On your mark, get set, be creative! Wouldn’t it be awesome if being creative on demand was that easy? And it’s not just confined to your creative department anymore. Today, everyone at the agency has to be creative whether it’s your account service team bringing fresh business ideas to clients, your biz dev team trying to figure out ways to get on your prospect’s radar screen or, of course, your creative department in all aspects of what you produce. So, how do you keep the creative juices flowing?  

My podcast guest Jason Keath, the founder of Social Fresh, is steeped in creativity and innovation in business and is here to help you develop and define creativity and show you how to bring it to life inside your shop. In reality, creativity is a process. And it’s within this process that the answers are found. Join Jason and me as we follow the road to creativity with:

  • Jason’s background
  • Why Jason started Social Fresh
  • How to get your whole team to be creative
  • Why you need to hear bad ideas and how to manage your team so they aren’t afraid to voice them
  • Why you should brainstorm at least 50-100 ideas for every one that you actually put into place
  • How having your team prepare ideas anonymously in advance will save you time and result in a discussion that’s more free
  • How infusing creativity and innovation in your business leads to business success
  • Why creativity comes from having at least one core competency (and how to figure out what your core competency is)
  • The filter phase of the process post brainstorming where you take ideas and combine and eliminate ideas until you’ve broken them down to where you’re happy with them
  • Why you should try to come up with three great ideas and keep the two that you ultimately don’t go with for later
  • Why you need to make the space where your team has creative meetings a different space than where they would sit through boring meetings

Jason is the founder and CEO of Social Fresh Conference, the leading social media and digital marketing conference for major brands and agencies. More than 150 of the Fortune 500 have attended Jason’s training sessions, workshops, and presentations.

Rooted firmly in the creative arts, Jason brings an innovative approach to marketing and internal culture. With a BFA in Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, he focuses on how creative thinking can drive businesses forward and improve employee satisfaction and productivity.

He is routinely quoted by media in the NY Times, USA Today, MSNBC, the LA Times, AdAge, the Washington Post and other outlets. Jason is also the author of the forthcoming book, The Case for More Bad Ideas (revealing the counterintuitive secrets of creative leaders).

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/jason-keath/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)

  1. More on Jason’s Background
  2. How Agencies Need to Shift their Culture to Accommodate More Creativity
  3. How Agencies Should Manage Bad Ideas
  4. Areas Where Traditional Brainstorming Meetings Need Improvement
  5. Why Agencies Should Start Inspiring Creativity and Innovation in Business
  6. Bringing Creativity and Innovation into the Workplace
  7. The Biggest Counterintuitive Secrets that Exist in Every Agency
  8. Jason’s Personal Process for Inspiring Creativity and Innovation
  9. About the Social Fresh Conference

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build A Better Agency where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invest in employees and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Build A Better Agency. One of the topics that I chat with agency owners and leaders about all the time is creativity and being creative. I think back in the Mad Men days, creative was a department and those folks, the writers and artists were the only ones who are really held accountable for really driving creativity out of an agency.

Today, as all of you know, that’s really changed. Everybody has to be creative on demand whether that’s the account service team bringing fresh business ideas to clients, to your biz dev team trying to figure out ways to get on your prospect’s radar screen to, of course, you’re creative in all aspects of what you produce having to not only get people’s attention but make sure that it ties back to whatever the ROI goals are.

Inspiring creativity and innovation in business is a hot topic with every agency I know and so that’s where we’re going to focus our attention today.

Let me tell you a little bit our guest because he knows a lot about this. He’s going to really stretch your mind around how you develop and define creativity and how you bring it to life inside your shop.

Jason Keath is a refreshing voice on creative culture and digital trends. He spends his time keynote speaking, writing and he’s also an entrepreneur. He’s the founder and CEO of Social Fresh Conference, the leading social media and digital marketing conference for major brands and agencies probably many of you have attended in the past. More than 150 of the Fortune 500 have attended Jason’s training sessions, workshops, presentations.

He comes through this creativity intuit very natively. He is rooted firmly in the creative arts. He brings an innovative approach to marketing and internal culture because he has been studying it for his whole life.

