Stop Thinking and Have an Idea: The Casual Way to Get Creative

Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World, by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval with Delia Marshall. Doubleday, 244 pages, $24.95.

In their debut treatise, Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World, Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval, the co-heads of the Kaplan Thaler Group, a spunky New York ad house, pare the creative process to its essence so the kid-a.k.a. intern-who’s currently filling the office latte orders at Starbucks can find his own inner jingle and run with it. Covering everything from office dynamics to creative technique, the authors offer a collection of clear, concise and quirky strategies on how to discover-and sell-your newest creative gem.

The creative process, according to the authors, is a learned process, and the traditional business model is not the way to learn it. Pressed suits, sterile cubicles and strict hierarchies only hinder the creative spirit and should be tossed aside in favor of a more casual and welcoming work environment. Using their own company as a model, Mmes. Kaplan Thaler and Koval describe an alternative to the corporate office. If an employee is more comfortable-and more productive-wearing Diesel jeans while reciting the sordid details of his latest sexual escapade to a collection of unflappable co-workers, so be it. It’s crucial to “create an environment where risk-taking is safe-even encouraged” and where employees are encouraged to “bring their whole being to work, warts and all.” (I foresee a flood of faxed copywriters’ résumés at the Kaplan Thaler Group).

This is not to say that a casual environment should be an unproductive environment. Mmes. Kaplan Thaler and Koval strongly encourage an atmosphere of constant deadlines and high anxiety. Employers are urged to “create false deadlines” and “maintain an atmosphere of perpetual possibilities for as long as possible.” Space, privacy and quiet time are not necessarily conducive to creativity: “When people are close together, they think faster, they work faster and they focus faster,” the authors argue. They go so far as to suggest that executives should double up in their coveted corner offices. So much for a room of one’s own!

In an industry famous for its strict hierarchical structure-aside from the occasional nod at a client meeting, “suits” and “creatives” rarely mix-the notion of an ad house without job descriptions and with creative directors who let “others share ownership of an idea” is novel and intriguing. Given their company’s track record-since its inception in 1997, K.T.G. has increased its annual billings from $27 million to $450 million-the authors would seem to be good businesswomen. Ms. Kaplan Thaler, who was the creative force behind such pop phenomena as the Toys “R” Us jingle (“I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us Kid”), the “Kodak Moments” campaign and the AFLAC duck, clearly knows the industry; her enthusiasm for her subject is contagious, to say the least.

With an impressive portfolio to back their theories, the authors of Bang! make a dramatic move away from the research-based approach perfected by David Ogilvy in his 1983 classic, Ogilvy on Advertising. Ogilvy proclaimed, “I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information”; many an advertising hopeful has taken those words for gospel. In a writing style that often resembles a winning tag line (“find the truth,” “share the glory”), Mmes. Kaplan Thaler and Koval challenge Ogilvy on a fundamental level: Good marketing is a creative process, not an intellectual one, they insist, and in order to be successful a marketer must hone his or her creative talents.

Speaking from an essentialist perspective-“emotion is universal” and women are endowed with certain gifts, such as intuition and the “feminine instinct,” that make them more attuned to the creative process-Mmes. Kaplan Thaler and Koval argue that a creative marketer should “forget about the conventional wisdom” and act on his or her creative impulses. One entire chapter is about how to “stop thinking”-because they believe that creativity “isn’t logical.” Staff members should be encouraged to “tap into their feelings.” Roaming unfettered, creative minds can now “find the inside story that needs to be told.” By suggesting that good marketing is an artistic-and inspirational-process, Mmes. Kaplan Thaler and Koval redefine the workplace as something more like a creative think tank-feel tank?-than a business driven by the bottom line.

In language that borrows heavily from the self-help genre (“our inner child is where many of our most imaginative and uncensored selves lie.”), Mmes. Kaplan Thaler and Koval argue that not only is the intellectual unnecessary to innovation, it’s counterproductive. Ms. Kaplan Thaler recalls how many of her creative “bangs” came from ignorance. “The fact that I didn’t know a whole lot about the business enabled me to move away from the traditional and expected,” she writes about her experience creating an ad for Heineken. It wasn’t the quality of the beer that was unique; it was the company’s love for its product.

The authors extrapolate: Banishing intellectual content is an idea they extend beyond the saturated market for 60-second Super Bowl beer commercials. The “highbrow” and “serious” Vanity Fair was “anything but popular,” they explain, until magazine diva Tina Brown hit the scene in 1984. Ms. Brown gave “a high-minded literary magazine” a much-needed dumbing-down and appealed “to the teenager in all of us. She filled it with tabloid crime tales, starlets du jour, and gossipy stories about the ‘popular’ kids.” By abandoning the literary bent, “she turned the magazine into one of the industry’s biggest success stories.”

Ms. Brown clearly worked wonders at Vanity Fair, but the principles that Mmes. Kaplan Thaler and Koval espouse are somewhat worrisome. In 1992, Presidential hopeful Bill Clinton called on Ms. Kaplan Thaler to protect his image from the first of his many scandals, the Gennifer Flowers affair. His campaign asked Ms. Kaplan Thaler to create an ad to help clear the candidate’s name. Filling the TV spot with scrapbook memories of Mr. Clinton’s life, including photographs of an adolescent Bill shaking J.F.K.’s hand, faded shots of his grandparents’ store and pictures of his “humble small-town beginnings,” Ms. Kaplan Thaler “edited it in slooooow moooootion [sic] because nothing moves people like people moving slowly.” “It’s a hackneyed gimmick,” she writes. “But it works.” Ms. Kaplan Thaler argued that by helping “us all believe once again in the America dream, that anything is possible,” the voting public would quickly forget the scandal. Sentiment trumps information. It’s a hackneyed gimmick, but it works-Mmes. Kaplan Thaler and Koval are dedicated to the selling of their “big bang” ideas, whatever those ideas may be.

Ms. Kaplan Thaler never hesitates to plug herself and her business-and with good cause: Bang! offers an accessible and practical guide to honing your creative skills. Creativity, she and Ms. Koval argue, is not an abstract gift bestowed on the lonely few, but an acquired skill; when an enthusiastic attitude meets a conducive environment, it can blossom in the dullest folk. It’s nice to know that new ideas are waiting in the wings-so long as we loosen up a little at the office.

Ronda Kaysen is a freelance writer for The Observer and the Brooklyn Eagle. Stop Thinking and Have an Idea: The Casual Way to Get Creative