Idea Factories

Local ad firms take unique approaches to creative process

By Andy Meek

Never mind how fully formed or exciting the concept sounds, Michael Overton, partner and creative director at inferno, is probably going to want to see it on the wall.

That means first getting it down on paper, then sticking it on a wall where Overton can study it and decide whether it’s that most elusive of creatures for an advertising and marketing firm like his – a good idea.

Linda Corti, associate creative director at inferno, hangs a print in “The Pit,” where employees place ideas on the wall to help visualize a concept. Memphis ad firms take unique approaches to the creative process. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Inferno creative director Michael Overton, pictured here conducting a brainstorming session, says “good ideas can come from anywhere.” (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Over at the media, Web and strategy firm Farmhouse, meanwhile, that same process from inside inferno might manifest itself in a more verbal back-and-forth between Farmhouse principal Ben Fant and art director Jason Prater. Working on the branding for the Truck Stop restaurant in Midtown, for example, Fant and Prater spent about two hours one day talking to each other in CB language.

They kept throwing out little ideas in a cascade of phrases like “10-4, good buddy,” and “What’s your 20?” hoping to come across the kind of idea that then makes everything else fall into place.

Then there’s Gary Backaus, chief creative officer at marketing communications agency archer-malmo, who says he’s skeptical of any set formula for the creative process and who doesn’t like to see competition between teams in a firm as they try to hash out ideas and move the creative process along. It’s the kind of thing he says builds up “political tension that can be harmful.” And besides, in his experience, “really good creative people need time to think on their own.”

To peek inside Memphis’ robust community of advertising and marketing agencies is to get a glimpse of the creative process in action, within the context of a business model. Creativity, of course, isn’t something that can be bottled like Coca-Cola or automated like the assembly line carrying a series of widgets, yet these and other firms are in their own way idea factories.

And they’re full of creative minds indispensable to the goal those factories have of keeping clients satisfied – and coming back for more.

“We do have some rituals,” Fant said about the way he and Prater work. “It’s always free-flowing and brainstorming, but it can happen anywhere and anytime. We’ll drive each other nuts with phone calls – it could be any time of day. If something comes up, we’ll text each other. We’ll email. But whatever we come up with, it’s really on Jason’s shoulders to make sure everything we’re wanting to do he can illustrate and we can create a deliverable out of it.”

Their creative discussions often take place around one of Farmhouse’s plate-glass windows that face Front Street on which they use dry-erase markers and Post-It notes. Sometimes the Post-Its don’t stick, which has been taken before at Farmhouse as a superstitious sign the idea might not stick.

One client for which Farmhouse helped create the branding is the Downtown coffee and beer bar Tamp & Tap. As Fant and Prater tell it, the driving force behind the process of creating a brand like Tamp & Tap’s is “the story, the explanation and the promise.”

Ad firms such as Farmhouse – whose art director Jason Prater and  principal Ben Fant are pictured here – take unique approaches to the creative process.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“It’s the feeling the entire package evokes,” Prater said of a brand creation. “The promise is that whatever you feel when you see and read things like the tagline and the colors, this place is going to deliver on that feeling you get when you look at the branding and the package and the name, all of that.”

Fant had always wanted to use some kind of allusion to a few lines he liked from a T.S. Eliot poem: “I have known them all already, known them all – have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons. I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”

Those lines were written during the Industrial Revolution, which was dominated by machinery. And a feature of machinery is the grinding of gears. That helped inspire the slogan Fant and Prater eventually hit upon for Tamp & Tap – “Grind and Unwind.”

Taylor Berger, one of the partners behind Tamp & Tap, said when it launched that the idea was to create a space Downtown that’s “not as wild as a bar,” where different members of a group could come relax and get different kinds of drinks and snacks.

“Tamp & Tap is different from most coffee shops, because it’s not just a coffee shop – it’s a beer shop, too,” Fant said. “How do we express that? It’s not just the visual messaging, it’s the copy that goes along with it. For ‘Grind and Unwind,’ it’s the thought of coffee grinds, starting your grind, going to work, and the poem worked with this idea of the gears and grinding.”

