Anyone can copy an idea. Great companies invent them.

Not so long ago, if you came up with a Big Idea – a product, a service…a book or movie, whatever – you also developed some creative marketing to go with it.  That way, when you put your Big Idea out into the world, the marketing would (hopefully) entice people into buying it.  With persistence and a little luck, your Big Idea might just set the world on fire. 

Well, Grandpa, now we have analytics and preference-based marketing.  With analytics, marketers can find out what people already want.  No guesswork.  No inventive ad campaigns required.  No waiting for results.  Actually, you don’t even need a Big Idea.  With analytics, it’s all about selling more of what already has worked in the past.

Creativity?  We don’t need no stinkin’ creativity.


“Same as it ever was…” (David Byrne, Once In A Lifetime)

Analytics has essentially changed marketing from a creative process to a data-driven process.  If you’re unfamiliar with how analytics works, here’s the short story:  vast pools of consumer data are compiled and analyzed to discover purchasing patterns.  Some patterns are actual – the stuff you’ve downloaded from iTunes over the past year, your age, sex and income, whether you’ve contributed to a political campaign.  Other patterns are predictive…for instance, what certain marketers think you might want to download from iTunes next week.  These patterns form profiles which tell marketers all about you and the particular group of “people like you.” 

Marketers use profiles to tailor their advertising to what’s potentially most effective on “people like you.”  There’s nothing wrong with that – good intel has always been a cornerstone of successful marketing.  But more often than not, strategy and creativity are compromised and exchanged for the singular goal of duplicating repetition.

If “duplicating repetition” sounds redundant, it is.  The same messages are repeated, over and over, in order to duplicate the same transactions, again and again.  The primary objective of analytics, then, is not simply to predict your next purchase, but to influence it.  Not only that, it’s manipulation (word carefully chosen) orchestrated in real time – as you walk through a store, drive past a billboard, watch TV or update your Facebook page – all before you have time to pause and consider.

You say you like the Twilight movies?  Great!  Here’s more stuff other Twihards, Twilighters and Fanpires just like you have bought.  It’s brilliant.  Almost like Minority Report, except with less violence.  And happily, no Tom Cruise.

Easy money?

Whether it’s analytics, customer surveys – or my personal pet peeve, focus groups – there’s always plenty of data to support what’s worked before, and little to justify taking a risk.

Analytics proves that boosting repeat sales or pulling transactions from a less-than-saturated market can be a low-risk, high-reward approach.  This is how my cat Mingus operates: why go to all the trouble of hunting for a fresh tasty mouse in the back yard when there’s a perfectly good hamburger left unattended on the dinner table?

By comparison, old-fashioned marketing is a dicey proposition.  Creative ideas actually have to be good.  They have to excite and convince people.  And their success is based on what people might do next week or next month.  With analytics, the real-time numbers never lie.  And should the results ever be off, it’s those fickle consumers’ fault, not the data’s.  

If you’re betting the farm on next quarter’s sales, the attractiveness of analytics is understandable.  There’s big money to be made identifying, manipulating and exploiting purchasing patterns.  (Table.  Hamburger.  Yum.)

A guy named Steve Jobs, ‘tho, preferred to have a Big Idea or two in the can:

 “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups.  A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.  That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”  – Steve Jobs

I had no idea what an iPod was before I saw one.  Or an iPhone, or an iPad.  No one did.  But as soon as I saw one, I had to have it.

Think hard about this.  One minute, you have no clue what the product is or why you need it.  The next, you can’t live without it.

This is how Big ideas work.  They hit the scene – without prediction – and the world changes.

The Tyranny of Expectations

As a tactical intel-gathering tool, analytics can be very useful.  Do our clients use analytics?  You bet.  But no tactic, no matter how impressive, is a substitute for a creative strategy.

Tactical methodologies like analytics reinforce what we call the Tyranny of Expectations – the belief that history will repeat itself, exactly and precisely.

When overconfidence in expectations shifts our focus to probabilities at the exclusion of possibilities, there is no room for new ideas…no chance for surprises, no time for contemplating “What if?”

