Innovation Blues

November 19, 2009

By Michael Mark, Creative Director/CEO @NYCA 

In this world you got to use what you got. 

He thumped and whomped his two suitcases – a Samsonite floorbase and a tom-tom that had long lost its logo. His drumsticks worked every inch of a snare drum made from a transmission oil can with thick strips of black tape in the pattern of a Union Jack.  “Yeah, well, we’re Americans. Americans,” he spoke with the syncopation of a drummer who hears the beat even when he sleeps. He was jamming on a Sunday afternoon for the flip-flop crowd’s dollars. 

The rest of the drum set is comprised of a tin prison-type coffee cup and a cymbal that was formerly a garbage can. 

“Been playing these since I joined up with him six month ago.” “Him” is the coughing-croaking lead singer and steel guitar picker in the cool-daddy sunglasses. “This guitar cost me $50, parts from the junk yard, better sound than my Gibson which I have but why would I play it?” 

They were playing, answering questions about their instruments and collecting crumpled bucks from the breezy strollers at the farmer’s market. 

This wasn’t a musical performance as much as it was a study in innovation. “Lost most of what I had since the downturn in the economy,” Said the ski-capped drummer, smiling a victim’s smile of acceptance. “The economy broke into my room, took my stuff. I lost the IOU.” It was likely a gimmick but I was buying.

They made their instruments from scraps and played them for all they were worth. 

The recession may have found its troubadours. 

“I heard it’s a cruel world – I don’t buy it. The world is and we are. No meanness,”   he who is known as “Him” side-talked at me while nodding to a dollar dropper. 

“Let’s play another. I think we should play another.” The drummer tapped – more like twitched — on his garbage can. And then they broke into, “Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself,” by Clapton. 

Were they good? Is that really the question? They upped the game from rhythm and acumen to resourcefulness and drama. They gave us a clue on survival, a ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ nod of community, and showed their invention. They told a story of gumption and vision. Where some see junk others hear music. And where there’s music there’s bound to be some crumpled bills looking for a new home. That’s branding – something more than the usual song and dance to relate to, be better by.  These guys gave me a reason to stick around, to take a picture, to be involved and for that they have a brand advocate. All for replacing a drum with a broken suitcase – because they created a story that engaged me and brought my attention to what could be.  Thanks luggage drummer dude! 

And so I, and I’m sure many others, will pay for some of that. I dropped a dollar in the only suitcase that wasn’t a drum and then I applauded — me and a kid in diapers who’d been twirling enough to tell anyone he agreed with Him. If it’s a cruel world, he too, wasn’t going to let it get in the way of music.


What is creative?

November 10, 2009

By Michael Mark, Creative Director & CEO @ NYCA

The first question I ask all NYCA candidates in all departments is this question, right after what they are passionate about. Makes for a good conversation and lets them know two things: that they are responsible for being creative and the answer “something cool” will get them a job next door. Not here.

For us the answer is simple. Not easy mind you. It’s what the agency is built on.

NYCA strategyWe create growth in the marketplace. So any idea or execution that is powerful enough to help that to happen is creative.  It’s not about pretty pictures, not about engagement, or the plan, or the insight or even if we like it or the client thinks it great. All those are roads to getting to the destination for sure. But it’s about the growth.

Now much as we think and sweat over them not every idea is what we call a grow! idea. The odds are stacked against each one as it struggles for life. Compassionate as we are with each other – you have to be if you’re going to be so tough on ideas – we are merciless when it comes to a grow! idea. 

Here’s a check list to see if you have the makings of one:

To be grow! work it must be powered by a message that is highly relevant to the target.

It must be true to the core values of the brand/product/service.

It must be executionally inspired.

If you get all yeses you have a well intentioned grow! idea. And once it performs dramatically well in the marketplace then you have creative. 

Simple. Impossible. It’s what we do.

I don’t run my business. Values do.

November 5, 2009

By Michael Mark, Creative Director & CEO @NYCA 

I had my doubts but I’ve come to believe I am a good businessman.  I have no formal business education, no MBA.  I haven’t endured a single course in accounting or management.  I have trouble with spreadsheets; actually they bore me. Math and I are allergic to each other.  I have the title CEO but I don’t pore over the stock pages.  I feel less than at ease with the corporate set when I try to be one of them.  I don’t care about the cost per square foot of our offices.  I do realize it’s important but it doesn’t touch me.  I don’t get emotionally involved with leases – though the fact that they have my personal guarantee does make me wince randomly.  I do care greatly about health care as that is taking care of my staff and their families.

 SynergyBy all traditional measures, we are a successful enterprise. We have grown most of the seven years we have been up and running, with some natural dips and spurts along the way.  My success metrics – they call them KPIs these days — are based on customer satisfaction, employee quality, a thriving culture, profitability and a consistently excellent product. 

But I don’t really run the business. Values run my business.  And they have been the reason for getting us where we are today.  And as the chairman, I elect them to the board each annual session.

We value integrity – doing what we say every single time.  We value honesty – the truth must be told loudly.  We value compromise and flexibility – people need to make room for each other; you get more ideas and have more comfortable days that way.  We value acceptance – we celebrate the mutant idea and mutants in general.  I just have to make an NYCA t-shirt with that on it one day.  We value the grow! idea – the rare idea that is inspired enough to positively move a client’s business in the marketplace.  We value openness, transparency – let all see all; truly, my door is always open and I hope our hearts and minds are just as wide.  We value the present and the future – that’s why we launched the Learning Grove, which teaches grade schooler’s sustainability.  We value courage – we’re brave enough to tame our egos and determined enough to take on the demon of convention. We have value flexibility so, as Dylan says, we “have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift.” 

I was told, “You won’t be good in business, Michael, because you’re not competent in the intricacies of running a business.”  It scared me so I went to learn as much as I could.

My teachers are many and are always working on me. 

I learned fairness from Rabbis and Priests with whom I studied.  I learned love from my family; I got a graduate degree from my grandmothers. Generosity came from lessons by my friends.  My wife teaches me patience, though we agree I am a slower learner and need to wear the dunce cap often.   My staff teaches me forgiveness – they forgive me every day.  My clients school me on listening – hearing the message between the words, around gestures, inside the pauses.  My competition teaches me perseverance.  My dog gives me daily lessons in loyalty during our long walks.  My garden teaches me about hope in the face of darkness and cold.  My heroes in history show me how to stare down fear, and travel shows me there are miracles everywhere.  My children teach me humility.  My partners teach me trust.  My reading teaches me that I am never alone, that I will never get it perfect and that there’s always another page to learn from.

My business education is classroomless, deep and broad, and I am indebted to all my great teachers as I continue to be a student. 

I am still earning my MV, Masters of Values.