All those ideas and that creative flow start at a near universal place: hiring the right people. That’s the assessment at inferno, at least.

“Creativity is not the result of pushing a button,” said inferno partner Dan O’Brien. “You hire well, get talented people and foster a culture of creativity.”

Overton agreed, adding that inferno is a meritocracy, in the sense that “good ideas can come from anywhere.”

“We have a bunch of really bright folks here,” Overton said. “Brainstorming is sometimes valuable. It probably won’t give you the final answer, but it sets you on the path. A lot of front-end work goes into this, agreeing on the goals of a project and what success looks like. And it can be like a percolator – sometimes, ideas just have to sit for a while.”

At Sullivan Branding, CEO Brian Sullivan pointed to understanding the brand essence as key.

“We uncover the essence of a brand by talking directly with customers, company employees, and even prospects,” Sullivan said. “This gives us the insight needed to write a meaningful creative brief. This brief outlines the objectives of the communication and gives boundaries to the team. … Once the client has signed off on the brief, we hold a kickoff meeting to review it with the team. Generally, at this point we try to have someone from each discipline we intend to use. (After) this kickoff meeting, we schedule brainstorming sessions to generate a volume of ideas.

“At this point, there really are no bad ideas, because even off-the-wall or off-base ideas can lead us into interesting directions. In this stage, volume leads to quality. Each idea is written on a sticky note and placed on the wall. Then we take the best, mix and match and generally have some good directions to explore further.”

The team leaves the brainstorming meeting with clear action steps.

“Our office is set up to easily facilitate collaboration – lots of collision spaces and low walls between work spaces to encourage discussion and idea exchange,” Sullivan said. “In our internal creative review, we narrow down the list of ideas to the ones we think are the strongest, using the creative brief as the yardstick, and then we present ideas to the client.”

That process or a version of it is relied on at other firms. As an example of how inferno works, and the product it generates, the firm was asked to support the FedEx St. Jude Classic this year.

“One of their challenges was breathing new context into the event,” said inferno partner Tim Sellers.

Print products that inferno came up with defined the event as a kind of “see and be seen” party of the summer as much as a golf tournament. Big, easy-to-read fonts were married with text that said things like “Hey y’all,” “Great to see you again,” “How many years have we been volunteering together?” and “Amped up.”

The front-end work Overton described – the set of parameters within which the creativity can take place – is what sets the whole project up and what the creative work is measured against. In the words of archer-malmo’s Backaus, it becomes a Venn diagram.

“A lot of people in our business get blinded by the pure creativity of an idea and don’t have it answer the question properly,” Backaus said. “One way I define great work is with a Venn diagram of what the client needs and what the agency knows is brilliant. If you understand the problem well enough, you’ll know the answer when you see it.”

His own firm also wears its belief in hiring the right people and fostering the right company culture proudly. Archer-malmo took on more space inside the Cotton Exchange building earlier this year, and renovations that were done included design touches made with the idea of employee collaboration in mind.

There are features like collective, multipurpose workstations. The agency also added an indoor bike locker that can accommodate as many as 12 bikes, and the agency bought a communal bike for employees to use. It’s about keeping people feeling creative and inspired. Speaking of the latter, at Sullivan Branding a canvas hangs on the wall of the office.

“Although we do have a process that we go through each time to arrive at the best solutions, we believe that creativity doesn’t occur in a vacuum,” Sullivan said. “That’s why we’re very deliberate about creating a work environment and culture that is inspiring and fosters innovative thinking. In many ways, we consider ourselves to be in the business of inspiration, whether we are generating ideas or inspiring a client’s customers or prospects to do something. Everyone is inspired by something, so we ask each Sullivan Branding employee what inspires them, not just in their work but in their lives.”

That inspiration is translated onto the canvas.

“The canvas serves as a reminder that inspiration can come from anywhere, and that it’s different for every individual,” Sullivan said.