He’s got a BFA in fine arts from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and he focuses every day on how creative thinking can drive businesses forward and improve employee satisfaction and productivity. He’s often quoted in the media and you’ve probably seen him in the New York Times, USA Today and AdAge, Washington Post and all kinds of other places.

He’s also working on a book which is tentatively titled “The Case for More Bad Ideas”. He’s revealing the counterintuitive secrets of creative leaders and we’re going to dig into that content pretty deeply today. Then, there are going to be some other things we’re going to talk about. They’ve got a conference coming up this summer that you need to know about. They’ve got a daily newsletter that all of you should subscribe to if you don’t already, so we’ll dig into that a little bit but Jason, welcome to the podcast.

Jason: Thanks, Drew. I’m excited to be here. I think you covered everything and I’m excited to kind of talk agency world and get into it.


More on Jason’s Background

Drew: Give us a little bit of background in terms of what were you doing before Social Fresh and how did you come to be so committed to this idea of creativity and its cousin, innovation?

Jason: Yeah. I was an art major in school. I did some leadership training out of school to get some business experience to work with this CFO that I really respected. Then, after that, I went right into the agency world as a creative. I was a creative leader to a couple agencies in the Southeast.

That was right around the time when we were transitioning from MySpace to Facebook very early in the Facebook days. I was just very passionate about technology and the web and taught myself how to code websites and all the great things that a lot of people had done early in their digital careers.

I think I became the answer person for social media. I got into the strategy at the agencies I was working at because of that. I would be called into the pitch meetings not just as a creative perspective but also as a social and digital strategy person. That was really exciting. I just ran with that and started my own agency, kind of sold that, went out on my own and started consulting.

Then, through all of that, through the agencies I worked with on strategy to my own shop to consulting with a bunch of clients, I really noticed a trend in the early social media days which is everyone wanted to be pitched on it. Everyone was excited about it. “Oh, we really want to know, does MySpace matter for us? Does Facebook? Does YouTube, early days of Twitter, blogging?”

Drew: People are still asking those questions, right? It’s just new names.

Jason: Yeah. The caveat back then was everyone was really excited to hear about it but no one wanted to put budget behind it. The pickup on those pitches was very low. There was a clear trust issue there and an awareness. What are the case studies? What do they need to know?

That’s why I started Social Fresh which was a conference to solve that. I brought in all the heavy hitters nationally. It’s now the longest running social media conference. What we learned through all that is just you have to really give people kind of visceral examples for them to start trusting a new medium.

That’s what we continue to do today and of course, the fresh name there, we’re always kind of pushing the creative edge. I try to stay true to my creative roots and my art background and always push the creative side of these solutions. That’s kind of a refocus for me recently on writing my book on creativity. That’s been fun to step into companies and agencies and help them with brainstorming and creative process and creative culture. That’s always been a passion point of mine as well.


How Agencies Need to Shift their Culture to Accommodate More Creativity

Drew: From your days in the agency world to today, creativity is really the main currency for agencies. It’s our ideas. I think especially as the tools to produce stuff, marketing stuff gets easier and as even the average consumer can whip up a website or do things like that, I think agencies struggle to really articulate the value proposition they have and how to demonstrate that it really is in the ideas that they bring to clients from all avenues and aspects of the agencies.

To me, it seems like in agencies today, there is no greater need than creativity on demand which seems a little odd given how most people think about creative and that you have to sit around and you have to wait for the muse and all of that.

When you’re working with agencies, how do you help them wrap their head around this new idea of creativity coming from every department and every employee? How do you help them shift their culture to make that happen more intuitively?

Jason: Yeah. It’s a great question. It usually takes me at least three days on site to answer that question fully. In the short time we have today, I would sum it up by, my perspective of creativity is that anyone can be more creative. It’s a very egalitarian view. I’ve researched the science on creativity extensively.

