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September 1, 2010
Need Inspiration? Break Away From Your Comfort Zone

One of the things we teach students at VCU Brandcenter is that they need to read stuff that’s not about advertising or marketing, and they also have to look at things that aren’t the latest and greatest inspiring creative in our field. We all have to be wary of becoming experts only at the same things about which everyone in our crowd is also an expert.

I’ve noticed that many of the people I follow on Twitter also follow the same people I follow, and when someone tweets something interesting, within minutes there’s a flurry of retweets -- all saying the same thing. We all know the same stuff, nearly at the same time.

It reminds me of when I had a pair of little zebra finches as pets. They had lots of babies, and their babies soon had babies. One would make a little honking sound, and then a few would honk in answer, and soon all of them would be making the same honking sound, a stochastic and iterative cacophony. Then they’d get tired of it, and the honking would die down until the next honking cycle. Nothing new, just the same stuff honking and honking and honking. I think it finally broke their minds; it ended in what we called The Great Finchtown Massacre.

Anyway, it’s important to look beyond all the stuff that everyone in your charm (that’s a group of finches; I looked it up) is talking about, and find inspiration that disrupts the normal. You don’t only want to know what you know.

In addition to the advertising and creative technology things I do, I also have a strong background in media psychology, and I try to keep up on the field, especially as it relates to creativity, design, media effects, and the rest of what we do.

One thing that’s becoming clear in psych literature is that disruption can help us be creative -- that is, things that interrupt the schema we use to understand the world give us an opportunity to see things differently. It can help us find those “wow, I never thought of that before” moments that are at the core of a new insight, just by introducing a different kind of thinking to our norm.

I think this is part of the magic of the TED videos -- things we’d never normally think about are presented in ways that make us question our worldviews -- and exercising the ol’ synapses makes it easier to make new connections.

As a quick example, here’s something that came from my dabbling in the psych world, and how I started seeing things in the ad world a little differently.

One part of this came as I was doing research in interpersonal and small-group communication. The various phases of interpersonal relationship development describe ever-increasing levels of intimacy and engagement, and there are some pretty specific do’s and don’ts in the process. If we apply the interpersonal model to the relationship we want people to have with brands, maybe we can follow some of the same techniques to developing brand engagement -- especially in a world where we can target people by on their behavior (and can intuit motivation and emotion). Hold that thought for a second.

Another element that comes into play for me as we talk about engagement is George Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory -- that over time, we internalize the stories we hear, and they become true for us. We construct reality based on these stories (and for the most part, the stories are delivered by media). And the impact of an event, like an ad, is negligible compared to the cumulative social construction of reality we live, build, and reinforce every day.

Most of what we do in advertising involves relatively short interactions with consumers and brands: a flight of ads, possibly a year-long campaign that pushes a theme and a call to action of some kind. If instead we approach the campaign as developing a relationship through different phases, just like people do with each other, well, that might take longer, but as people cultivate their beliefs about the brand over time, it could result in a much more loyal and stronger bond -- more like the interpersonal relationships we develop with people than the traditional consumer-brand relationship.

And if you add to this some of the great work that Gerry Zaltman and others have done on mapping of concept constructs, we discover more places and ways to talk to people and to reinforce, over time, the kinds of associations that work to deliver on consumer needs and are in sync with brand goals.

A different kind of planning and a different approach to creative, but one that can play across multiple media easily and over a longer period of time, to develop deeper relationships. A meta-platform for thinking about relationships between people and brands that supports the “big idea” and the tactical executions, and is based on the interpersonal kinds of relationships for which our species evolved.

My point here isn’t that this is necessarily a brilliant idea. Although I think there’s merit, it might be hard to do pull off in the current business climate, where the client-agency relationship can sometimes be measured in months, instead of years.

The point is that I wouldn’t have thought about it if I hadn’t been diving into something that’s not about advertising. For me, the magic seems to come from learning the details of things I don’t normally do, or the surprise of the unpredictable. I’ve had these sorts of minor epiphanies (epiphanettes?) while jamming with other musicians, learning how Tiffany made the glass for his windows, going behind the scenes at a supermarket, watching “How It’s Made” on TV, learning how a particular type of surgery is done, and watching at construction sites.

It goes beyond being well rounded: “In addition to my 70 hour week, I also go to the gym and take the occasional vacation, keep up on all the latest ad books, and of course, there’s the dog and my charity work.”

Instead, I think we need to go out of our ways to challenge the schema, to dig into details of things that have nothing to do with our career -- the more we feed our brains, the more they can come up with the good stuff for us.

Here's the call to action. Challenge yourself to dive deep into something that has nothing to do with advertising every week -- even if only for an hour or two. Your brain will thank you, and it may lead to something great.

Of course, there’s the added benefit of being able to talk about something other than advertising with your friends and families.

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Mark Avnet is professor and head of the Creative Technology track at VCU Brandcenter, an award-winning graduate program in advertising. In addition, he consults on the application of creative technology and media psychology for brands. Read his blog and follow him on Twitter or here.

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