The hot ticket at shops: visits from actors, writers

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On a recent Thursday evening, about 300 employees of Deutsch, New York, gathered in their company's sunken lounge for a chat with humor writer David Sedaris.

The following week, at Y&R Advertising's New York office, nearly 250 creative personnel had an hourlong question-and-answer session about the theater with Howard McGillin, currently starring on Broadway in "Phantom of the Opera," and his understudy David Gashen.

Several days after that, Time Washington Bureau Chief Michael Duffy appeared in the cafeteria at Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, to speak with more than 125 workers about the presidential election.

These quasi-celebrity cameo appearances -- all within two weeks of each other -- are not random coincidences. They are part of an ongoing drive toward fostering creativity and improving morale in ad agencies throughout the country via media and entertainment notables.

GETTING NEW IDEAS

"We're an ideas company and the way you get ideas is not to stay in your office and in your cubicle," said Jack Irving, exec VP-media director at Saatchi & Saatchi.

"We thought it was a good way to beef up the creative culture here," said Tiffany Warin, director of creative resources at Deutsch. In addition to Mr. Sedaris, known for his essay collection "Me Talk Pretty One Day," Deutsch also hosted film director John Waters in January and plans to have actor and writer Eric Bogosian visit in December. Ms. Warin said Deutsch deliberately chose people considered quirky to promote an offbeat image. "These are people who've had a strong but unique, vision; people who were not always popular, or making tons of money," she said.

The visits are meant to help spark employees. "There's a saying, `Garbage in, garbage out,"' added Jim Ferguson, president and chief creative officer at Y&R. "But there's also another saying, `Creativity in, creativity out.' I believe that you have to put something in."

Seminars and other types of on-the-job training are hardly innovative in the corporate world. What is different about the current crop of programs is that many of the guest speakers, by design, hail from walks of life other than advertising.

Mr. Ferguson said he realized the value of bringing in outsiders when he was chief creative officer of what was then named DDB Needham, Dallas. There, the agency arranged for a star of another advertising agency to give a speech.

"Even though it was a great talk, I just thought we get enough of our business 14 hours a day, every day," he said.

So, when he started a program at DDB, which he continued at Y&R, he sought out people from areas other than advertising. As a longtime theater fan, among his first choices in New York were two actors from the long-running "Phantom of the Opera."

DRAW ON YOURSELF

Although neither actor spoke about advertising per se, Mr. Ferguson said he sees parallels between their work and the ad world. For instance, Mr. Ferguson questioned how the actors motivate themselves to go to the Majestic Theater eight times a week and sing "Music of the Night" for months on end. Their answer -- that they have to find the energy from within -- echoes a refrain Mr. Ferguson often tells his employees. "When you go to work, you have to draw on your own self to create advertising," said Mr. Ferguson.

In San Francisco, GMO/Hill Holliday has also brought in people from the entertainment field, including the creators of the "Toy Story 2" video, a team different from the original "Toy Story" film creators. They, like the "Phantom of the Opera" actors, faced a task analogous to creative directors: coming up with yet another version of an ongoing campaign.

At the Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., President-Creative Director Mike Hughes started a similar program in 1999, when he invited professors from nearby Virginia Commonwealth University to come to the agency and speak about their areas of expertise. Topics ranged from race relations to genetics, but generally did not include advertising.

"When you become real passionate about the advertising business, you run the risk of becoming an advertising nerd," said Mr. Hughes. "Advertising becomes everything; that's a pretty narrow world."

After beginning the program with academics, Martin broadened the program to include pop culture types such as Fast Company founding Editor Alan Webber, architect Martin Graves and "Gladiator" director Ridley Scott. (Mr. Scott is more enmeshed in the ad world than most, since he has also directed commercials.)

Still, for all the glamour of an audience with a Hollywood director, whether outsiders can actually improve creativity within an agency remains an open question. Meetings with celebrity actors or Hollywood types is "probably of somewhat limited value," said creative development consultant Michael Markowitz of Michael Markowitz & Associates. Although, he added, "it's probably a nice perk [that] might give younger people something to think about."

He added, however, that exposing employees to new experiences is likely to contribute to creativity.

"Good creative people are like sponges for what's going on in the world around them," said Mr. Markowitz. With people working longer hours than ever before, bringing in outsiders might be one way of keeping employees aware of what is happening in the rest of the culture.

"There is an underlying conundrum," said Mr. Markowitz, which is that ad agencies are filled with "a bunch of people who want to soak up stuff, but not enough time" to do so.

Some who have attended say that, if nothing else, the events are educational.

"I think it provides inspiration for us here, because we can get so mired in our work, we forget there's an outside world," said Jay Picard, a strategic planner at Martin.

Saatchi & Saatchi's Mr. Irving said he learned at least one specific tidbit from Time's Mr. Duffy. In speaking about the country's demographics, Mr. Duffy touched on the changes wrought by an influx of immigrants. Mr. Irving said this concept got him thinking about whether the agency should devise different strategies for different segments of the population.

`BRAIN BUFFET'

Regardless of any tangible results, Saatchi plans to continue with its speaker series, internally called the "brain buffet," for at least the next year. The agenda is not yet carved in granite, but Mr. Irving said he hopes the next event will be a wine tasting, led by a speaker from a food magazine.

At Y&R, Mr. Ferguson plans to continue to draw on his personal interests for his guest list. "I'm in charge," said Mr. Ferguson, who intends to have a speaker at least every few months. "I might get Spooky the Clown. I might get a zoo trainer."

Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo

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