Maybe my second book might be focused on the science behind creativity which is kind of what I was originally going for. I think you have a perspective of creativity where we put it up on a shelf and it’s usually a couple top creative minds in an agency that are highly respected and brought into important meetings and they’re kind of expected to come up with the best ideas.

In reality, creativity is a process. We don’t teach creativity in schools really. We don’t teach it in business. We don’t teach it at university. Most parents don’t teach creativity to kids. There’s no real process ever taught for creativity.

Some, especially early Mad Men agencies, really dove into those processes and a lot of agencies today will have their secret sauce branded, creative process that they preach. I’d say 10% of them actually follow that and they don’t really teach you internally. It’s more of a marketing tool than anything which is fine. I have nothing against that but what I will tell people to do is actually look into the process of creativity.

My book, The Case for More Bad Ideas, is going to be about a key piece of that which is how you treat bad ideas early in a creative process but there’s tons more to it than just that. A lot of it is management. A lot of it is how you talk about and teach the actual process and ability for people to become more creative on their own and as a group.


How Agencies Should Manage Bad Ideas

Drew: Let’s dig into that bad idea idea for a second. I just was with a bunch of agency owners and we were talking about a few things and the focus was how to grow and nurture inside a multicultural agency. There was, as you might imagine, a fair amount of talk about millennials.

One of the challenges for agency owners is that for all of their employees but particularly their younger, less experienced employees regardless of what age group they come into, they are so sensitive when somebody criticizes an idea that they just shut down. Talk a little bit more about your thoughts around this, how we manage bad ideas.

Jason: Yeah. I don’t think that’s a millennial thing necessarily. I think everyone is scared of someone thinking they’re stupid or that they have bad ideas, right?

Drew: Right. I just think the older ones are more used to it by now if they’ve been in the business for a while.

Jason: Probably, yeah. They had to be in that, right?

Drew: Right. That’s right.

Jason: I think there’s this rule. It’s probably the most cliché thing in a brainstorm meeting which is there’s no such thing as bad ideas which I am basically calling BS on. In the same spirit but a different, I think, tactic which is more successful is to say you want more bad ideas especially early in a creative process.

Bad ideas come into many buckets and I try to define those very detailed. There’s the bad idea that is the obvious solution that most people think everyone else has already thought of.

They don’t want to mention it because they think they’ll look stupid when in fact, studies have shown what one person thinks as obvious, 80% of people in that group probably haven’t thought of it yet or haven’t really dived into it.  

And even if everyone has thought of it, it’s still useful to put on the page or put on the whiteboard because connecting to that another idea, ideas are just combinations of other ideas, is still an important path to consider.

Additionally, silly ideas or dangerous ideas or expensive ideas get shut down inside our own heads because we think again, they’re bad and will not be received well in the audience that we’re submitting it to. I think initially, just finding what bad ideas are and not saying there’s no such thing as bad ideas but requiring them early in the creative process is essential.

I tell when they’re brainstorming on their own or brainstorming in a group, always have a defined time where you’re just putting bad ideas on a page and that tends to alleviate … That’s an initial push that helps improve the creative culture in process and starts to change the attitude towards bad ideas.

Now, there’s always a time in a creative process where discussion and debate is valuable but if you push that … I mean this is brainstorming 101 but you push that towards the end once you have 100 or 200 ideas to consider and connect and discuss and it really improves.

It doesn’t just improve the process and the results dramatically of your ideation and the success of those end result ideas but it really improves the culture. It gets rid of those situations completely because you’re not asking people to come up with an idea and then judging them immediately. You’re actually requiring them to come up with something that they would say is a bad idea.

The worst thing that could come out of that is someone says to them, “Oh, that’s actually a really good idea. I don’t think that is a bad idea,” and that’s … Nobody gets hurt in that situation. Nobody gets their ideas pushed back and kind of closes in on themselves and stops coming up with ideas. It turns out to improve the entire process and culture.

Drew: Yeah. In my own agency, we used to … I don’t know that we articulated it the way you just did but our idea was that if you didn’t get the bad ideas out, they sort of got in the way of the good ideas and that a lot of times, the bad idea triggered a better idea. We always were trying to follow your methodology even though I didn’t know that that existed. We were just trying to get them out into a bucket, so there was room for something different.

