Advertising Can Take a Lesson from Improv Comedy

Creative Development is a Process, Not an Event

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Strat-e-ger-y -- (noun) 'strat-ee-jur-ee

Research and insight-based strategy combined with blow-your-brains-out creativity, expertly weighted to produce maximum funny while relentlessly delivering measurable results to client.

Manipulative hilarity
You may be calling "bullshit" on the above definition. You'd be right -- but only to a degree. Though I didn't find the word "strategery" in Webster's, I know it exists because it's the foundation of all improv comedy, and at the heart of some of the best advertising out there.

As improv comedians (yes, I'm one of them, having spent the majority of my career performing and directing at Chicago's Second City Theater), we take random inputs from the audience and immediately turn those suggestions into the most compelling content we can create. With nothing but each other to forge the path, we are bound -- in real time -- to reward the audience by spinning their sometimes incomprehensible, mundane or even competing suggestions into gold.

This type of creative development process is one now mirrored by many startup ad agencies. As the AOR model has become no longer a given, many clients seek to engage per project, in short bursts, with multiple agency partners. The agencies that will survive? Those that have great partners of their own -- traditional and non-traditional -- who can be quickly tapped and trusted to deliver on that individual assignment. This kind of improv doesn't result in a 30-minute show created in a black box theater, but rather a 30-second spot (or branded content video or social campaign) created in the box that is the assignment. And just like the best improv shows, the creative that hits on a universal truth in a new way wins. Whether the agency is a run-and-gun startup or a super-established Papa Bear, I believe its ability to customize itself along with the work will be key to success.

A lot of comedy shops are getting into the ad game lately -- witness Gifted Youth from Funny or Die, Onion Labs from the Onion, and DumbDumb from Jason Bateman and Will Arnett. Though I've seen some genuinely funny content, even the funniest content doesn't mean a thing if it doesn't improve a brand's bottom line. That's where the "strategery" comes in. It applies to the creative, and to the entire agency process. We need to utilize our best strategic and creative thinking in choosing our partners, building our teams and executing our creative ideas. Every step of the old path is shifting under our feet. An agency of full-time employees, permanent teams and big-budget shoots isn't the norm anymore, and being nimble enough to navigate each step isn't easy. With so many variables out of our control and continually changing, it seems more important than ever that we -- creatives and agency owners alike -- think like improvisers.

A few improv rules apply:

1. React in real time.

2. Address directly what's in front of you.

3. Make bold statements -- give your partner something to react to.

4. Shift gears immediately when you start losing your audience.

5. Do your best to make your partners look good.

That last trick serves the dual purpose of getting you out of your own fear of failure while making you somebody that others want to partner with.

So, when I think of improv, I no longer think of it just as an event -- like a show. I've come to see its true magic revealed when applied as a process -- one with a very simple set of rules that, when applied to the current state of advertising -- where the only constant is change -- increases the likelihood of survival and success. For us improvisers, relying completely on these "tools of engagement" is the only way we've ever created anything -- not just for the audience, but with the audience. That ability, I think, is the real advantage to working improvisationally. I might have made that last word up, too.

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