Why advertising is like improv

Stage CurtainWhen I was a kid, I fancied myself an actor. I went to summer theater camps. I was often in character, and I wore costumes on a regular basis. I borrowed classic movies on VHS tape from the library to learn from the experts (including Gone with the Wind many times, which came on something like 10 tapes). And, I took improv classes. Eventually, a teacher broke it to me. “Hmm…yeah, while your performance in our summer production of Le Mis was…interesting…have you ever tried writing?” So, I wrote a play. And the rest is history. Over the past 15 years, I’d forgotten about those improv games and exercises. The collaborative creativity and spontaneity of it all. Building on ideas and situations, no matter what’s thrown at you. And not self-editing.

This past weekend at the MAGNET creative conference in Chicago, it all came rushing back with a presentation from Chris Smith, Creative Group Head at the Richards Group in Dallas. The central analogy of his presentation was this: the ideas of great creative thinking in advertising are a hell of a lot like those of improv.

  1. Take what you’re given. Then build on it. It all starts with a brief. In improv, your brief comes in the form of a prompt from the troupe head or an audience member. Listen. Take what you’ve been given. Then build on it.
  2. Don’t edit yourself in the early stages of creativity. As a creative, I do this to myself constantly. An idea pops up, and I quickly dismiss it. “It’s too crazy. They’ll never go for it. It’s terrible. Oh god, erase it before anyone sees it.” Don’t. Save the editing for later.
  3. Say “Yes, and…” not “no, but…” If you’re handed a brief or a client shares an idea, rather than saying “no,” elevate it. Chris gave the example of Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign. The original brief might have said something like “Dos Equis drinkers think of themselves as unique and atypical.” It’s a pretty obvious idea. But it became something extraordinary by adding “Yes, and…” to the end of the statement. The idea was pushed to something bigger. The Dos Equis man became the most interesting man in the world, and the beer went from a low profile brand sold in Texas and California to the country’s sixth-largest imported beer.
  4. Create an expectation. Then surprise within that expectation. In Chris’ words, the beauty of long-running, successful ad campaigns (and great improv skits) is this: We create a set of expectations. And, within that framework, we still manage to surprise. Case in point: Geico.
  5. Do not deny. In improv and advertising, nothing will kill an idea more than denial. Picture two people improving on stage. One actor says, “Wow, this street is beautiful,” and the other responds with, “We’re not on a street.” The scene is killed. Awkward. The magic is lost. Ditto for the creative process.
  6. Include, and give credit to, your audience. Client presentations and pitches are performances. Just like an improv audience, your clients are invested. Most want a surprise. Almost all want to love your ideas. In improv, audiences love throwing out a mundane prompt and seeing actors do something amazing with it. It’s the same in advertising. Include your audience, and give credit to their ideas.

The point: stop self-editing. Start improv-ing.