A Q&A With Dan Carlton

The Paragraph Project CEO on Tapping the Brilliance of Ad Hoc Experts

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As CEO of the Minneapolis-based Paragraph Project, six-year agency veteran Dan Carlton, 29, has the luxury of letting gut thinking rule when assembling distinctive teams of individuals to brainstorm ideas for marketers. Mr. Carlton started his firm18 months ago as a way of concocting fresh ideas via eclectic groups of life experts, none with traditional marketing backgrounds: think a mechanic, a soccer mom and a race-car driver dreaming up solutions to GM's marketing problems. Clients include Best Buy and Starbucks.
Dan Carlton
Dan Carlton

Yours is an unconventional take on assembling talent to generate ideas for clients. Explain the philosophy behind your approach.

One of the things I deeply believe in is that specialized degrees and years of industry experience aren't a necessity to coming up with breakthrough ideas. I like to bring in diverse thinkers from different backgrounds. The reality is that everyone is a marketer. When you're putting your resume on Monster or going onto Match.com or selling something on eBay, [you're a marketer]. That's what gives me the confidence to pull them into the process.

How do you determine who you need on a given team?

We look at needs of clients and then go out and find people. It's pulling people from completely random industries or backgrounds.

A lot of it is a bit of a leap of faith. We don't have a set job description or any set of criteria regarding what kind of advanced degree or experience a person needs. A lot of it is just sort of gut instinct. It doesn't always work out, but that's all part of the experience.

How do you assemble your "teams"?

We may start off by using them for a day and then, if they show interest, the next time we engage them we will say we want to bring them in for a three-month-long project, for example. We will base their time on how much time they have to give and how much we need them for.

Can you share with me an example of work you've done for a client?

We were trying to figure out how to make a regional fast-food company iconic in the Pacific Northwest. So in addition to some traditional research, I pulled together people whom I thought would have some good ideas about icons: a professor of architecture from the University of Illinois to talk about iconic buildings; the founder of Second City in Chicago to talk about iconic comedians; people who worked on iconic movies like "Return of the Jedi" and "Rocky IV" to talk about iconic movies ... the whole point was to [identify] the qualities of iconic people and things to help this client understand how to represent what the whole region was about in an iconic way.

Do you compensate the people whom you tap for idea generation?

Sometimes I will meet a bartender at a bar that I go to and will recognize his ability to contribute good ideas, so I may pull him into a brainstorming session. It will start that way-pull someone in for a day and pay hourly. But I would pay that bartender a different rate than the founder of Second City, for example. For people who don't want to do this for the financial benefit, many times you can reward them with the experience itself and by providing some sort of honorarium to a charity or event.

Do you hire any of these "idea generators" full time?

We don't have any full-time employees, including myself. We are what I call "near-full-time" employees. No one will work more than four days a week. The worst thing I can do is use so much of their time that they can't engage in the activities that made me pick them in the first place-for example, a photographer who wants to go out and shoot or a mother who wants to take her child to the zoo. I want everyone to have outside passions and experiences that they can bring back to the company that we can leverage so the client can get a fresh perspective on things.

Will you go back to the same people for multiple projects?

Yes ... we'll also go back to the same people for multiple projects if it makes sense.

Everyone we pull in ... the people who show interest are people who like doing lots of different things. They like using their creativity in multiple outlets.

What are the pitfalls of such an approach?

The main thing is it can't just be wild ideas or creative ideas for creative ideas' sake. There needs to be that element of execution to it. That's the other half of the equation-pulling in the right partners that can execute.

Do you think this best-of-breed approach can be applied to clients' internal marketing teams?

In the most basic sense, marketers should resist the temptation to hire people just like them-with the same degrees, same backgrounds. They should open up their thinking somewhat. A lot of people who get hired into marketing departments get hired because they have the same degree or similar experience to the marketer who hires them. All marketers have the opportunity to bring in outside people for brainstorming sessions-for example, their customers. There's no reason why, if GM is launching a new car under the Chevy nameplate, they can't bring in for a day a mechanic, a professional racer and a soccer mom to brainstorm ideas and bounce ideas off them and see where it takes them.
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