risk, imagination and departure. 

The anthropological problem is simple: what differences does this difference make to our culture?  If creativity no longer comes from an avant garde, one of the great tectonic structures of our culture has changed. 

Maybe this is one of those differences that doesnt make a difference.  I mean, really, does it matter where creativity comes from.  Does it have to come from a contradiction between insiders and outsiders?  Isn’t cultural innovation innovation whatever its origins?  Who cares if the location of creativity has changed.

I think it does make a difference, and we can see everywhere in our culture.   Sheridan is raising the issue for the world of music.  He is right to ask  "Without a them, who is us?"  Certain fundamentals of the musical identity are now at issue. 

There was something clarifying about outsider status.  The avant garde represented a fairly simple operator, to use the language of James Boon.  When all other inspiration and orientation failed her, the artist could say at least, "I am not what the insider is."  Now that this "true north" of the avant garde compass has failed us all, certain matters of cultural orientation are not clear. 

Take the case of Stephen Soderbergh.  He now alternates between mainstream movies (the Oceans franchise) and arthouse picture (Che).  Here’s a guy who once had to choose between alternatives.  Now he is free to mix and match.  I wish I knew his work better, but it seems as if each new project is either one or the other.  In a more perfect world, the two impulses would comingle in the same film. 

Take the case of poor Thomas Frank who with each new book continues to thrash about in search of his oppositional opportunity.  The outsider status is no longer filled with that bracing certainty that made alienation a point of principle, a badge of pride.  It’s as if that gravitational field that once held the alternative at an appropriate distance from the mainstream, close enough to mock and cavil, far enough show its difference, has let go.  The Thomas Frank capsule tumbles into space. 

Take the case of Millennials.  Everyone insists that this is a quiescent generation.  (I haven’t any reliable ethnographic data so I can’t speak from the anthropological record.)  We might actually say that it is the death of the old polarity that makes this so.  Youth culture no longer needs to set itself in opposition to an adult culture to mark its difference, to win for itself a platform from which to make its own decisions.  Every individual millennial is free to make his or her own departure.

The cultural standing of African Americans is changing at light speed.  This might be the last generation that can claim to speak with an outsider’s advantage and authority. And what happens then? 

We think about how much of our culture has come from film makers, intellectuals, the next youth generation, the African American community.  What happens when the cause and the very grammar for this creativity falls silent?  What will we do without a magnetic north?


Sheridan, Phil. 2008.  Sympathy for the Devil.  Magnet.  No. 79.  Summer.  p. 128. 

Bright sticks, a new innovation technology

Brightsticks Ideas arrive like kids to a disco.  When adult outfits and fake IDs fail them, they just rush the door, dislodge the bouncer, and come piling in.  The notion seems to be that if they all arrive at once no one can be held accountable or got rid of.  Party! 

So those of us who make our living in the idea biz are required to be quick about it.  Many of us resort to those 3×4 foot pads of "easel" paper for capture.  These are reverently arrayed around the room as if to say, [assume silky voice] "look, we treasure everyone’s contribution."  And then of course we stick yellow post-its on the paper, sometimes then voting with those little colored dots.  Very soon, walls disappear.  The windows are covered.  The sun is blotted out, extinguishing any hope of, er, illumination.

Brain storms work because we almost never consult these sheets of paper,  yellow tabs, or colored dots.  The good ideas are few enough that they can keep them in mind and loosely there.  Paper fixes what should be kept fluid.  Paper gets in the way of the pattern recognition that leaps back and forth between the unconscious and the conscious mins of the individual and then round and round within the  group, as each and all of us press on with selecting, editing, combining, and generating ideas…until illumination does arrive.  A new idea always seems to shine or at least vibrate, or at least carry on like Soul Train dancer.  It is never papery.  It does not come with dots on. Stick em!  There’s no stick em on em! 

If you are sick of the paper-based brain storm, too, I recommend bright sticks.  Mine arrived yesterday, and Pam came home to discover the windows glowing with florescence.  This is a better way of idea capture.  It is faster, more beautiful, and bigger picture.  The thing is you do have to have windows.  But most people have windows.  I mean, unless you’ve been living in a bomb shelter since 1957, and if that’s the case, idea generation is probably not your most pressing need. 

My inspiration was an episode of House, and I think an episode of CSI: New York where glass panels, and not windows, serve as the medium. Certainly, it would be great to have "glassboards" but it looks as if this kind of thing would be expensive and space consuming (see Arount’s white board below).  Mind you, if you were building an office space, glass would, in places, be as easy to install as dry wall.  It is possible to build or buy light boxes, and we have all seen restaurants use these to announce the specials of the day.  The writing glows.  I got my bright sticks from Amazon.  They get them from Office Depot. 


Arount’s white board here.


The Lifehack whiteboard here.

Commercial light boxes here and here.

The Arstechnica openforum discussion (some overlap with Arount, very slow to load!) here.


J Wynia here for an exchange of email on the question.

YouTube: a peril to us all?


Lance Ulanoff is warning us about the dangers of YouTube and what he calls iVideoism:

iVideoism is the insatiable need to digest video of virtually any kind on the Web and elsewhere (except TV). Most sufferers will live on viral video sites like TagWorld, Google Video, and YouTube.

I thought for a moment he might be kidding but no, he appears to be in earnest.  Lance thinks access to video on the net might be a social problem. 