Jason: Yeah, exactly. I think some agencies do that and some people do this well but I think it’s important to define them because I think it really pushes how our brains travel when you define what a bad idea is. I go into more detail on that in the book and when I work with people in person in consulting.

Especially moving on the brainstorm meeting, beyond that, the culture of a company should also be very comfortable with and encouraging of bad ideas in a very specific way. It’s harder to do it as a group of people than it is to just do it in a brainstorm meeting.

You talked earlier about how important it is to bring in people that aren’t just in the creative department or aren’t just in the art side of the equation but the whole agency. If I work with a company that’s not an agency, maybe it’s a farmer group or maybe it’s a CPG, I tell them, “You know, the engineers are highly critical.

The finance people are really good to bring in the meetings. The admin people, the customer service people are essential to bring into a creative process.” I think it also translates that value to the organization and the culture which becomes really valuable on many levels.

Drew: Yeah. I think you’re exactly right. I love the idea that you would put together a diverse group of people and obviously, the whole point is to get a diversity in your ideas, so why would we see that one department has a hold on that and nobody else can contribute?

Jason: Yeah.


Areas Where Traditional Brainstorming Meetings Need Improvement

Drew: Talk a little bit more about some of the other things that you think sort of the traditional brainstorming meeting gets wrong or could be improved upon.

Jason: Yeah. It’s interesting. If you’d go back to like the early BBDO days who kind of created what our modern sense of brainstorming, the brainstorming meeting is, even a lot of the initial kind of rules that they set aren’t really followed as often as they should be. The scale of ideas created early in a creative process is very important.

If you look at Saturday Night Live, for instance, their sketches, for every one that makes it to air, every success they have that makes it actually onto the show on live TV, there were 100 that didn’t.

If you look across industries and you look across different verticals, that actually becomes a pretty good rule of thumb to come up with the right ideas or a single idea you want as a success out of a brainstorming whether you’re working alone or as a group, 750 ideas and then, if you’re brainstorming in a group, at least 100.

If you go beyond that two, three times, probably even better results in the long run typically. Because of these connections points, the more connected points, the better.

I think one of the things that people miss early in a creative process is scale. They’ll make a brainstorm meeting, align them in a meeting and the last for ideas on something last minute. They won’t prepare for it. They’ll get maybe five, 10 ideas that they talk about immediately, debate immediately.

Sometimes, that’s all you can do. Sometimes, it’s an emergency. Sometimes, you have to squeeze an input.

For the most part, if you’re actually investing in a project, a creative project, you should be ideating on your own. You should have worked before your initial meeting to come up with solutions to bring to the table. You should invest in anonymous ideating where people are bringing ideas and no one knows where they came from.

That adds a lot of value. You should be looking for scale. You should be coming out with a hundred ideas as a group at a minimum for the most part.

Drew: I want to dig into this idea of anonymous ideation. That’s a concept that I haven’t heard a lot about. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and how in the process and where in the process that might live?

Jason: Yeah. It’s the beginning of the process. It’s the same thing we’re trying to solve with restructuring, changing our perspective on what are bad ideas and we’re trying to get rid of that judgment early in a creative process because judgment stops and kills potentially great ideas.

Instead of having a public display of, “What’s your idea? Shout it out,” when you anonymize it, when you have people write it down or use a Google spreadsheet or submit, you can even have people functioning like a help box at a company that people just write in ideas on a piece of paper and putting in the box, right, same idea. People are less restrictive of their thoughts when it’s anonymous.

Typically, what I tell people to do is preempt all the judgment by actually having a plan before the meeting, giving people a brief and asking people to come to the meeting with 10, 20 or 30 solutions to the problem. Put those in the dock. Have the person organize it, make sure it’s all anonymized.

You can combine them in categories if you want, if you want to go an extra step and really just start the meeting up with an amazing set of ideas that you can connect and discuss right away.