The Tyranny of Expectations explains why we have a Kodak “shocked” that people no longer needed photographic film.  A Postal Service that “underestimated” email.  A Radio Shack that realized a decades late that it needed to “reinvent” itself.  (Where else can you still buy a pager?)

Every 18 months or so, the power of technology doubles and its size halves.  Play this out 20 years forward and you have computing power at the cellular level.  What will that do to customer buying habits?  How will we respond to products and industries that are years from being invented?  What value will today’s view of the consumer have?  My first-generation iPod is in the bottom of a closet with my CD burner, so I’m betting “not much.”

Analytics cannot predict a market’s perpetually accelerating evolution.  It cannot forecast consumer response to a new, exciting Big Idea.

Which brings us back to Twilight.  Stephanie Meyer hit the motherlode with her girl-loves-blood-sucker novels.  Much like Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, she never published a piece of fiction before she wrote Twilight in 2003.  Love it or hate it (I’m in the latter group), Twilight was a monster Big idea – a new and untested commodity from an unknown creator.  And it’s made about $3.5 billion to date.  Not bad.

More telling is that the movie industry – a pioneer in aggressive market optimization, predictive modeling, grassroots social media campaigns and, yes, market analytics – is no better off for its advanced tactics.  Post Bella and Edward, Hollywood threw a host of Twilightized features to a ready-made fan base, including Beautiful Creatures, Mortal Instruments, I Am Number Four and Red Riding Hood.  Each should have raked in the cash, or so the analytics clearly predicted.  All failed miserably.

Another Big Idea filled our need for something new:  The Hunger Games.


Creativity requires a little ‘tude.

People are always asking: How can we get our company to be more creative?

In Creativity & All That Jazz, we often turn to some of the giants of jazz as examples of what to do. (And occasionally what not to do.) When it comes to creativity, we say:

Be a little more like Miles Davis.


Miles Dewey Davis III. Trumpeter. Composer. Band leader. Celebrity. Fashion icon. All-around bad-ass. One of the most gifted musicians in all of music. In my opinion (and I’m hardly alone on this), Miles was the most innovative jazz player ever.

Miles Davis spent his entire career – 40-plus years of it – reinventing himself. While some of his recordings may have been more successful than others, all his music, it’s safe to say, made some noise. Fans, record companies, the music press and fellow musicians would love him, then hate him, then love him again.

For example, when Birth of the Cool was released in 1957, no one quite knew what to make of it. Winthrop Sargeant, classical music critic for The New Yorker, compared Miles to:

“…an impressionist composer with a great sense of aural poetry and a very fastidious feeling for tone color…the music sounds more like that of a new Maurice Ravel than it does like jazz…it is not really jazz.”

Birth of the Cool. One of the great jazz albums of all time. “Not really jazz.”

This story was repeated over and over. Kind of Blue (1959) is hailed as the most influential jazz album ever recorded. (Let me repeat that: Most. Influential. Ever.) Its release, ‘tho, was overshadowed by the then-trendy “free jazz” scene.

And the revolutionary Bitches Brew (1969) was mercilessly blasted by fans and critics. From The Penguin Guide to Jazz:

“It is profoundly flawed, a gigantic torso of burstingly noisy music that absolutely refuses to resolve itself under any recognized guise.”

From Bill Meyer of Ink Blot Magazine:

“Davis drew a line in the sand that some jazz fans have never crossed, or even forgiven Davis for drawing.”

And from acclaimed critic Bob Rusch of Downbeat:

“This to me…[is] part and parcel of the commercial crap…beginning to choke and bastardize the catalogs of such dependable [jazz record] companies as Blue Note and Prestige.”

Ah, this is the thing about being out in front – you ruffle a lot of feathers. That’s kind of the whole reason for creativity, to shake up the status quo. But man, how we humans just love us some status quo.

In over 30 years in the advertising biz, I’ve found that the primary reason for bad marketing, bad management, low employee morale and disappearing customers can be traced to one thing. And it’s not lack of creative ideas. It’s resistance to them.

New ideas are fragile. They need nurturing and development. Resistance to new ideas kills creativity before it’s had time to establish the slightest of roots. Resistance says, We know what people want, how people think, and how the universe works. Resistance offers no room for alternative possibilities.