The inescapable truth is that the moving image will be everywhere, yet iVideots will soon lose any true connection with the live people moving all around them.

It’s puzzling.  This "alienation" argument is precisely the one social critics used in the 20th century to warn us about TV.   But they thought that TV would have this effect because it was dominated by a few channels, a few brands, and a lot of brainless advertising.  The trouble with TV in the 1950s, they supposed, was that it was contained uniformity that must induce conformity from which alientation must surely follow. 

Say what you will about YouTube, but the problem here is precisely not the stupefying powers of a mass medium.  No, the reason YouTube is interesting is that it offers a fountain of invention from many thousands of people, pursuing a vast number of, some of them, deeply strange and cryptic projects.  YouTube is a mad house of inventiveness.  Regard the sprawling mess that is our culture. 

That’s what you begin to wonder about social commentators.  They have a very few "critical" cannons to roll out when called upon to reflect upon our world.  It doesn’t matter whether the target is mass media or micro media, the answer is going to be the same.  This is bound to be bad for us, not least because it will alienate us one from the other. 

Isn’t this the most powerful argument for the emergent, unedited, unconstrained, unpoliced and unapproved nature of our culture.  If we left it to the commentators, every innovation would look like a problem. Every innovation, TV and its opposite, would be forbidden us.  Thank god we have intellectuals to protect us from ourselves.  Thank god we don’t ever listen to them.

Lance, buddy, stow the warnings and break out the bubbly.  Every member of the species would love to have the "problem" of too much choice.  In the contemporary phrase with which we often honor the propulsive force of our culture, all of them like to be sipping from this fire house.  This is what we look like.  This is who we are. 


Lance, Ulanoff.  2006.  Are you an iVideot?  Internet Video is sucking life out of our live world.  PCMagazine.  April 20, 2006. here.

the idea is king (if sometimes Charles I)


Smart people in small shops believe the best ideas come from smart people in small shops.

Today, evidence that this could be true.  Wieden + Kennedy is a smallish shop situated in Portland.  Recently, they landed accounts from the Coca-Cola Company and P&G.  Small may or may not be beautiful.  It certainly is flourishing.

Certainly, W+K is not tiny, nor is it obscure.  (The work for Nike precedes them everywhere.)  But they are not a conglomerate.  That TCCC and P&G should be prepared to trust them with a large account is telling. 

What it’s telling me: that the boutique (or boutique-ish) agency may finally triumph.  This appeared to be happening a few years ago.  Very small agencies were winning business away from giant advertising firms.  (One of them was called Taxi, apparently on the grounds that they never wanted to get larger than.) 

But then along came the global brand, and suddenly everyone said, "No, we can only do business with firms that have representation everywhere."  Good bye, boutiques. 

Now, plainly, big agencies should be as creative as small ones.  There is no technical reason why not.  But in point of fact, bigness in agencies is sometimes as destructive of the innovative instinct as it is elsewhere in the corporate world.  (And if an ad agency is not innovative, really, what’s the point?  It should be grounds for immediate cessation…whereas a more conventional corporation without ideas is good for, well, they could last another 3 or 4 years, easily.)

Here’s what Dan Wieden had to say when pressed by the Wall Street Journal.  (And, frankly, it kind of made me want to weep with gratitude.)

WSJ: For years marketers ballyhooed about the virtues of having a global ad firm that had offices in hundreds of markets around the world. Is that sentiment changing? And if so why?

Mr. Wieden: Yes. Obviously I sense change. You can see it with who we are going to bed with these days. When all this consolidation went on there was many voices that said ‘scale is king’ and it turns out — thank God — that the idea is king. At the end of the day, one individual with one good idea can trump an entire network of thousands who don’t have an idea.

Why should this illumination, that the idea is king, be so hard for the corporate world to fix upon?  There can’t be any question.  We’ve all sat in those committee meetings that take forever, turn the problem into mush, the problem solvers into morons, and, finally, give advantage to the time servers and the knuckle heads.  (This surely the scary part.  The knuckleheads feed on large committee meetings like ghouls staggering around in a Buffy graveyard.) 

Surely, we will someday grasp that the corporation is a holligan, a veritable regicide, who, unless watched constantly and scaled back with enthusiasm, will destroy the very thing, the precious resource, on which the body politic (aka competitive success) depends. 

Increasingly, it seems to me that innovation, the true spirit of creativity in the marketplace, belongs to those who are prepared work small and fast.  The longer it takes, the more people it requires, the less likely it is to happen.  Let’s call this "Wieden’s law." 


McCracken, Grant. 2005.  The Malamud effect: ideas and the corporation.  This Blog Sits At… here.

Vranica, Suzanne.  2005.  Small Firm, Big Ideas: Coke and P&G Sign On.  Wall Street Journal.  November 9, 2005, page B3E and here  (subscription required).

Powerpoint under pressure: the real marketing

Statue_from_uncommon_goods No one much talks about this aspect of marketing.  To listen to the experts and the bloggers, marketing comes from people who are as well rested and stress free as 17th century French aristocrats. 

But the reality is, as most of us know, well otherwise.  As I noted in yesterday’s blog, I worked all day on a presentation that I will make this morning.  Powerpoint dumped a quarter of the deck around 8:00.  That meant pressing through to 11:30.  I went to sleep with the thing unfinished. 

Something unpleasant happens to cognition under this kind of pressure.  We lose our intellectual elasticity.  It becomes harder and harder to make the larger point.  It becomes harder and harder to see the larger point. 

