A creative ice breaker to get people talking.

It’s always interesting to observe the social dynamics at play when a group of strangers gather. When I am in business meetings, at parties, on planes and at the gym, I like to convert strangers into friends. Simple conversation is the key to this social alchemy. As the founder of the advertsing agency The Weaponry, I know how conversation and rappoire enhance creative ideation, customer service and networking. But getting strangers to talk (without waterboarding) isn’t always easy. But there’s a simple technique that works like magic. And I have been using it since college.

Gotta Go Back In Time.

When I was in school at the University of Wisconsin I lived with a really fun group of Badgers. Slosh, Boo, Hammer and Jacquer. We had a lot of great parties at 1117 Mound Street.  In fact, at our very first party we had the police come to our house at 4 o’clock in the norning (somewhere between night and morning). At another party we had to turn the music off for fear that the massive dance party in our living room was about to crash through the under-equipped floor, and become a deposit-erasing dance party in our basement. We knew how to have a great time.

One of our favorite party games involved name tags. We would hand out tags to all party-goers as they arrived, with just one simple rule:

Write anything you want on your name tag, except your name.

There is simply nothing better at getting people to talk to each other than an interesting, non-named name tag. It’s a fascinating study in psychology, sociology and creativity. The more fun you have with it the better it works. Be sure to tailor your non-name to the type of event you are attending. An interesting nickname, pick-up line, icon in pop culture, or the start of a joke can all work. Names like Knock Knock, Mime, My Little Friend (people always Say Hello to you) are proven, G-Rated winners. My great friend Betty Garrot, often reminds me that when we first met my name tag said, Person of Interest. 

I forgot to mention, I play this game at gatherings now, even when I am the only one playing. Because it works that well. In fact, if I was to open a new bar, I  would call the place, “Hello, My name is…” and implement this time-tested, conversation-sparking technique.

So buy a stack of name tags, have more fun and get more people talking at your next work party, social gathering, mixer, professional event, or wedding (I’m not encouraging you to have more than one wedding).  If you have a great ice breaker that I should know about, please share it in the comment section below. Or is it comments section? Or does it depend on how many comments there are? I don’t really know.

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A strange encounter at the Piggly Wiggly.

One of the great things about owning your own advertising agency is that you get to decide the rules of operation. I believe businesses should allow team members to construct their work and life schedules into one harmonious whole. I like to get started early each day, and work late. So sometimes I take a little time in the middle of the day for myself. Leading up to the OSCARS my wife and I went to several morning movies at the local Marcus Theater which has $5 movies on Tuesday.  This isn’t work-life balance. It’s work-life integration.

On a recent Friday I fit in a workout over my lunch hour.  Then I stopped at the grocery store to pick up a couple of things my wife requested. No big deal. After a quick lap around the store I had the 5 things I came for, and I got in line to check out.

This is where it gets interesting.

That’s when Matilda sidled up next to me. She was somewhere north of 75 years old. She rolled up slowly, leaning hard on her cart, as if it was the only thing that prevented her from lying face down on the floor. She rolled really close to me and spoke:

“Can I tell you something? I have 9 kids. 27 grandkids. And 10 great grandkids. There are 11 lawyers in the family. My husband does a lot of research. A lot… And he’ll tell you that the brand of ice cream you have in your cart is the most likely to give you Salmonella!’

I smiled at her and replied enthusiastically, “I know! That’s why I chose this brand!’

Matilda, surprised and somewhat confused by my response continued.

‘The next-worst brand for Salmonella is (BRAND CONCEALED TO PROTECT ITS WELL-EARNED BRAND REPUTATION FROM MATILDA).

Again, I eagerly replied, “I know! That’s the one I am going to try next! I haven’t had Salmonella yet! You only live once, and I want to experience all I can!’

Matilda: (Now snapping at me)  ‘You are just like my son who has been in the hospital for 11 months battling his heroin addiction!’

Hmmm. This was an interesting response. Contemplating that this all started with my brand of vanilla frozen yogurt, I thought that the heroin parallel was a bit of a stretch.

But Matilda wasn’t done.