Worst of all, resistance scares creative people (and we’re all creative people) from bringing new ideas to the table. After all, who wants to get pommeled by an army of naysayers? In some companies, suggesting one might entertain abandoning the time-honored way of doing things in order to consider something new can produce a sideways glance or two. In other companies, it can kill a career.

Miles Davis? He didn’t care what you thought – whether you were a fan, the guitarist in the band, or the president of the record company. You didn’t like his new music? Too bad for you. You didn’t understand it? Get out of the way, there are others who did. You didn’t think it was going to work? Shut up. Watch. Listen.

Here’s what we learned about creativity from Miles Davis:

1. Ignore everybody. The more original your idea is, the less good advice anyone can legitimately give you. (To borrow from another bit of music history, Decca Records refused to sign The Beatles in 1962, claiming they had “no future in show business.”) 

2. Ignore expectations. Expectations are the prediction that the past will repeat itself, precisely and unerringly, again and again. Based on that logic, we’d have no iPod, iPhone or iPad.

3.”Big Ideas” don’t need to be big. It can be a small, simple idea. In fact, those are usually the ones that change everything.

4. Prepare to go it alone. Not everyone gets a Big Idea. That’s OK. The more compelling the idea, the fewer the number of people telling you right off the bat how “great” it is.

5. Change is not dangerous. Refusing to change, however, is certain death. Ask any dinosaur how that evolution thing went for them.

6. Avoid the crowd. All existing business models are: (a) all wrong, (b) in serious need of improvement, or (c) working but have a shorter shelf-life than anyone realizes. In any event, deliberately trying to be different is as bad as conforming.

7. You cannot have two lines in the sand. A business, just as an artist, needs to know what is worth putting up with and what is not. That’s the easy part. More challenging is realizing that the line in the sand cannot be one place when it comes to creativity and another when it comes to making money.

8. Stop listening to experts. Is information valuable? Sure. It’s also an intellectual narcotic. Miles Davis never had a focus group.

9. The best way to get approval is to not ever need it. You don’t get power, you take it.

10. Find your own voice. Miles sounded like Miles. Other trumpet players who put the mute in their horn and squonked out a melody – some of them very good – they sounded like Miles too.


Why do so many companies want to show their CEOs the door?

I am not making this up.

According to CBS News, one out of every three companies would ax their executive management team. If they only could. By any interpretation, that’s a fairly stunning statistic. What the heck is up with that?

As with most news stories, the article only scratches the surface. This key passage, ‘tho, sums it up:

“Most CEOs simply don’t know what to do….Typically, they’ve come up through the company and honed specific disciplines – they’re great finance thinkers, product innovators or salespeople. Their entire careers have been characterized by the steady accumulation of deep skills in one area. But once they assume senior executive positions, they need entirely different skills:  networking, knowledge-gathering, consensus building, listening.”

Not long ago, I was sitting with a friend after a gig (I’m a creative director by day, drummer by night) and we were talking about this very thing. “Our boss is a freaking idiot,” he said. “No clue whatsoever on how to run the company.”

How could that be? The guy in question was a former senior exec with a large multinational company. One doesn’t assume such a position without an impressive skill set of some sort.

Further conversation (over Guinness of course) revealed the details. Experienced? No doubt. Intelligent? Exceptionally. Reputation? Praised on two continents. The issue?

The man couldn’t jam to save his life.

OK, what do I mean by that? Simply that it’s one thing to assume a leadership position, and quite another to actually get people following you. For all his accomplishments, this CEO – and his company’s employees and stockholders – would be better served if he exercised a few Jazz skills.



There are two main responsibilities of leadership. The first is to establish and articulate the vision of the organization. (And notice it’s “vision,” not “mission.”) The second is to facilitate what we call Interactive Relationships of Reciprocal Influence. People operate much differently in an Interactive Relationship of Reciprocal Influence. Instead of focusing on personal agendas, the shared vision of the group becomes the primary performance motivator. Ultimately, the aggregate of talents and experiences is more compelling – and has a far greater effect – than the mere sum of individual skills.

