How improv helped TSB’s CMO be creative under pressure at work

TSB CMO Pete Markey has stepped outside his comfort zone by taking up improvised comedy, which has helped him exercise his creative muscle, become a better team leader and improve his mental health.

theatreI set myself a crazy challenge at the end of 2018. This year marks 10 years since I finished my MBA and the last piece of ‘official’ learning I had undertaken, and I was determined to learn something new.

I loved my time doing the MBA and it taught me so much that I still use today, but I wanted to try something that helped unleash more of my creative side rather than just my strategic mind in action. As a marketer, so much of what I do has to balance the two and over time it’s the strategic muscle that has been given more air time than my creative mind.

I wanted to learn something new that helped me be more creative ‘in the moment’ and strengthen my creative thinking as part of a team, which is something we often forget to carve out time to nurture and focus on as marketers.

Now, be careful what you wish for because this hunger for learning has taken me in a slightly unorthodox direction. While paying for my annual rail pass (a real highlight of any year), I saw an ad for improvised comedy lessons from Dingbats Improv at my local theatre, The Archway.

I could have picked a number of new areas to learn to harness my inner creative but having already done a lot of work in the past on art, design and the literary word I was ready to try something completely new. And the following week I was at my first lesson.

I’m a firm believer that being able to think on your feet, react in the right way in situations and be creative under pressure are vital skills for any marketer.

To say that doing improv throws you in the deep end would be an understatement. I hadn’t harnessed an inner desire for improv or stand up but over the years have been deeply impressed by shows like ‘Who’s line is it anyway’ and performers like Mischief Theatre who are masters in this art. There is no script, you think on your feet and you learn as you go.

Each scene often begins with one word or suggestion, a scenario or relationship between characters. From there you and one other person usually bring that scene to life, building on what each other is sharing. I’ve undertaken about 12 lessons since January and have been a failing 80s rock star, a nun, a donkey and an alien.

Ed Pithe is the Yoda of improv and teaches us new techniques each week to craft our skills ahead of a monthly performance, known as a DingJam, where anyone can turn up and watch us perform. At my first show I was the patient in a slightly unusual medical practice. High praise indeed when my son who came along to watch told me I was “actually pretty good” – an inspiring piece of confidence to spur me onto our next show later this month.

Improv is a great skill to help in the workplace too. I’m a firm believer that being able to think on your feet, react in the right way in situations and be creative under pressure are vital skills for any marketer.

Another great thing about improv is the need to work as a team, supporting each other and building on ideas together. There simply isn’t time or room to let anyone fail – in improv as in business, the collective effort of the team makes a huge difference. Applying this to the workplace has helped me be more spontaneous and creative in the moment and given me the discipline to create more space to exercise my creative muscle too. It’s done wonders for my mental health too – it’s a great ‘release valve’ after a demanding day.

Learning improv has seen me step outside my comfort zone and I’m loving it. I think it’s vital we continually step outside our comfort zones in business and in life – it keeps us fresh and relevant, and as I’m finding you can make new friends and have a lot of fun in the process too.

Pete Markey is CMO at TSB