Episode 74

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Jason Keath is a refreshing voice on creative culture and digital trends. He is a keynote speaker, writer, and entrepreneur.

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).



What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • 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
  • 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
  • What you can do in your free time to boost your creativity
  • Why your brainstorming teams should be a mix of people who have brainstormed together in the past and those who haven’t
  • Jason’s upcoming event this summer all about the future of the industry


The Golden Nugget:

“Creativity comes from at least one core competency and building upon it.” – @jasonkeath Click To Tweet


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Speaker 1:

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, invested employees and best of all, more money to the bottom line.

Bringing his 25+ years of expertise as both an agency, owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

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 that those folks, the writers and artists were the only ones who were really held accountable to really driving creativity out of an agency.

Today, as all of that’s really changed. Everybody has to be creative on demand, whether that’s account service team bringing fresh business ideas to clients, to your BizDev team, trying to figure out ways to get on your prospect’s radar screens, to of course your creatives 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.

Creativity 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 about our guest, because he knows a lot about this and 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 of creative culture and digital trends. He spends his time keynote speaking, writing and he’s also an entrepreneur. He is 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 all of the ad age, 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, revealing the counterintuitive secrets of creative leaders and we’re going to dig into that content pretty deeply today.

And 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 and they’ve got a daily newsletter that all of you should subscribe to if you don’t already. So we’ll dig into that in a little bit, but Jason, welcome to the podcast.

Jason Keath:

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.

Drew McLellan:

Give us a little bit of background and 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 Keath:

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. And then after that I went right into the agency world as a creative.

I was a creative leader at a couple of agencies in the Southeast and 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 have done early in their digital careers.

I think I became the answer person for social media. I got into strategy at the agencies I was working at because of that. I would be called into the pitch meetings and 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 of my own and started consulting. And 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 and 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 McLellan:

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

Jason Keath:


Drew McLellan:


Jason Keath:

Well, 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. So 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. So I brought in all the heavy hitters nationally. It’s now the law longest running social media conference and 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 and that’s what we continue to do today. 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 kind of the creative side of these solutions. That’s kind of a refocus for me recently in writing my book on creativity. So 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 mind as well.

Drew McLellan:

From your days in the agency world to today, creativity is really the main currency for agencies. It’s our ideas. And 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 and wrap their head around this new idea of creativity coming from every department and every employee and how do you help them shift their culture to make that happen more intuitively?

Jason Keath:

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 and I’ve researched the science upon creativity extensively. Maybe my second book might be focused on the science behind creativity, which is kind of what I was originally and going for. But I think you have a perspective of creativity where we put it up on a shelf and there’s usually a couple of 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 madman 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 it internally and 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 the creative process but there’s tons more to it than just that. A lot of it’s 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.

Drew McLellan:

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… The focus was on how to grow and nurture inside a multicultural agency. As you might imagine, there was 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 Keath:

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 McLellan:

Right, 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 Keath:

Probably. They’ve had it beaten out of them mostly, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right. That’s right.

Jason Keath:

I think there’s this rule, it’s probably the most cliche thing in a brainstorm meeting, which is there’s no such thing as bad ideas, which is which I am basically calling BS on. I’m 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 and bad ideas come into many buckets.

I try to define those very, very detailed. There’s the bad idea, that is the obvious solution that most people think everyone else has already thought of so they don’t want to mention it because they think they’ll look stupid. When in fact studies have shown what one person thinks is obvious, 80% of the people in that group probably haven’t thought of yet or haven’t really dived into.

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 defining 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. So I tell people 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 the page. That tends to alleviate… That’s an initial push that helps improve the creative culture and process and starts to change the attitude towards bad ideas.

There’s always a time in the creative process where discussion and debate is valuable. But if you push that, this is brainstorming one, one, but you push that towards the end once you have a 100 or 200 ideas to consider and connect and discuss. 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. So the worst thing that could come out of that is someone says to them, “That’s actually a really good idea. I don’t think that is a bad idea.”

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 prove the entire process and culture.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. In my own agency, we used to… I don’t know that we would 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, a bad idea triggered a better ideas. 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 Keath:

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 and I go into more detail on that in the book and when I work with people in person consulting.

But 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.