Drew: Yeah. That’s an interesting idea. I think a lot of agencies struggle with how much time to allow for this to work and how to do it. I observe agencies doing brainstorming. A lot of people come into the room.

Typically, the account person will, at that point, sort of reveal the brief or whatever so there’s not a lot of time to sort of let it cook in the back of your head. Then, there’s this silence for 10 minutes, where everybody scrambles and writes things down. You’re just sort of preempting all of that by letting people do it on their own.

Jason: Yeah. I think most brainstorming meetings are not really prepared that well either. So that requires the person calling the meeting to prepare a little more.

Drew: The other thing I observed is if you and I are on a team and we are brought into a brainstorming meeting, we might allow an hour for that but our plan is to come out of that hour having picked something or having picked three concepts to flesh out or whatever.

What’s your opinion about the cadence of that? Should there be multiple days? Should there be multiple hours? Should there be multiple meetings? Is it okay to do it all in one 60-minute segment? How do you recommend that gets done?

Jason: Yeah. I think it’s dependent on the complexity and the importance of what you’re trying to solve. If you’re a startup and you’re trying to name your new startup, that’s hugely important. You might want to make sure you have the opportunity to follow that up with two or three more meetings. If it’s just a hashtag for an event that you’re having,

I think obviously that’s probably just a one-meeting thing. Sometimes, you don’t know. There’s a big Fortune 50 company whose innovation officer rolled kind of this private brief about how that company does innovation and creativity internally. One of the things that she found at this company was studying kind of the creative culture is that when they would do tests on brainstorm meetings, she would compare the results.

Let’s say we run with like my 100 idea as an example. Let’s say they had three different brainstorming meetings with three different … all kind of the same makeup like half creative people, a third from engineering, a third from finance, whatever the breakdown is.

They try to keep them pretty consistent what types of people are in these meetings but it’s all different people all with the same brief. They all came up with a 100 ideas and when they compare those ideas, they found that 80% of the ideas in each group were different from the other two, a kind of increase in new concepts and new potential solutions from those meetings.

Drew: Wow.

Jason: So, you’re creating multiple groups and having multiple meetings but it depends on how valuable or how important that kind of meeting or solution or brainstorm is to your company.


Why Agencies Should Start Infusing Creativity and Innovation in Business

Drew: In an agency that has been around for a long time and they have real traditional works and so, for them for many years, creativity and brainstorming really lived in the creative department.

If they want to begin to create a culture of creativity and innovation throughout their entire agency, how do you teach someone who may or may not … You made a point earlier, we don’t teach it at home, we don’t teach it in school. How do you teach someone how to be creative on demand?

Jason: It’s a lot of things. When I come in and do like a one to three-day consult with a company, a piece of that is always how the individual can become more creative. There’s things that they can hone in on like the things they do at home, the things they read, the media that they come into contact with, keeping like an idea journal, things like that. Those are very simple but I also just try to focus them on what their expertise is.

I think when you show people that creativity comes from usually having at least one core competency whether that’s finance, engineering, advertising, whatever it is, management and you tell them most creative people have a core competency and then they build upon that with brush up against life.  Which is kind of a phrase I built on from a quote from Steve Jobs. That concept of brushing it against life is filling your life with new inputs and then connecting those to what you know most about, having an expertise.

If you look at like Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, for instance, he’s a great example. He was heavily interested in language. If you read Lord of the Rings or you go see the movies, you’ll notice that he invented tons of languages for the world that he built in his fictional storytelling.

There’s poetry and songs and stories and interactions with the language that are very intricate and people loved that about it. A lot of fantasy fiction authors will try to … They tell themselves, “Oh, if I want to write a good book like Tolkien did like Lord of the Rings, I need to be obsessed with language as well.”

In reality, they need to be obsessed with whatever their expertise is. You don’t have to have the same exact focus. You don’t have to try to paint with watercolors like Steve Jobs did or do the exact thing that your icon, your creative leader does in your company but you need to find your own expertise and then fill it in with kind of bringing in data from around the world and finding new ways to do that.