‘Listen pal! I’ve done more crazy stuff in my life than you ever will! (Um, like confronting me in the grocery store over my choice of frozen yogurt?) I’ve taught over 500 people to water ski!’

At this point I was taking the cashier’s Paper or Plastic quiz.  But Matilda was rolling.  As I quickly finished my transaction and walked towards the exit with my plastic bag of frozen salmonella treats, Matilda shouted at me,

“How many emergency landings have YOU made in an airplane!?!”

I turned around, still smiling, and asked, “As a pilot or passenger?’

Then she scowled at me, lifted her arthritic hand, and raised 2 fingers. I’m assuming this meant. “Peace out Salmonella-Heroin Boy!’ Or maybe it meant ‘I’ve had 2 emergency plane landings! One every 37 years or so.’ Suddenly the sliding glass doors closed between us like the curtain at the end of a play. The matinee was over.

The reason I share this story is because I had to tell someone. It was just too surprisingly random to keep to myself. If you have a flexible workday schedule, you may encounter some interesting people who are running their errands while you are normally at work.  So if you want a little bit more entertainment, go to the grocery store in the middle of the day, throw some vanilla frozen yogurt in your cart and see who wants to chat.

Great news! Robots are coming to take your job!

The robots are coming!  The robots are coming!  

If you’ve read anything about technology trends lately, you know that R2D2, C-3PO and their posse are rolling into the workforce like the next generation of whippersnappers, ruining things for the old guard. This is really freaking people out. Most workers respond to all this robot-revolution talk with one of two standard reactions:

  1. Robots can’t do MY job!
  2. This is terrible!

These reactions are both wrong. Eventually almost every job will be improved, if not replaced, by robots. Seriously. Lawyers, real estate agents, actors, doctors, truck drivers and singers. Don’t believe me? Let’s try a little imagination.

Robot Lawyer

A computer-brained robot can tap into a database, find and learn all of the relevant legal cases necessary to defend or prosecute a case. They can learn which arguments work most effectively, most often, by studying data. The robot’s facial recognition software will allow it to respond to witnesses and jurors. Thus, it can, and will adjust its delivery to the most impactful style, based on data. Best of all, the robot will actually listen to the human feedback, because it has been programmed to do so.

Robot Doctor

Your surgeon, who must perform incredibly precise maneuvers will be out-precisely maneuvered by Sparky the Surgical Robot, who isn’t impacted by an itchy nose, an aging body, and a crummy night of sleep. Oh, and this is alreay happening.

 

Robot Redford

There will no longer be an interpretation gap between directors and actors. Or casting sessions. The precisly-programmed robot actors will generate the perfect emotion on take one. Cut. That’s a wrap.

So yes, all of our current jobs will be impacted. If you can’t imagine how your job or your industry could be handled by a robot, I encourage you to use my imagination. I will walk you through the possibilities.

But this is good news.

In the beginning of humanness there were only 2 jobs:

  1. Hunter & Gatherer
  2. Home Maker

We had to find a way to free some people up to do more important work.  The key was agriculture. As soon as cave-men started cultivating crops, domesticating animals and wearing FFA-jackets, many more people were free to do non-essential work.

200 years ago, 90% of Americans lived on farms and grew their own food. In the year 1900, 40% of Americans worked in agriculture. Today, due to advances in technology, only 2% do.

Yet over the past 117 years we didn’t experiencing a rural apocalypse. Previously farm-bound Americans were freed to pursuit other interests. So they did. They went to college and created plastics and silicon and vacuum tubes. Then they created computers, rocket ships, microchips, smartphones and robots. Someone also created the Pet Rock. So it hasn’t all been useful.

At The Weaponry, we believe that the human mind is the most powerful weapon on Earth. Our minds will always reign supreme on this planet. We will continue to mechanize and automate the jobs that can be performed as well, or better, by machines. So that we can rise to an even higher standard of living, quality of life and take on even greater human challenges. We will never run out of things for humans to do. So don’t be scared. Be excited. The best is yet to come.  Isn’t that right R2?

Why art school students fail to find jobs, and what to do about it.