But you talked earlier about how important it is to bring in people that aren’t just in the creative department or aren’t just the art side of the equation. But the whole agency. If I work with a company’s not an agency, maybe it’s a pharma group or maybe it’s a CPG, I tell them, “The engineers are highly critical. The finance people are really good to bring into 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 McLellan:

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 diversity in your ideas. Why would we think that one department has, has a hold on that and nobody else can contribute.

Jason Keath:


Drew McLellan:

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

Jason Keath:

Yeah. It’s interesting. If you go back to like the early BDO days who kind of created what our modern sense of brainstorming, the brainstorming of a 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. So if you look at Saturday Night Live for instance, there are sketches for everyone that makes it to air. So every success they have, that makes it actually onto the show on the live TV, the ideas to get there. If you look across industries and you look across different verticals, that actually becomes a pretty good rule of thumb to come 50 to a hundred ideas or a single idea, you want as a success out of a brain brainstorm.

Whether you’re working alone or as a group, [inaudible 00:15:39] 50 ideas. Then if you’re brainstorming in a group, at least a hundred. If you go beyond that two, three times find better results in the long run typically and it’s because of the ease connection points, the more connection points the better.

I think one of the things that people miss early in the creative process is scale. They’ll make a brainstorm meeting a line item in a meeting and they’ll ask for ideas on something last minute. They won’t prepare for it and 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 that in. But 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 work 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 and you should be looking for scale. You should be coming up with a hundred ideas as a group at a minimum for the most part.

Drew McLellan:

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 Keath:

Yeah. So it’s the beginning of the project. If you allow people… It’s the same thing we’re trying to solve with re-structuring, changing our perspective on what a bad idea is. And we’re trying to get rid of that judgment early in the creative process because stops and kills potentially great ideas.

Instead of having a public display of what your idea is shouted out, when you anonymize it, when you have people write down or use a Google Spreadsheet or submit, you can even have people… Like a help box at a company that’s people of just writing ideas on a piece of paper and putting it in the box, 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 and put those in the doc, have the person organizing it, make sure it’s all anonymized, you can combine them into categories if you want. If you want to go an extra step and really just start the meeting off with an amazing set of ideas that you can connect and discuss right away.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. That’s an interesting idea. I think a lot of agencies struggle with how much time to allow for this sort of work and how to do it. I observe agencies doing brainstorming, it’s a lot of people coming 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 listen or let it cook in the back of your head. Then there’s this silence for 10 minutes while everybody scrambles and writes things down. So really you’re just sort of preempting all of that by letting people do that on their own. Yeah.

Jason Keath:

Most brainstorm meetings are not really prepared that well either. So that’s a [inaudible 00:18:51], the person calling the meeting to prepare a little more.

Drew McLellan:

What’s your take on… The other thing I observe is so if you and I are on a team and we’re 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 they be multiple meetings? Is it okay to do it all in one 60 minute segment? How do you recommend that gets done?

Jason Keath:

Yeah. I think it’s dependent on the complexity and the importance of what you’re trying to solve. If it’s your 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 wrote 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 a 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 breakdowns. That was pretty… They tried to keep them pretty consistent with the types of people within these meetings, but it’s all different people all with the same brief, they all came up with a hundred ideas. And when they compare those ideas, they found that 80% of the ideas in each group were different from the two, kind of increase in new concepts and new potential solutions from those meetings.

Value in 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.

Drew McLellan:

In an agency that has… Maybe they’ve been around for a long time and they have real traditional roots. 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 through any innovation throughout their entire agency, how do you teach someone who may or may not… You made the point earlier, we don’t teach it at a home, we don’t teach it in school. How do you teach someone how to be creative on demand?

Jason Keath:

Well, it’s a lot of things. When I come in and do like a one or 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 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 brushing up against life, which is kind of a phrase I built on from a quote from Steve Jobs.

But that concept of brushing up against life filling in your life with new inputs and then connecting those to what you know most about, having an expertise. If you look at like Token in Lord of the Rings for instance, he’s a great example. So 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 and there’s poetry and songs and stories and interactions with the language that are very intricate and people love that about it.

A lot of fantasy fiction authors will try to… They tell themselves, “Oh, if I want to write a book like Token did like Lord of the Rings, I need to be obsessed with language as well.”

When 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 bringing in data from around the world and finding new ways to do that.

Drew McLellan:

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

Jason Keath:

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 in the 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. I think if you can