EUREKA! MANSION SPARKS BRAINSTORMS FOR CORPORATIONS

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NEWTOWN, Ohio-The pontoon boat ferries clients across a gravel pit-turned-lake as a "trained brain" scatters straw over a mud-sodden path to the red-carpeted, balloon-lined sidewalk leading to the festooned Eureka! Mansion. A band plays Lyle Lovett tunes on the verandah.

Another group of what inventor Doug Hall calls "real-world adults" is about to shed inhibitions and shoes to become inventors at what one client dubbed a "corporate detox center."

This century-old Greek Revival home in a semi-industrial suburb 15 miles east of Cincinnati draws teams from such diverse marketers as Nike, Compaq Computer Corp., Adolph Coors Co., Walt Disney Co. and the Batesville Casket Co. They spend $120,000 per company for three days of go-kart rides, sand volleyball, jet skiing, bass fishing and non-stop new product development that encompasses everything from brainstorming to concept boards for consumer testing.

Running the retreat is unlikely Procter & Gamble Co. alumnus, Doug Hall, who wore jeans and spurned ties during his 10 years at P&G's button-down Cincinnati headquarters. He worked his way to a job titled "master marketing inventor" before leaving four years ago to start Richard Saunders International, a new-product development consultancy that bears Ben Franklin's pen name.

Today, Mr. Hall forbids ties and goes barefoot at the Eureka! Mansion, where his team includes some fellow P&G alums and an ever-changing mix of friends and acquaintances called "trained brains."

In May, a dozen executives from the Chicago-based national Young Men's Christian Association and its largest independent metro organizations came to Eureka! in search of new programs to bring families together at YMCAs. They agreed to let Advertising Age follow them through their three-day session.

Eureka! sessions operate on Mr. Hall's theory that inventions come not from sitting around a table grasping for ideas but from the brain encountering stimuli. Such was the case when Archimedes, watching water spill from a bathtub as he got in, discovered how to measure the volume of a solid and uttered the first "Eureka!"

To develop "stimuli" for the sessions and define goals, Richard Saunders staffers conduct background research and interview client employees at least a month before each session. Some stimuli are standard issue-such as non-stop music from an eclectic 100-CD juke box and the mansion's other amusements.

Mr. Hall likens new product development to childbirth. "Birth is a messy process. It requires organized chaos."

Early on, organized chaos has the desired effect with the Y employees. After their boat ride, welcoming mini-concert and receiving line of trained brains, they arrive relaxed, smiling and somewhat bemused. Mr. Hall loosens things up further by asking everyone to tell the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to them in, on or around the water. Then comes the staged Nerf gun fight-the trademark opening act of a Eureka! session.

The rest of the day is filled with about a dozen exercises. Some are used with almost every client, including "666," a dice game in which number combinations on three die dictate a set of objectives or adjectives.

In another exercise, Mr. Hall asks for ideas based on what he calls four major marketing trends-professional-strength quality, simplicity, hedonism and sensory appeal.

Mr. Hall breaks the crowd of more than 20 into groups of five or six for each exercise. Ideas are hastily scribbled on large paper pads, note cards or paper airplanes which fly out of huddles anytime someone wants to make sure a thought isn't lost.

To provide plenty of fresh perspective, each brainstorming group session includes roughly equal proportions of client employees and trained brains.

It proves a diverse mix. An idea to hold services in swimming pools as "Church Lite" will later become a running joke among Y executives. And a suggestion to play on New Age themes in the Y's "Mind-Body-Spirit" slogan meets with skepticism from a Nashville executive, who reports she can't even use the word "yoga" in ads because of objections from fundamentalists.

Y executives were realists who had trouble letting go of implementation concerns, says Becki Meyer, VP-creative services for Richard Saunders. So she and Mr. Hall worked over lunch to refine the mix of exercises as clients shot baskets and rode go-karts outside. Most afternoon exercises were a little less abstract. One that produced the all-around favorite idea simply sought program suggestions for non-traditional places, from airports to backyards.

More than 1,000 seed ideas came from 8 hours of brainstorming, about par for Eureka! sessions. But by evening, brainstorming is over and a smaller group of Y executives gathers for what Mr. Hall calls "strangling the newborns in their cradles."

Fatigue helps improve focus at this point, Mr. Hall says. The Eureka! Mansion becomes quieter and more serious. The five remaining Y executives review all 1,000 ideas in about 3 hours and, by 11 p.m., choose only about a dozen for serious consideration. Mr. Hall and two other staffers work across the hall in staggered shifts through the night to write copy for the remaining concepts by 9 a.m. The 13 concept papers that emerge by the next morning bear plenty of their imprint.

This begins what Ms. Meyer terms "concurrent development." Designers from Cincinnati's WBK Packaging & Graphic Design create graphics for concepts as Mr. Hall, Ms. Meyer and Y executives talk details and pare four more ideas from the finalists for concept testing.

The consensus favorite idea is Camp Yahoo, a YMCA mall activity center where parents can stay with or drop off their kids. Each Camp Yahoo would include arts and crafts tables, artificial trees for climbing, a safe "artificial" campfire, even a mini computer camp. Concept graphics that include a logo and store layout are a strong selling point for the Y executives.

"This is huge," says Tom Massey, Y national program director, by the morning of the third day. "I called my wife, who never thinks I have a good idea, and even she said this is a winner."

Camp Yahoo also will become a marketing strategy, Mr. Hall says. "This will become the face of the Y, because people will run into this more than your advertising."

Y executives come away with a sense of accomplishment. "Just us being here is changing our culture," Mr. Massey says. "This is like jumping out of a plane without a parachute for us."

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