I think this tells us something about deck construction, that we are working on the particular details of each slide, and then periodically perform a "fly over" to see how things look and where we might go.  At some point, these higher conceptual abilities just give up and go home. 

Now the writing process is a forced march.  We are visited by the sickening possibility that we might have to stand up in front of a roomful of people and have to embarrass ourselves.  (After teaching my first class at HBS, I asked a colleague how I did.  "Fine," he said, "there was no spreading stain on the front of your trousers, and that’s the first thing we look for.")  And now that Powerpoint mysteriously erased a quarter of the presentation, we are living with this fear too.  As time runs out, the pressure increases, the elasticity diminishes, and …

The thing I hate most is that the swirling stops.  When we’re well rested, it’s as if the deck and the writing process is surrounded by lots of little idea parts and possibilities.  Best case, we draw on these as we go.  But when fear and exhaustion have done their work, the creative world becomes very quiet.  We move from powerpoint to powerpoint, but really it’s not happening. 

The trouble is I am, as we often are, working with diminished resources.  I spend Sunday, Monday and half of Tuesday working flat out on a new project for a new client.  I finished on schedule but I could tell I was feeling a little glasseyed.  I took a break, to "recharge."  But when really tired, we are very like the batteries that used to plague the laptop industry.  Batteries would suffer a "false floor" effect.  We could recharge them all we wanted, but they weren’t going get more than a 20% charge. 

So if we have been overdoing, rushing from one high pressured project to another, there is a cumulative cost.  The usual remedial effort doesn’t help.  We are now working with a permanent deficit.  Sleep helps.  And last night I got 7 hours.  I found myself dreaming about the deck. 

I got up this morning and the 20% charge was enough to help me see how to complete the thing.  I present in an hour.  I will let you know later in the day how things went. 

blogging from the cape: IceBreaker as martian innovation

Jeremy_moon This is an experiment in real time blogging (or close thereto). 

Jeremy Moon is an entrepreneur from New Zealand and the owner of Icebreaker, a 10 year old company that makes garmets for outdoors with a turnover of $100 million at retail.  I am listening to Jeremy talk at the Design Management Institute meetings on the Cape.  Right now.  I am going to write as long as he speaks and post the moment he stops.

I have to say this is really uncomfortable.  I am obliged to work without mediation, no real chance to think about what I am saying, how best to say it, and how to identify its larger significance.

Icebreaker has an interesting "brand story" as Jeremy calls it.  The garments are, as he puts it, "born in the mountains, worn in the mountains, start in nature, return to nature."

The IceBreaker question is "what does it take to build a 100 year brand"

1. choose position: maximize distance (from competitors)

deep innovation, to create a new category which IB has had to itself the market to itself for 6  or 7 years

2. add meaning: branding

Jeremy has very kindly cited my book, Culture and Consumption I.  Jeremy says, "We make sense of our world by scribing meaning to things through connection."  (This is unanticipated and not the reason I am blogging this!) 

Brand is the meaning behind a badge.  Mapped the competitlors, developed brand story (logic and narrative), create a brand blueprint (tone and design rules), create prototypes (test, refine, repeat)  The brand is as layered as the clothing and designed to allow from new meanings shifted in and out. 

3. add physicality: product

[missed this]

4. Business model: built to live like this

Over-invest in the true drivers of your brand

minimize capital expenditure

long term partners

focus narrow and deep (more business with fewer people)

build ethics and sustainability into the model

choose where brand lives

5. Market: Focus on top of the triangle

[missed this]

This guy is errie in the way all entrepreneurs are.  Clearly, Icebreakers is a company in progress.  The paint on these ideas is still wet.  Clearly, these ideas have just found their way into the world, and from this into marketing, branding, design practice at IceBreakers, and from here into this presentation, and finally into this crowded room on the cape.

Jeremy remindes me of the way professional baseball players run the bases.  The assumption is that you are going to take the next base after this one.  You round the base at speed.  It’s only when you see what is happening and take instruction from the coach that the final decision is made.  It is an ultimate momentum model.  You know that J. has to have proceed this way to have got to 100 million in sales in 10 years.  He takes something and keeps going.  You trust in their intelligence, your adaptive powers, your ability to re-interate and fix what was imperfect.

How often do entrepreneur remind us of Martians: Formidable powers of selection, assimilation, application and revision.  A couple of posts ago, I was arguing that one of the advantages for the Razr from Motorola that it was created at speed, in a single sprint through the corporation.  You see the advantages of speed hereto.    But this momentum model only works if the players are indeed martian smart. 

Ok, he’s stopping talking and I must now post.

Pattern recognition and other symptoms of creativity

Privately, someone mocked me for suggesting that b-schools can teach cultural literacy or the creativity needed to use this literacy in the branding and marketing world. (He was responding to my post of a couple of days ago.)

He must be wrong about cultural literacy. This is like any body of knowledge, especially when we strip away the "barriers to entry" created by those who confuse literacy and cool. 

But, who knows, he could be right about the creativity question. Maybe this can’t be taught. As a small contribution, to this debate, I suggest that we map some of the characterisitics of creativity. This might help us decide which of the key characteristics are teachable and which qualify as idiosyncratic and incapable of curricular development.

