A US agency is stripping the creative process down to the commonest denominator by tapping into the minds of people from all walks of life
More thoughts this week on the Muse of Marketing. Does she, as agencies would have their clients believe, bestow her favours on a select few, all of whom, as luck would have it, dwell beneath her dreamy spell in their creative departments, or does she spread it about a bit more freely, rather in the manner of a big-hearted strumpet?
Let me introduce you to John Palumbo who, though a marketing man through and through, adheres strongly to the strumpet view. After working for 15 years in a number of US ad agencies, earlier this month he set up his own shop in Hoboken, New Jersey, and called it The BigHeads. It’s a name chosen to tread a narrow path between self-mockery and outright boasting. The eponymous bigheads are a collection of some 300 “creative minds” some of whose grey cells pulse and throb in unlikely surroundings. For example, the panel includes twin dancers from the Crazy Horse strip club in Las Vegas, and a New York City bike messenger, who must hear some creative language every day as he weaves in and out of the gridlock. Other bigheads include a “top reality television producer”, a furniture designer, a collegiate coach, a cardiologist, a hair stylist, a “nightlife doorman”, an attorney general and a news anchor. “They are personal contacts,” says Palumbo. “People who I have just been lucky enough to come across and know.”
His big idea is to sink a metaphorical pick into these assorted cerebella in the hope of striking gold. “For the past ten to 15 years I have always been willing to tap outside thinking,” he says. “It’s always provided me with a different perspective. I’ve never understood why people didn’t do it more. I’ve never really taken the traditional path in marketing, I would always talk to folks who were outside the industry. It’s all just listening to what people do – they may do those things every day and take them for granted, but they can strike sparks and help you with what you’re working on.”
As an advertising veteran he shies away from the implication that “creatives” are either not up to the job or have a skill that’s overrated. “I want this to be agency friendly. However, a lot of the traditional agencies have an agenda, and that’s an issue. They all say they are media neutral, that’s the rallying cry right now, but the truth is different. Every agency has a tactic it wants to push. But brands are looking for new thinking and I think this is an extra layer that we can bring to clients, and they are more than willing to think about it and give it a shot. What we’re doing is necessary and there is not one brand that we talk to that is not interested in hearing more about it.”
Unlike agencies, he adds, the bigheads, have “absolutely no agenda”. “They are not pushing a tactic or an approach because that is not their world. They are not marketing folks so they don’t think like a typical marketer thinks. The way it works is that I will first sit with the client and get a brand briefing and then when we tap those bigheads we don’t ask them for a marketing campaign, we give them information and ask them some questions that are very general. For example, we might say, tell us about your last stay at a hotel, the things that got you excited, the things that you remember. All that we are looking for from them are those sparks. The rest is up to us. We can’t downplay the internal creativity that we have here.”
So what’s in it for the bigheads? “They get incentivised but they don’t get paid. It’s hard for me to pay the chairman of a record company. What am I going to give him? We have a very clever incentive programme, which includes everything from the sexiness of the typical Sundance Awards gift bag down to donations to their charities. But keep in mind that these are folks who enjoy it, it’s fun for them, it’s a creative outlet for them, everybody loves to give their opinion about marketing campaigns. But at the same time there are organic opportunities in this for them as well, they look at it as a great networking opportunity for themselves.”
But if everyone has an opinion, why not use anyone? “We feel these bigheads are real thought leaders,” says Palumbo. “They are a little bit more savvy when it comes to certain areas and certain businesses.”
So perhaps the Muse is a bit choosy after all.