Sometimes It's Better to Study Dolphin Brains Than Advertising

Agencies Can't Teach Creativity, Trevor Guthrie Explains

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At OMD's Ignition Factory, a creative-technology team devoted to developing ideas and emerging platforms, innovation is more a product of chemistry and curiosity than degrees in advertising. Trevor Guthrie, East Coast director of Ignition Factory, told us where young media planners go wrong, what mistake he regrets most and how his team used Foursquare to promote a TV show.

Our conversation has been lightly edited.

Trevor Guthrie
Trevor Guthrie

Advertising Age: What are some of the things you do in your daily routine to scout for innovation?

Trevor Guthrie: We very deliberately constructed a team with people who aren't just in advertising or media. The idea is they have passions outside of the office and we have people from talent agencies, mobile-app builders, from startups. We just hired a mathematician. We are trying to build a chemistry of people, so when you come into a room everyone has a different perspective and can contribute.

Ad Age : Can you teach people to be creative or innovative?

Mr. Guthrie: No. People have to have a genuine curiosity to them. When we interview we are looking for people who see things differently, who travel around looking for inspiration or ideas, who -- if they've gone to Tokyo or Berlin or Africa -- have a unique point of view on what they saw and can bring it back to us. I interviewed someone who had a background in ads, and I kept pushing to find out what else they were interested in, and they didn't want to at first reveal that they had worked at the Rockefeller Institute and studied the dolphin brain and how it works, but that 's more interesting to me. I want that drive and curiosity because we know how to do search.

Ad Age : How does that perspective help a marketer?

Mr. Guthrie: Because we have people at OMD who know strategy and marketing objectives and everything we do is grounded in that . For instance, we have a number of clients who are engaged in music, and that gave us the idea to do a Spotify weekend hackathon in February. We brought in more than 200 hackers to build products onto Spotify. We had our brand marketers in the same room offering suggestions on how to incorporate a brand and build a revenue stream. Out of that weekend, there were 47 new hacks built for Spotify that our brands have access to and we can use in pitches. Brands including Doritos, the CW, State Farm and Mountain Dew were all involved in the hackathon.

Ad Age : How do you measure whether a project from the Ignition Factory is successful?

Mr. Guthrie: For Showtime's "The Franchise" last summer, a behind-the-scenes baseball show, we knew we could use the Foursquare API in different ways. We pulled apart the API so we could use it to trigger an actual billboard. When people checked into the show's billboard in SoHo, the billboard dropped a baseball out of a slot and you got to take it home with you. We dropped over 3,000 baseballs. The ultimate thing we have to do, though, is to drive tune-in and raise awareness about "The Franchise." So 3,000 doesn't sound like a lot, but for everyone who checked in the update was instantly broadcast to their friends, so an additional 253 people saw each of the 3,000 check-ins. One of the things our research for Showtime shows is the biggest driver of tune-in is someone telling you to watch the show.

Ad Age : What's the biggest mistake in your career, and what have you learned from it?

Mr. Guthrie: When I went to college at Boston University I majored in communications and advertising. I wish I hadn't done that . I wish I had majored in history, economics, philosophy, something that would bring more depth of understanding.

Ad Age : If you were going to tell up-and-coming media planners one thing not to do, what would it be?

Mr. Guthrie: When you come into a job and they give you a defined set of rules and say, "This is the sandbox you get to play in," I say break that and don't do just what's expected. Try to change the relationship, break the model, be proactive and build the job you want.

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