Let’s look at the moment of revelation, the moment when we know we have a new idea. In the collective case, we can feel the group begin to vibrate. This was evident yesterday at the Sterling Rice sessions. As the group begin to work through the possibilities and narrow in on one particular idea, people tend to become more animated, they sit forward, their hands fly in the air, eyes widen, and so on. There is a thrill of the chase in the air.  (Of course, there is always someone who insists on premature closure. I think they think they are being decisive, but by "leaping to a conclusion" they force the issue and kill the idea.)

We the group know we have a new idea before we actually know what it is. In the post in question, I called this the Svaha moment, after the Swahili term for the moment between thunder and lightening.

What about the moment when we are generating ideas on our own? In my experience, there is a moment of commotion when ideas begin to assemble and interact. Sometimes this feels like a collision, sometimes a clamor.

Then there is the moment of formation.  I know I have a new idea but not yet what it is.  This takes a Svaha transition.  Almost always this is a sense of the new idea moving upwards. It only takes a couple of seconds and eventually the new ideas breaks what can only be called the surface of consciousness. Now I have it form and substance.

So there is clamor, then formation, then movement, then surfacing.

I know these are not symptoms of creativity for everyone. I have a friend who says she gets goose bumps in the Svaha moment. And I guess there must be some people for whom ideas don’t emerge, or arrive, or manifest themselves. They just are. One moment you don’t have them. Then you do. No transition.

It is, I think, remotely possible that there are people who have a steady stream of ideas rushing like an underground water way just beneath the surface of consciounsess. All they need is a clearer sense of the symptoms to tap the stream. Anyhow, that’s what I’m hoping.

Please, could I hear from people on the sensations of creativity. What, precisely, is your moment of revelation?

Idea generation: free with every pizza!

Pizza I have been working today for Sterling Rice.  We’ve been working on ideas for a packaged goods player who wants to think about the future of food 5 years out.  Boulder is rainy, with clouds rolling into town from the mountains above.  By the time they reach the plain a little further out, their temper has so improved they forsake unlawful assembly and the sun reasserts itself. 

There were so many good ideas and so many good idea-ers that its frustrating not tobe able to share.  So I thought I would give you one of the best ideas I ever heard. 

It was in the HBS classroom.  We were doing a cross category exercise and I was invited to join a TOM (Technology and Operations Management) class to watch my section as they thought about how to reinvent Pizza.  The results did not impress, and I made bold to ask if them if they had every taken a marketing class.  (They were at this moment taking a marketing class from me.) 

How they growled at this!  One of them said they hadn’t been told to solve a marketing problem, but a TOM one.  "So," I said with my best Yiddish shrug, "you forget your marketing?"  Another student raised his hand and said that the class had had a marketing class but the teacher left something to be desired."  "Yes," I replied, "a problem with quality control, I understand."  And we all laughed and a monkey entered in the room.

The class was a usual application of the HBS vegematic: what was pizza, what was distribution, what was the mom and pop version, what was the chain version, where was the value, how could we maximize it?  All of this came from a scrutiny of the numbers and, when necessary, an interrogation of the numbers (making the numbers tell things they didn’t know they knew, or, stricktly speaking, want to say). 

Then one student put his hand up and said, "of course, we could just low jack the trucks."  And the clouds parted.  His idea: put a GPS beacon in every delivery vehicle so that consumers could watch their pizza work its way through the city to their door.  Found time as a pizza value proposition!  How many times have you said to yourself before or after placing your pizza order, "Do I have time to step in the shower, go to the store, download this program?"  In a moment, we went from the ordinary to the interesting.  These are the best ideas, the ones that suddenly open up the realm of possibility and let us out what we know into the new.   

Story time 13: creativity on the far margin of capitalism

Hollar_iii_1"Isn’t a good thing that capitalism tilted in our direction?"

What I meant was, ordinarily corporate America wouldn’t find much of interest in the three of us: a lapsed Cambridge physicist, a Canadian anthropologist, and a transplanted Trinidadian dramatist, as we sat in a fashionable bar in an unsavory part of London in the late 1990s. But here we were, all working as consultants on a brand concept for a Dutch company.

Everyone nodded their agreement, and the Trinidadian blinked hard as if he had just been found out and then he started to giggle.

It would be fair enough to put our employment down to the excesses of the boom. But actually, two of the three of us are still making a living in the consulting world. (I think the physicist lapsed back.) And this means we were not climate specific.

And this raises the question: why should three such unlikely characters have anything to offer the consulting, especially when so far off their native patch?

Just between you and me, I wondered whether the physicist might be running a con. He had all the externals: the spiky, peroxide hair cut, the groovy, dust bin wardrobe, the loft space in the east end, sewing machines still stacked by the freight elevator. But he was, as nearly as I could tell, an idea free zone. He did not play well with others. He was unforthcoming, inward dwelling, trapping in some gravitation field or other. He was good at saying, "no" to ideas, and as every brand builder knows, "nothing comes of no." The Cambridge pedigree and physics background encouraged some clients to suppose "the guy’s a total genius." But this sort of thing sustains your credibility only for so long and by the time the drinks arrived, I was dubious.

The Trinidadian, on the other hand, was magnificently trout like. One minute, he was there. Then next, he was gone. And just when you wondering whether he might have left to join the physicist in his no-zone, he would come crashing back into the conversation, all idea, no hook. He had picked it clean, leaving behind distraction, confusion, and all the red herrings that count as bait these days.