I love art schools. The creative vibe at these colleges makes me want to make something. I dig the students buzzing around campus, toting art projects with their backpacks crammed full of supplies. The experimental clothing that often adorns these boundary-explorers creates a feeling of Kindergarten 2.0. Or Kindergarten 20, since most of the students are in their 20s and still playing with glitter and glue.

Ahh, to be creating art again without clients or the budgetary limitations that kill your hopes and dreams…  I re-experience the excitement of art school every spring when I visit campuses for portfolio reviews and senior exhibits. Having spent 20 years in advertising, collaborating with art directors and designers, I know some of these students are going to experience amazing adventures, create rewarding work and make great money.

But in the next breath (and the next paragraph) I find these schools depressing. While all of these students are following their passion, many of them will never enjoy an art-fed income that will enable them to buy fancy peanut butter and gourmet ramen.

The 3 Types That Fail

The art school students that won’t make it professionally fall into 3 categories:

The Weirdo. This is the weird art kid that is so weird that even the art kids (who are tolerant and even inspired by the odd, unique and experimental) think is too weird. These students don’t have a natural place in business. So, unless they create their own jobs, they are out of luck. Sorry. (Consolation prize: If you would have followed any other educational adventure you were likely to have had the same result. So study what you love).

The Nartist.  This student is simply not an artist.  They don’t have applicable art skills.  Often they are horrible at art but love it so much they are willing to pay for schooling that will help them learn theory, but not be able to apply it in a meaningful way. Natural selection prevents them from getting, or at least maintaining, a meaningful creative job.  It’s sad that their dreams die. But that means it is simply time for a new, more realistic dream. Note: this person exists in every field. There are Nastronauts, Nengineers, Noptometrists, Neducators and Nactors.

The Quitter.  This person has the skills, a passable personality and hides their weirdness well. They just don’t hold out long enough, search hard enough, network, follow-up, stand out from the crowd or demand their chance.  This represents the vast majority of students who won’t find a job.

 

I don’t get bummed by The Weirdo or Nartist. Those people were born to not work in art. I am bummed by The Quitter. The one who could have done more to make her dream a reality. The one who just needed more grit. The Quitter has real skills, even if they are still developing. I hate to see these colorful and interesting berries wither on the vine.  But The Quiter is not unique to art school. Every school develops talented and capable students who fail to find jobs in their chosen profession because they give up too soon.

3 Keys:

Action

If you want to find a great job, doing what you love, initiative is everything. You have to stick to it. You have to spot your opportunities and capitalize on them. You have to learn what works in your book. Keeping adding to it. Go well beyond your college art projects and create work that will help you land a job. Ask for informational interviews. Offer to prove your abilities for free.  Stand up and stand out.

Sell

Art students are often so concerned with not selling out, that they fail to sell themselves at all. Selling yourself is key to opening doors and creating opportunities to making a living off your creative skills. Ultimately, to make money in a creative profession you need to make things that sell.  Whether it’s your work itself that sells, or your work helps sell other products or services, no one avoids selling. Understand it. Get good at it.

Network

When I meet students, I usually offer them my business card and invite them to contact me if I can be of assistance. About 1% of the students follow-up.  Many of those who contact me have landed internships or jobs.  Last week I handed out about 25 business cards to students. I’ll be surprised if I hear from more than two of them. This is why people fail (or maybe it’s a sign that I’m actually a Wierdo Nartist).

The Bottom Line

You have to take action and be creative in the way you pursue a creative job. Do it. It’s worth it. I can’t think of a better way to earn money than being paid for your creativity. So let’s make sure that more art students who deserve jobs get jobs in art. These are not jobs to be shipped overseas or automated by robots. If you have some good job-finding advice, please add it to the comment section below.  But the responsibility is still on the student. Get out there and network, hustle and sell yourself.  It’s your future. Paint it. Sculpt it. Or Photoshop yourself into it.

The simple way to make anyone feel like an insider.

I want you to try an experiment. Over the next 24 hours note how many people you encounter that you don’t know. I warn you, it may freak you out. Most of us live anonymously in a sea of strangers. They are everywhere. Like minivans. Yet we have become immune to these strangers that surround us. It’s as if they disappear when we ignore them. Like reality TV stars.

