Sparking creativity in the business world isn't always easy
Anne Bannister wants people to know that Energizer does more than make batteries, but getting out the word as the company explores new arenas of lighting isn’t always an easy task.
“It requires being incredibly creative because we’ve been in our business for over 100 years,” said Bannister, general manager of strategic ventures for the company.
“It’s about transformational change, not just of our products but of our people as well. The reason I’m here is that I need to figure out how to reinvigorate creativity and not just have an innovative process.”
Such transformational change was on the menu this past week at COCA, which played host to the SPARK business creativity conference. It was the second year for the day-and-a-half event, which is sponsored by COCAbiz, the Loop-based organization’s business arm founded in 2010. The confab’s aim was to translate the kind of creativity seen in the cultural world to a sometimes stodgy corporate universe.
“It’s all about using the arts in a business environment,” said Steve Knight, director of COCAbiz. “Hands on, arts-based experiential learning helps get at business challenges, opens up creative ways of thinking, builds teams collaboratively and comes at problems in new and creative ways.”
To that end, COCAbiz has worked in corporate settings to pair teaching artists with strategic business consultants to do everything from imparting dramatic skills so executives can make better presentations to teaching improv abilities to show them how to roll with the punches in business.
In one instance, a financial firm even made a sculpture to embody its corporate ethos.
“It was interesting," Knight said, "because some of the executives questioned it, saying ‘Why are we doing this? We have the words. They are on the PowerPoint. They are on the wall.’
“But what they discovered when they got into actually trying to create a visual object, they got into discussions about what those words meant. It opened up a whole new way of thinking about how their strategy aligned.”
Average products for average people
Three major thought leaders keynoted the conference itself. Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works and Proust was a Neuroscientist headlined Friday morning’s session; he was followed by Linda Kaplan Thaler, winner of more than a dozen Clio advertising awards and creator of the now-famous Aflac duck quack.
Thursday’s address came from Seth Godin. Dubbed by American Way Magazine as “America’s Greatest Marketer” Godin has authored 13 books, and his blog is believed by some to be the most widely read in the world written by a single individual.
Citing the effects on the record industry brought about by the Internet, Godin told his audience about how radical changes work.
“That’s what revolutions do,” he said. “They shift the world and take that thing that made you what you are and gives you the job you have and it destroys it and enables something impossible to take its place.”
Godin said that through much of the 20th century, the marketplace was dominated by the “television industrial complex,” in which marketers strove to reach ever larger shares of the audience in order to gain bigger sales numbers.
“What we end up with are average products for average people,” he said. “Everything is picked to appeal to the widest possible number of people because if you are going to interrupt everyone then you’d better have something everyone wants to buy.”
The new wired society killed that old model, Godin said, replacing the broad medium of TV with disparate islands of individualized tribal communities where bombarding consumers with general interest advertising simply doesn’t work. Instead, customers with common interests select the marketing messages they want to see.
“That represents a fundamentally different way to go to market," he added, "and a key part of it is this privilege of selling to people who want to be sold to, delivering anticipated personal and relevant messages to the people who choose to get them.”
He said successful messengers become guides and organizers for others in these cultural bubbles.
“The Beatles did not invent teenagers,” he said. “They just showed up to lead them.”
Improv and innovation
Other aspects of the SPARK event included a series of creativity labs with eclectic titles like “Poetry Translation and Business Writing” and “Building Self-Trust and Self-Leadership through the Dulcimer Jam.”
Friday’s activities featured a “pecha kucha,” a Japanese concept in which a series of five local presenters, including Bannister, delivered very brief, highly concise lectures on the topic of remaining relevant in a quickly changing world.
Interviewed afterward, Bannister said her company was engaged in a number of methods of teaching innovation. She even arranges field trips for staff to visit companies in unrelated businesses, everything from coffee roasters to film festival organizers.
She said the results are surprising.
“They’ll come back from Cinema St. Louis and say, ‘There’s three people in that company who put on this 250-film festival. How can we complain about resources?’” she said.
Larissa Riley, a senior copyrighter with Checkmark, a creative resource for Nestle Purina PetCare, said she enjoyed the big name speakers the most.
“It’s not every day that we get folks like that in St. Louis,” she said.
But she also noted that the creativity workshops were worthwhile as well. She attended “Brainstorms, Collaboration and Musical Improvisation.”
“Improv is something I’m definitely not familiar with but it’s one of those things that gets us to step outside of our comfort zone put it all out there,” she said. “The key phrase in the creativity lab was to be present and committed to what you are doing at that moment.”
Knight said the event was all about keeping innovative industries and talented people in town.
“I think what’s really interesting is the mix of people that we have here,” he said of the attendance, which swelled to as much as 250 for the keynotes.
“We have folks from the non-profit world, folks from large corporate entities, folks from education and cultural organizations and folks from every stage of their careers including students. It’s just a fascinating melting pot of people interested in making St. Louis a great place to work.”