Myself, I prefer the Svaha moments. (Svaha is the Swahili word for the interval between thunder and lightening.) Ironically, these make better theatre than the Trinidadian’s moment of illumination. Someone in the group starts to vibrate. You know that they have been visited by a revelation. But they don’t know what it is. In the meantime, during this Svaha, they engage in all kinds of behaviors to will the idea into being. They rock in their seats, they put their hands up, they clear their throats, they start stuttering and spluttering, and just when you think you’d better call 911, they say it. And everyone, except of course the Cambridge physicists, exclaims, exalts, exhales. The thing is done.

But, hey, if your preference is Trinidadian discretion, slipping away unnoticed and coming back with something perfect formed, good on ya, mate. Capitalism is not particular. It asks only that someone go looking for the perfect ideas that are the stuff of profit geysers, market dominance, corporate self regard and happy share holders. Capitalism doesn’t care if the person who comes back with the idea for the Razr is a Trinidadian playwright, just so long as someone does.

The Malamud effect: ideas and the corporation

Razr_2There’s a wonderful story by Bernard Malamud about a painter who manages in a moment of inspiration to create a work of greatness. All his neighbors say so. The painter works through the night, burnishing, perfecting, and as the light of dawn fills his studio, it’s clear what he’s done. He’s ruined it. His neighbors all troop back in and everyone agrees. "Yes," they say (something like), "It’s true. You screwed it up."

This story sprang to mind when I was reading Scott Anthony’s treatment of the Razr, the phone that restored Motorola to its accustomed place of grandeur in the cell phone market. Anthony doesn’t say it in so many words, but you are left with the impression that one of the secrets was the sheer speed at which Razr was allowed to pass through the Motorola system.

The Razr idea was a great idea. The trick for Motorola: to get out of its way. Bless them, they did. When the dawn stole into the product development lab, there it was, a new phone, close enough to perfect to do astonishing things for the brand, sales and shareholder value.

Why do corporations inflict the Malamud effect on innovation? I think we know some of the answers here. I wish to read into evidence my experience as an employee of the Royal Ontario Museum, a great python of an institution, one through which, when I was there, innovations moved slowly, if at all.

In the early days, Royal Ontario Museum did a particularly good job of making itself up as it went along. But as it went along, the place began to discover the pleasures of stasis and to indulge itself in a particularly nasty combination of cowardice and bloody mindedness. By the time I got there, it was if the very achievements of the institution, its power and majesty, were being used to protect it from new ideas.

How bad was it? I told one of the incoming heads of the institution that he was about to assume leadership of a "culture of no." He laughed, very nearly patted me on the head, and said something like, "Just watch me."

Several years later, over moody drinks in the member’s lounge, he acknowledged that he was presiding over an institution that wished to perpetuate itself unchanged.

Sometimes the museum’s spirit of resistance was just laziness. Change, especially change in the deeper assumptions and processes of the museum, this would take work…and who wanted that?

Sometimes, it was stupidity. Change takes a certain imaginative power and intellectual mobility, and the Museum had made some terrible HR decisions over the years. Some employees were willing to participate in a new Museum, but they were simply too dim to grasp what was being asked of them.

But sometimes the "innovation jamming" stemmed from the cunning understanding that a swifter, smarter, more engaged Museum must necessarily create an environment antithetical to job security. The time-serving functionary knew this new Museum would make him look bad just about all the time. Surely, idea infanticide was not such a bad thing, especially it could forestall patricide down the road. (Kill the innovation before it grows up and kills you.)

Sometimes, innovation jamming came from a motive deeper still. Many members of the institution were deeply wedded to the "identity capital" that accrued to anyone working at the Royal Ontario Museum. They lived for that delicious pause at a cocktail party that followed their answer to the question, "and what do you do?" The very mention of the ROM made people stop a moment, and this pause is the Canadian way of giving deference. No one wanted to mess with this.

We have all seen this kind of corruption at work. It’s not peculiar to the ROM, the museum, not for profits, or the corporation. Every organization has a system. This system works as a ballast, a bulwark, a benediction against chaos.

But, thanks to the Malamud effect, the system is also the way good ideas turn into moronic, or merely ordinary, realities. What we need is a formula that shows that the value of a new idea (to the brand, to volume and profit, to shareholder value) is diminished the more time it spends in process, in committee, in corporation. The faster we bring a new idea to market the more likely it is to deliver real value there. Speed of delivery doesn’t very often feel like the sensible thing to do. But it is sometimes the only way to escape the Malamud effect.


Anthony, Scott. 2005. Motorola’s Bet on the Razr’s Edge. Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. September 12, 2005. here.

Bernard, Malamud. [I read this 30 years ago. Grateful if anyone can identify it.]

Story time 6: synaptic marketing


In blogland, we talk a lot about the role of spontaneity and creativity in making the corporation more responsive and innovative.   

But there is another, simpler use of spontaneity and creativity: good old fashioned survival. 

Sometimes, the client needs an answer from you right now. You can’t say, “I’m not prepared, can I have a couple of hours?” They will say, “sure,” but you know and they know that you will never eat lunch in their corporate cafeteria again. You are over. Done for. Now there is no substitute for problem solving in real time.

Sometimes, management believes erroneously that you were tasked with something…and they want to hear about it right now. It’s no good whining “Hey, no one told me about this.” This will only make your immediate client look bad. You have to come up with an answer. Now. 

In the very worst case, you are asked to address a topic that you WERE charged with investigating, but somehow managed to forget. “Oh, that’s right,” shouts a voice in your head, “I remember now.”