I was reminded of my own anonimity recently at my gym. After I scanned my membership card, the guy who routinely works at the reception desk said, “Have a good day, man”. A normal person would have just done what they were told, and had a nice day. But instead, I had a flashback to college…

It was my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin. I was on the track team, and was lifting weights in the weight room (research indicates that’s the best place for such activities). One of the football players who I saw regularly walked through the room. When he passed by he said, “Hey! What’s up man?”  I replied with something like, “Hey, Man. What’s up?’ I thought nothing of it.

But then he stopped and asked, ‘What your name?’

I said, ‘Adam’ (that’s my go-to answer).

We shook hands.

He said “My name’s Aaron. Enough of this bullshit, saying, “Hey man.” or “What’s up bro?” F-that! I see you in here every day.  We should know each other’s names!’

Aaron ‘Scrappy’ Norvell was right. It was bullshit that we would repeatedly see each other, even greet each other, and not know each other’s names. After this introduction he was no longer a guy I saw. He was a guy I knew. The difference is profound.

I expect I wasn’t the only person Scrappy made an effort to get to know by name (he currently has 4,912 friends on Facebook).  He is  funny, outgoing and entertaining. We would see a lot of each other over the next few years in Madison. Today, he is an actor in Hollywood.  If you ever need to cast a police officer, Obama look-a-like, former college linebacker, or someone who can deliver the line, ‘Hey, what’s your name?’ he is your guy.

Now, back to the story…

With this random flashback playing in my head, I asked the guy working the counter at Elite Sports Club, “What’s your name?’  He replied, ‘Andrew’. I said, ‘My name is Adam’ (that’s my go to).  We shook hands. Now, every time I walk into the gym we greet each other by name. We have real conversations. Instead of an awkward, “Hey-Man” relationship.

Insiders vs Outsiders

Everyone we encounter in business, at social gatherings and at the grocery store are either Insiders or Outsiders.  The difference is whether or not we know each other by name.  That sense of familiarity and friendship that can only develop once you know a person’s name makes an enormous difference on this planet, where we are so often surrounded by John and Jane Does (that was supposed to be Doe-plural. But it looks like does, doesn’t it?).

I think about names at work. At the advertising agency, The Weaponry, we encounter people when we visit our clients that we don’t have to know by name. The receptionists. The people who sit next to the conference rooms where we make too much noise.  The IT person who inevitably saves every presentation. But I want to meet them too. So I make a habit of introducing myself, by name. Suddenly we are not just people who see each other regularly. We become people who know each other, by name.

I encourage you to convert more of those people you see or say hello to regularly into people you really know by name. It’s easy. Introduce yourself, by name and ask for their name in return. Write the names down. Start a list with a description of who they are on your phone or in a notebook. Refer back to the list as neccesary. The rewards are profound.  Just ask Andrew from Elite. Or Norm from Cheers.

5 reasons you should be mentored by a hairdresser. 

I am trying to become a better businessman. As Founder of the advertising agency The Weaponry, I look for any advantages, advice and examples I can get. To help my cause I regularly read books, blogs and magazines. I listen to podcasts and audiobooks. I meet with other business Founders, CEOs and CFOs. But lately I’ve been studying the tricks and techniques of a profession where many of the industry’s best never went to college. Of course I am talking about hairdressers. (I say ‘of course’ because it’s in the title of the post).

Hair and Me

Since I was a teenager I believed I would go bald. I wasn’t afraid of it. I just believed it would happen based on the extensive foreheads of my forefathers. For 15 years I prepared for the inevitable by shaving my head each year from March until September. Then a funny thing happened. When I turned 35 my doctor told me my hair wasn’t going anywhere. After my ‘Whatchutalkinbout Willis?’ reaction, I celebrated by letting my hair grow for an entire year. (I really know how to party, right?) At the end of that year I had to clean up my new mop.  It was then that I met Angie.