There’s a misconception that Jazz is wild and chaotic – everyone battling to out-perform the other. While unbridled competition may be the hallmark of the executive wing, if you watch any good Jazz group (and why are you watching bad Jazz?), you’ll find something very different. Make no mistake, we’re talking about virtuoso players who love the spotlight – why else go to all the trouble to be on stage? But instead of competition, you’ll find cooperation. Much of the time, in fact, you see players holding back or not playing at all.

They’re listening.

The great British drummer Bill Bruford explains that playing Jazz is like having a musical conversation. And like any good conversation, you can’t have everyone speaking at the same time. You also can’t have one person always doing the talking. That’s not to say one can’t direct the conversation – how to improve the customer experience, for example. But one talks, then listens…preferably, doing more of the latter.

If this sounds simplistic, it is. (There are times when “simple” rules the day.) When a CEO or other power player fails to listen as job one, it comes at a terrific cost. Problems aren’t fully understood, if at all. Crises aren’t averted. Possibilities aren’t considered. Opportunities aren’t acted upon. Creativity is squelched. New ideas are ignored.

Worst of all, the expertise at the CEO’s disposal – the Aggregate Intellectual Capital of the organization – goes untapped.

This is what my friend at the gig was trying to explain. His CEO wasn’t listening…to his managers, to the hourly employees, or to his suppliers or business partners. Worst of all, he wasn’t listening to his customers. This CEO had succeeded in becoming his company’s own self-limiting factor.

Again, let’s contrast this with the Jazz group. In Jazz, the musicians are actively listening, watching, feeling out the other players, looking for the subtle cues that will open up the door to new performance possibilities. (For example, when the sax player is soloing, the drums and bass busy themselves keeping the rhythm. They’ll have their turn to amaze the audience soon enough.) Everybody is there to support everyone else – the band succeeds, or fails, together.


I was lucky enough to have seen the Count Basie Orchestra in the early 1980s. If you’re familiar with Basie, then you know his piano playing often diminished to the tinkling of a few keys. You also know his band could turn on a dime – from gently gliding on a breeze to barreling around a curve like a speeding freight train. And every performance, flawless.

It takes great skill to lead at that level. But first, you’ve got to listen.


What’s Jazz got to do with it?

At first glance, Jazz may appear to be an odd organizational model for business.  But on closer examination, it becomes clear that every key strategic and operational component of an effective organization is contained within the Jazz group configuration, and each can be understood observing Jazz musicians as they perform.

Jazz is the Music of Evolution – Jazz embodies change.  Jazz musicians are not only comfortable with change, they thrive on it.  By mastering the dynamics and potential of change instead of resisting it, Jazz musicians are able to continually reinvent their art – and themselves – without losing their identity.  In the process, Jazz players keep audiences engaged.

Jazz is the Music of Creativity – Most of us recognize that creativity is essential for Jazz performance, and that Jazz musicians are creative.  But creativity does not “come naturally” to a select few.  It requires commitment, learning the fundamentals, accessing the right tools…and practice, practice, practice!  The good news is that everyone – not just the professional artist – is creative, and creativity can be learned, mastered and routinely applied.

Jazz is the Music of Interdependence – As in any organization, every player in the Jazz group has specific responsibilities which must be precisely executed during every performance.  In the Jazz group, these responsibilities can change, and often significantly, at a moment’s notice.  Knowing what to play – or what not to play – is all part of the job.  The ability to shift seamlessly from various leadership and support roles is essential to responding to new opportunities and maximizing group performance.

Jazz is the Music of Leadership – Jazz is a continual work-in-progress, and so players necessarily have to be afforded considerable freedom to perform their roles – especially when the aim is to take advantage of a player’s unique signature sound.  And yet, any good band leader will deliberately set performance standards quite high.  Guiding players to achieve progressively higher levels of excellence, night after night, is the art of Jazz leadership.

Jazz is the Music of Decisiveness – When it’s showtime, there are no focus groups or endless internal debates.  Jazz musicians joyously move from decision to decision creating a harmonious performance.  It’s 1-2-3 Play!  Players communicate seamlessly to orchestrate a powerful connection with their audience through the music. And they do it all in real time.