Ok, time for the theatre of gravitas, the dumb show of competence. You must look solemnly at the table, appearing to collect thoughts you are in fact creating, and start talking. Sometimes things go well, and the words and the thoughts fall nicely into place. Sometimes, you find yourself performing a well known one-act play from the theatre of humiliation. In quick succession, you will break into flop sweat, sputter and lose altitude, and spin wildly out of control. You will deploy every rhetorical device at your disposal, fighting for time, hoping that something will come to you. But all these chutes will fail to deploy and it becomes clear eventually that time is, as they say, up. If someone in the room has a sense of humor (and of cruelty), they will say, “thank you, I think we all found that particularly illuminating.” You will laugh about it afterwards. 

Answers, good ones, can be assembled in real time and some people just have a gift for this sort of thing. Robert McNamara stood up once in prep school with a blank piece of paper to "read" the essay he was inventing as he spoke. Hargurchet Bhabra, a friend of mine in Toronto, and now deceased, once gave 8 perfect minutes at a dinner party on the topic of meat loaf. It sounded like he was reading an entry from an encyclopedia of the culinary arts. Dean Clark of the Harvard Business School prided himself with being bullet proof under scrutiny, and he could indeed produce flawless answers in real time. Perhaps the smoothest operator of the academic version of this con is, I think, Marjorie Garber. I once heard her give answers to about a dozen questions, each of them more exquisitely formed than the last. I remember thinking it was a too bad her prose did not have the clarity and precision of these impromptu performances. 

But this is Friday and therefore story time, so I am obliged to report some moment on intellectual improv of my own. Last Friday, we talked about a moment in which Sergio Zyman created an improv moment inside the headquarters of the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta. And today, Mr. Zyman, then senior VP in charge of marketing, returns as the subject of the narrative.

Our story opens with Mr. Zyman sitting in this boardroom at the head of long imposing table. (One of the most gifted readers of This Blog Sits At has pointed out that story time gives the impression that my consulting puts me in exalted company. [I will use his name if he gives me clearance to do so.] In fact, I am only occasionally so situated. Just so that’s clear.) 

There were eight people sitting at the table. At the far end of the table sat four guys who were so perfectly dressed and so damn handsome that it looked like they were hold a convention of high school quarterbacks. Closer to the Zyman end of the table sat four more people, including me, all of us rather less presentable, not quite ragamuffins but not quite quarterbacks. 

Our foursome was lead by Nick Hahn, and we had come to tell Zyman about project we had undertaken and wished to follow through. Things were going slowly. It was clear that the quarterbacks were restive, perhaps jealous of our access. Mr. Zyman was himself skeptical. It was time to call on our powers of spontaneity and win for ourselves and the project a little momentum. 

And the improv came as a gift. Mr. Zyman had opened with remarks about recent developments in marketing. I think he was complaining about the phenomenon of “virtual consumption.” This is where consumers declare that the love the advertising but then fail to go out and buy the product. Conversation meandered forward. It was about time to wrap the pleasantries up. 

Then it happened. Our fourth make a comment. Our third picked it up. Nick supplied the “set.” And happily, it was left to me to spike it home. (Sometimes, you get lucky.) As the thought moved through our foursome, it seemed both to speed up andto  clarify. In fact, it seemed to pass with synaptic speed between us, as if one idea were rushing from head to head in an effort to discover itself. Best of all, it was a brilliant piece of sycophancy. It began where we were and ended up where Mr. Zyman was.  

There was a stunned silence. One of the quarterbacks was actually staring at us with his mouth open. We were blinking with astonishment. After a pause, Mr. Zyman looked down the table and said to the quarterbacks, “well, I hope at least you are taking notes.” 

It wasn’t fair. I haven’t ever seen an idea move this fast. That the quarterbacks were not moving at this pace was surely not their fault. It was as if Mr. Zyman had two choices: to express a little astonishment of his own, or to make someone pay. He chose the latter because his management style is (or at least was) a matter of setting bar high and seeing how could rise to the occasion. In remarks on last Friday’s post, several people took him to task for a judgmental managerial style. I see the point begin made. It is consistent with my first instincts. 

But I have come to respect a style that is a little less forgiving. After all, we don’t “do business” to become one another friends. Mr. Zyman has what is sometimes called a fiduciary responsibility.

 Ok, I must leave the rest to you. I am now back in CT, having been on the road for two weeks.  I leave on Sunday for another of couple of weeks away.  I just can’t finish this post. I promise to come back to it.  Yeah, right, sure I will. 

Story time 5: The Coca-Cola Company in the Zyman era

Sergio_1This chapter of story time recalls an event that took place at the headquarters of the Coca-Cola Company about 10 years ago. 

We are gathered here today to hear Sergio Zyman, Senior Vice President of the Coca-Cola Company. He’s come to evaluate our project. By all appearances, he’s made up his mind.

“Well, thank you for this, but, really, it’s lazy marketing, isn’t it?”

We’re arrayed in a very large horseshoe, about 50 of us. Mr. Zyman sits at the opening of the horseshoe, smiling, gracious, handsome and pitiless.

“I mean, it’s not very good, is it?”

This is wrong and its irritating. The project team has spend 12 weeks trying hard to get it right. Our best efforts have been judged and found wanting.

“But I don’t want to talk to you about the project.”

Mr. Zyman pauses for effect.

“No, I’m here to talk to you about the Catholic Church.”

