Strange, then, that as he nears 40, Mr. Hall is turning more corporate.
That doesn't mean that 11 years after forming Richard Saunders International, a creative consultancy that's named for Ben Franklin's pen name and is devoted to unleashing new product ideas, Mr. Hall has stopped having fun. And these days he often goes to work barefoot.
SQUEEZING CREATIVE JUICE
RSI's three-day program has been attended by executives from blue-chip marketers such as P&G, AT&T Corp., American Express Co., Kraft Foods and Walt Disney Co. Attendees pay up to $150,000 per company to get their creative juices flowing via a combination of amusements such as Nerf ball fights and mind-bending exercises that challenge conventional thinking.
Last year, Mr. Hall reconfigured what was called Eureka Mansion into Eureka Ranch, a $2 million corporate retreat on the banks of a lake in a suburb 10 miles east of Cincinnati. The property features a full-scale bar imported from England, a CD-operated Baldwin nickelodeon, a clambake pit next to the lake and a dozen arcade games.
Unlike Eureka's more freewheeling days, however, the games now are controlled by a central switch, and screens go black when it's time to work.
"We had to become a little more corporate to take it to the next level," said Mr. Hall. For example, he's developed an accountability system that weds assembly-line-style statistical process control with creativity.
Clients rate Eureka Ranch's performance exercise-by-exercise, with results plotted on a bulletin board which Mr. Hall and his crew monitor during creativity sessions and use to make mid-course adjustments.
To see how Mr. Hall's brave new world of quality-controlled creativity works, longtime client Tyson Foods allowed Advertising Age into its group as it searched for new ways to serve chicken for lunch. About a dozen executives from Tyson's marketing, sales and R&D departments joined the group.
It was the fourth Eureka session for Tyson group leader Lance Jensen, the marketer's VP-strategic project development. After it was over, Tyson had 22 ideas it liked enough to take to AcuPOLL in Cincinnati, a concept-testing lab Mr. Hall also founded but spun off last year. The creativity session was the second-highest rated since clients began scoring them last July.
The Eureka concept is to shock executives out of their corporate-induced stupor with a variety of methods.
Mr. Hall has come up with ways to apply quality control to the creative process. He's even plotting ways to make walks around the lake more productive by giving clients headsets to play music selected especially for them in hopes of jarring loose a few extra ideas.
Another key feature is the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, a psychological survey that sorts clients into four quadrants based on their thinking styles.
"The actual experience [at Eureka] is no different [than during previous visits]," said Mr. Jensen. "But I think paying attention to brain styles and charting the quality is actually improving the process."
Added Mr. Hall, "We do not believe that some people are creative and some people aren't. It's my mission here not to change people, but to work with them as they are."
Balancing the tendencies of each client group are the "trained brains," a pool of Mr. Hall's cronies and business acquaintances mixed into each session. Trained brains selected for the Tyson group -- mostly made up of folks categorized as left-brained A and B thinking types -- consisted of right-brained C and D types, including graphic designers, a corporate headhunter and Ethan Becker, co-author of "The Joy of Cooking," who lives across the lake from Mr. Hall.
UNLOADING THE MIND
The Tyson session opened with live music and risque personal introductions that included "your most memorable experience with a feather or a chicken."
The first formal exercise of any Eureka session is "The Mind Dumpster," a brainstorming drill during which everyone writes initial ideas about the task at hand -- in this case, lunchtime uses for chicken -- on index cards. Mr. Hall used to bill this as "Ex-Lax for the mind," designed to flush preconceived notions and make room for new perspectives.
Tyson's one-hour exercise produced five or six of the ideas that would make the final cut.
Next, the group moved into Eureka Ranch's kitchen, equipped with a large steam table, grill, pizza oven and more -- the site for an exercise called "Kitchen Chemistry," in which food marketers play in the kitchen in search of inspiration.
Presented with containers stuffed with items such as egg roll wrappers, potato skins, Jamaican-jerk seasoning and raw chicken breasts, the four groups of Tyson executives and trained brains came up with two dozen product ideas, including impromptu prototypes, in about 20 minutes. One group stuffed taco shells into a blender as another crammed sauces and chicken into twice-baked potato skins.
Based on ideas ultimately selected for development, this was probably the most fruitful session of the day.
Next came an exercise in which three rows of six seemingly unrelated ideas (such as baseball player, tri-corner hat and three-cheese) were listed under three headings -- audience/occasion, packaging and taste/texture. Based on the roll of three dice, the three concepts were connected in hopes of inspiring useable ideas, like three-cheese chicken pasta in pizza boxes for concessions at baseball games.
Tyson finished the day rating its sessions 72 out of a possible 100. Though data are still sketchy, higher-rated sessions do appear to create more ideas that ultimately get selected for further development and fare well with consumers, Mr. Hall said.
MINDS AT MIDNIGHT
The second phase of the Eureka experience takes up the evening of the first day and the next two -- sorting through the rough ideas created during the exercises.
In the initial winnowing process, Tyson executives stayed until about 2 a.m. sorting through roughly 1,000 concepts generated during the day and collected on index cards, sheets of paper, even on paper airplanes.
Any idea one of the executives liked got a check mark. Based on which ideas received checks, Eureka staffers started writing copy, including product names and 50-to 100-word descriptions of products, a process that took until nearly dawn. Mr. Hall left about midnight, returning around 4:30 a.m. to edit the final batch of 36 ideas.
Mr. Hall defended the weirdest-sounding ideas from naysayers during the second two days of the session. His strongest case: Evidence that the higher AccuPOLL rating a product gets for being "new and different," the greater the chance people will buy it.
Of course, more novel products also have a higher rate of crashing and burning.
SORTING IT ALL OUT
After two days of scrutiny, the surviving 22 Tyson ideas included at least eight daring ones. Getting there, however, took more than a dozen revisions and a 16-hour day on Wednesday that pushed Mr. Hall's copywriting crew to the edge. By Thursday morning, when final concepts and packaging prototype designs for seven of the 22 ideas destined for retail shelves were in, even some originally outlandish ideas started making sense.
For example, Chic-A-Pop, a chicken/popcorn lunch alternative in such flavors as Big Texas Barbeque, seemed to have a chance. Alas, AcuPOLL turned thumbs down on that one.
Another loser was Chicken Clusters, chunks of white meat stuffed with cream cheese and fruit fillings and baked to a crispy crunch. Also headed for the concept graveyard was Chicken Hook, Line & Lunch, a kids' meal in which fish-shaped chicken nuggets can be dipped in sauce using a harpoon-spoon.
Ad Age agreed not to reveal the ideas Tyson will take forward into actual development.
CREATIVITY IS A BUSINESS
"It was the best session we've ever done," said Mr. Jensen, "because it pushed us further out. It really challenged us to develop next-generation products."
Ultimately, consumers will decide when the products roll into restaurants and onto retail shelves, which won't likely happen until completion of at least a year of research and development, financial vetting and marketing planning.
Mark Willes, Tyson VP-retail marketing, immersed in the world of retail slotting fees and marketing budgets, knows that any failure will likely cost $1 million to $2 million, so he's cautious.
But, he said, "If one or two of those ideas succeeds, we're well ahead of the game."
With his new quality control system, Mr. Hall also is subjecting his own work to the test, risking a "corporate sellout" label in the process. But he doesn't believe he's entered the slippery slope that ultimately leads from bare feet to wing tips.
"If the creativity field wants the world to take them seriously, they've got to run it as a business," Mr. Hall said.