Drew: If I’m the CFO at an agency, how do I begin to explore that? If I’m a junior account person, how do I explore that, begin to identify what that core is for me and then how do I connect it to my daily work?

Jason: Yeah. I think keeping an idea journal is a good first step because you start to learn kind of how you think and look for opportunities whether you’re coming up with ideas on shower or waking up from a dream or taking a walk and coming up with ideas, writing them down and then revisiting them.

I find just doing the work of solving a problem is the best way to increase your confidence in your own creativity and increase your kind of competence in that process. If you can’t do it … Let’s say your agency doesn’t really believe in bringing everyone into those types of meetings.

I think volunteering for a little nonprofit or volunteering for stepping up in the leadership roles in your local ad club or finding some opportunity to get involved in an organization where you can take a leadership role, you can kind of drive ideas and solve problems, helping a friend that’s starting a new business or helping your church, there’s all kinds of ways you could do it but putting yourself in a position where you are in meetings and you are in a creative process to solve things.

Maybe that’s creative writing. Maybe it’s an internal thing that you’re doing on your own but just doing the work of solving problems and coming up with solutions, creative solutions to problem is the biggest step that you can take.


Bringing Creativity and Innovation into the Workplace

Drew: Then, how do you bring that into the workplace? One of the things you talked about works for the recipe, if you will, for a brainstorming meeting or session, is there … Do you believe there is sort of a best practice around what that meeting or session should look like, either parts to a brainstorming session that should always be included whether it’s an hour-long or 15 minutes long or there’s three of them over the course of five days?

Jason: Yeah. Typically, it breaks down into Thursday brief, right, so defining problem, giving background, defining what the goal and the solution, giving examples of what those ideal solutions look like, things like that. The instructional piece, that always needs to be there.

To a degree, it always is but typically, I find most people are not defining success, not giving a lot of background, not giving examples, things like that. I think that’s a big piece.

I think the anonymous ideation or the initial ideation where you load up all the solutions whether it’s shouted out or written down or anonymized or done before the meeting, obviously that’s crucial.

Then, you get into the filter phase. The filter phase is always combining ideas, eliminating ideas, looking. There’s acronyms and tons of things you can use for that but actually looking at what you have and organizing it basically is what you’re doing and then filtering it for the best solutions.

Then, you have kind of the final elimination round or discussion first and then elimination round where you actually get down to fewer ideas or the final solution. That’s the simplest way to break it all down, right? I find some of that happens after the meeting.

Sometimes, you have a manager that decided what the solution is going to be before the meeting even started. There’s all kinds of barriers that get thrown up in front of this kind of simple framework but typically, that’s always how it works. I think that’s kind of how the creative process works in general if you pull that up to a company-wide or an actual culture for a company.


The Biggest Counterintuitive Secrets that Exist in Every Agency

Drew: Yeah. When we started the conversation, you’ve identified that there are no bad ideas as one of the sort of myths of creativity and innovation in business. What are some of the other counterintuitive secrets? What’s the other one?

When you think about listeners are basically agency owners, agency leaders, what’s the other biggest counterintuitive secret that they need to take back to their agency and either do something different or stop doing something or start doing something that perhaps is not on their radar screen.

Jason: Yeah. Without giving away the full secrets’ list, one of the things that first comes to mind just when we’re talking about the structure of a meeting is how you end the meetings.

One of the things I recommend people, instead of coming up with one solution, is to come up with three solutions from a meeting whether that’s from the first meeting or three meetings later. Whenever your creative process ends, is to try to come up with three solutions. The structure of that should be what I call two unicorns and one thoroughbred.

One of those should be we know this will work for the client. We know this will work for our internal marketing, whatever that you’re working on. It’s a solid solution. We all believe this.

The other two should be kind of off the wall, not crazy but for some reason, we think this is a little risky or we don’t have a budget for this one or this one, we’d have to have a better client because they’re a little more conservative to really run with this one but everyone really liked this idea that somebody spent a lot of time talking about them. They got us excited.

The reason you do that … There’s tons of reasons. It’s really good for culture. The people that started those ideas, more people get praised in the meeting. More people