If the opening remark was painful, this one is bewildering. We are deep inside the well-fortified Atlanta headquarters of the Coca-Cola Company. We are assembled, surely, to talk about soft drinks. But Mr. Zyman wants to talk about…the Catholic church. For some reason, everyone looks at Mr. Zyman’s half dozen assistants.

These men and women are, at the moment, not just looking at their boss, they are scanning him.  Was there a memo?  When did we talk about this? Did I miss something? They are x-raying the boss for any little sign. Mr. Zyman gives no hint.

“So, you’re the Catholic church, what’s your problem?”

The question is not rhetorical.  Mr. Zyman wants an answer. No one says a thing. We’re calculating the odds. With over 50 people in the room, what are the chances any one of us will have to answer it? Every one appears to have hit upon the same strategy. Avoid contact. Keep your head down. Maybe he fix on someone else.

Wrong again. Mr. Zyman is asking everyone. He’s starting at the top of the horseshoe and he’s going to go around. He’s going to begin with one of his assistants.

Poor man. Perfect in his conservative blue suit, distinguished grey hair, and five hundred dollar shoes, he ought to be the picture of composure. Not today. Today he’s at the limit of his competence. This is a man who can no doubt recite profit and loss statements for the last four quarters for any of the hundreds of countries in which Coca-Cola does business. He can give you figures for “volume versus profit” for each decade in the post war period. What he cannot do is talk about the Catholic church. More to the point, what he cannot do is turn on a dime.

Mr. ExpensiveShoes stares at his boss. He stares at his own handsome leather folder. He looks again at his boss and quickly back to the folder. His eyes are losing that racing quality. They are beginning ever so slightly to glaze. He clutches at his folder. He opens his mouth…and nothing comes out.

“Well, let’s go round the room. So you’re the Catholic church, what’s your problem.”

If anxiety were a colour, the air above our heads is now fuchsia. It is clear that every single one of us is going to have to answer Mr. Zyman’s bewildering question. There is, in fact, no place to hide. We all set to thinking and the next person in the horseshoe struggles to rise to the occasion.

“My problem is that, that, I’m running out of priests.”

“That is not your problem. Next.”

“The problem is that I’m running out of believers.”

“Better. Why?”

“um…birth control?”

“Please. Next!”

“I did away with incense and Latin and mystery.”

“Interesting. We’ll come back to that. Next.”

I can see my turn coming. It is about 20 people away and moving towards me like an Exocet. The anxiety is so high I keep blanking. I have to reconstruct. If the answer was “I did away with incense and Latin and mystery,” what was the question? Finally it comes to me. (I am a game show contestant: “Alex, I believe it’s, “What is the problem with the Catholic church?”) But the anxiety’s so high I lose it again. Fortunately, it’s still someone else’s turn.

“The Pope is turning back the clock.”

“Yikes, that’s not it.”

Some people probably got it right away. Predictably, it took me several minutes. Mr. Zyman is not asking us to contemplate the problems of the Catholic church. He’s asking us to contemplate the problems of the Coca-Cola company. Plainly, this is, for Mr. Zyman, a technical exercise. He means no irreverence in suggesting a profane institution like Coca-Cola bears a resemblance to the Catholic Church. He’s after something else.

Using metaphor is a good idea for two reasons. Normally, a discussion of this kind inside Coca-Cola would be loaded with politics. The question, “So you’re the Coca-Cola Company, what’s your problem?” invites disparate opinions and some deeply felt hostilities.

More important, the metaphor is transformational. It helps us think. Both Coca-Cola and the Catholic church are (each in their way) ancient international enterprises. Both are losing market share (and faithful) in first world countries. Both must compete with a range of new competitors who did not exist 20 years ago. In Coca-Cola’s case, this is Snapple, Gatorade, bottled water, and an explosion of developments in the tea and coffee categories. For the Catholic church, this is Protestant fundamentalism on one side and New Age spirituality on the other. (I know no one wants to hear this, but, at a deep cultural level, the two are not unrelated.)

Both institutions are so deeply rooted in their own conventions and traditions that rapid change is difficult. Both institutions find themselves in worlds of new and extraordinary dynamism. There was a time in which both Coke and Rome controlled their environment because, to a large extent, they were the environment. They called the shots. For both institutions those days are gone.

Mr. Zyman’s strategy is beginning to work. As people use the metaphor, they begin to see the Coca-Cola company anew (to say nothing of the Catholic church). Before long, the room quickens to the pace. Anxiety is replaced by the thrill of the chase. Before long, Mr. Zyman is working us like a roomful of better-than-average Princetonians.

But there were some people who never saw what we were talking about. Well educated, talented, hardworking, the best and the brightest of a Yale MBA class, they still can not quite “get it.” Oh, they get the formulae: Coca-Cola = Catholic church. But they can’t do the exercise. They can’t play it out. More than one of the assistants resorts to saying “pass” when his turn comes. And one of them actually says, “I agree with what the person before me said.”

This is not pretty to watch. Executives who can’t get the metaphor do at least have a very clear idea of what is happening to their careers. These disastrous performances are making them look flat footed, unimaginative knuckleheads. In the high altitude world of Mr. Zyman’s Coca-Cola, this is fast becoming a culling exercise: a new way to separate the sheep from the goats. 

There was a time at Coca-Cola that Mr. ExpensiveShoes could be another kind of person. Indeed there was a time when Coca-Cola was very like the military (or, for that matter, the Catholic church). The individual who wished to rise with in it had a clear path cut out for them. Learn the rule book, abide by the rule book, administer the rule book and put in your time. These days, an additional set of skills are called for.

Story time: Frank Gehry and the reluctant muse of advertising

Gehry_iiSeveral years ago, I visited the Venice Beach offices of Chiat Day.  I was there with a client from Coke.  We had come with the crazy idea that Chiat Day could help us work on a new product concept.  (For the outcome, see the post for last Friday: New agencies, new clients.)

The building had been designed by Frank Gehry and while we were there it appeared to be under reconstruction.  I can’t tell you whether what I am about to describe was deliberate or an artifact of the construction process.

When the client and I entered the building, we found ourselves in a perfect cipher of a lobby.  There were no signs, no welcome, no instructions.  Just a very large plant and a bank of elevators. 

As I pushed for the elevator, I said to the client “Hmm, so what floor, do you think?” 

A disembodied voice replied, “Main reception is on 2.” 

Behind the very large plant was a women sitting at a desk.  She didn’t smile.  She didn’t want to establish eye contact.  She seemed to want us to leave her alone.  So we did.

The day was frustrating (see post for last Friday), but we got to know Gehry’s building a little.  Our meeting with the Chiat Day “team” was conducted in a large board room.  There were the famous Gehry chairs, the ones made of compressed cardboard.  The tables were made of thick sheets of plate glass, driven through by metal bolts. 

We were there most of the day, and I had occasion to come and go several times.  This meant swinging open a large, impressive set of plate glass doors, and passing through.  The third or fourth time I did so, I was stunned to discover that beside these doors was a simple passage way.  It was taped and spackled for painting, so I guess it had just been installed.  It was narrow, low, and it had no door at either end. 

It was the most imaginative thing we were to see all day.  It seemed to say, “Listen, if you must, you can make your way by means of these magnificent doors, heavy with the majesty of Chiat Day.  Or, if you’d prefer, you can just come and go by means of this little passage.  You decide.” 

Oh perfect.  The world is filled with books about creativity, systems for idea generation, elaborate theories of brand building, the 7, 12, 15 secrets of marketing.  (I know this because I have written one or two of them.)  But we all know the real secret of great marketing.  Smart, articulate people who share a mission and a room. 

It is astounding how many people in marketing thing that it’s more complicated than this.  (And for story time next Friday, I’ll tell you about the time I was doing idea generation at a big Madison Avenue agency and there was this guy, see, who…) 

We dress idea generation up in various kinds of mumbo jumbo.  We insist on filling out those pads of paper and covering the walls with “insights,” “mission statements,” “values,” and “objectives.”  But all of these are really just large plate glass doors that claim transparency but do not, finally, aid in it, that give free passage but actually exact an effort and distraction tax in the process, that frame and mediate access when the point of good marketing is deframing, demediating and stripping away the method and the chatter till we have one, or two, really good ideas.  (I think there’s a Van Morrison song that applies here.) 

As to the woman in the lobby.  I think of her now as a reluctant muse, the one who is prepared to supply knowledge if (and only if) we ask for it, and who then wishes to be left alone.  Because, well, really, it’s up to us.  As Van Morrison would say, no method, no teacher, no guru.  The muse, c’est nous.

(As posted from the Starbucks’ parking lot, July 8, 2005)

Great moments in metaphor

pommel horse.jpg

It might have been the single greatest act of celebrity self destruction since Nick Nolte showed up at the Toronto International Film Festival in his pajamas or Courtney Love flashed the crew on Letterman.

On April 28th, Dave Chappelle walked away from his comedy series and a new $50 million contract. Rumors flew. His credibility plummeted. A brilliant career was suddenly in shambles. Dave was now rumored to be in South Africa…strung out or stark raving made.

It was time for a little “damage control.” Like all great communicators, Chappelle reached for metaphor.

“It was a clumsy dismount,” he said to explain his abrupt departure.

The metaphor invited us to accept: a) that the departure was necessary (all pommel horse routines must end), b) that it was bound to be difficult (this is always most difficult part of the routine), and c) that, hey, he missed this one (no big deal, everyone does).

Great save, Dave. I believe you stuck it.


Farley, Christopher John. 2005. Dave Speaks. Time Magazine. May 23, 2005. p. 68.

digital text (finally?)


Bill Gates did an interview this spring with Peter Jennings (February 16, 2005). My favorite outtakes:

On the state of contemporary culture where even majesty, installed base, and very smart people won’t protect you from dynamism:

that’s one thing I like about the Microsoft culture — is that we wake up every day thinking about companies like Wang or Digital Equipment, or Compaq, that were huge companies that did very well and they literally have disappeared. Got bought up, you know went into a direction that was a dead end for them. So we have that lesson and we are always saying to ourself — we have to innovate. We got to come up with that breakthrough.

And evidence that we might finally see Microsoft come up with a PDA capable of delivering text. This was one of the early promises of the digital world, and still languishes.

I am meeting with our tablet people about the idea of carrying text books around. They’ll have just a tablet device that they can call up the material on. That’s been a dream for a long time, we’re making progress there. So review of the software projects and encouraging them in terms of what they are doing well and telling them who else they need to work with. That’s the primary thing on my schedule.


McCracken, Grant. 2005. It can’t read! (Microsoft’s PMC illiterate?) Post on this blog, um, some time ago here

Full interview