Angie Eger in Columbus, Ohio is an amazing hair-ess. She cut and styled my hair well. She was really fun to be around. But she also had tough conversations with me. Everything she suggested, that I initially resisted, I eventually did.  She was right about everything from long layers, to leave-in conditioner, to eyebrow taming. As I studied  Angie’s approach, I recognized that our businesses are a lot alike (aside from the ear trimming).  And I started using a hairdresser’s model for service with my business.

5 things great hairdressers and barbers do that you can apply to your  career.

1. They listen well.  

This is an essential skill in the hair game. You must listen to what your client or customer is looking for. Once you start cutting hair it is really hard to glue it back together.  Make sure you are clear on the objectives and the vision up front.  At Red’s Classic Barbershop in Indianapolis and Nashville, they take notes on each customer. This helps them accumulate knowledge about individual preferences, products, clippers, shave notes, and general do’s and don’ts.

Any profession can do this with their clients. Do you?

2. They always offer their professional advice.

Hair is too important to get wrong.  So when the customer makes a clearly flawed request, the hairdresser must explain the downside to the ask.  Or the upside to other options. Unlike missteps in many other industries, you can’t quickly recover from a bad haircut.  Alexandra ‘Red’ Ridgway of Red’s says,

 The customer is not always right or reasonable, and they need to know that we have a vested interest in making them look their best.”  

Do you have the fortitude to tell your clients they have asked for a mullet, and that it is no longer 1989?

3. They make you look and feel more attractive. This is the whole point of the profession.  To make you look and feel great. Advertising and marketing works exactly the same way.  At The Weaponry our mission is to make our clients more attractive to their most important audience.  If they don’t look good, we don’t look good. Vidal Sassoon taught me that. Your happy customer is the best marketer of your work.

4. They are trustworthy.  When you get your hair cut you put your self-image in the hands of another person.  This can be very scary.  Alexandra said,

“The sense of self related to image is precious and requires great trust. The major transformations that happen when people shave their beards, cut off a ponytail or dreadlocks are very personal. The trust involved in helping a customer through those transitions is huge.’

Do your clients have a metaphorical beard, ponytail or dreadlocks? If so, the necessary changes they must make to cut them off can be very personal.  Not any old hairdresser will do.

5. You enjoy spending time with them.  Above all else, I looked forward to seeing Angie.  Getting my haircut with her was fun. We talked. We laughed. We developed a great relationship. This is a what separates the pros from the amateurs. You can get all of the other points right and still starve if you don’t nail this. It’s a simple fact that getting your haircut is an intimate act. The hair professional washes your hair. Touches your hair, your ears, your neck. And maybe the top of your toes (we all have issues). If you don’t have great interpersonal skills this becomes a super awkward interaction. If you have great skills in this arena you will book all the hours you are willing to work.

I will continue to encourage the team at The Weaponry to study great advertising minds like David Ogilvy, and great marketers like Richard Branson.  But they will also learn lessons from Angie Eger and other great hair people. If your hair professional does something great that others could learn from, let me know in the comment section.  If you are a hair professional I would love to hear from you too. If you are Angie Eger, I would love for you to set up shop in my new hometown.  Because my hairdo is overdue for a redo.

 

What we can all learn from the Best Picture snafu at the Oscars.

When I woke up Monday morning my iPhone was practically on fire. It was glowing and crackling with texts, tweets and push notes. The world was dying to tell me about the disaster at the Oscars. The wrong movie had been announced as Best Picture. OMG!  Hollywood had been embarrassed on national TV! Those poor, wealthy celebrities…

1280_faye_dunaway_warren_beatty_oscars_2017

I couldn’t wait to see the clip. (You can see the whole thing by clicking here. You’re welcome.)

It did not disappoint. The seven minutes of crazy was even better than I could have imagined. It was a train wreck. I squirmed through Warren Beatty’s confusion. I cringed through Faye Dunaway’s quick scan of the card. I felt terrible for La La Land’s la-cast and la-crew celebrating, and thanking, and feeling honored, before having their pants pulled down on stage in front of the world.

I felt even worse for the Moonlighters, who couldn’t really celebrate. After all, they just lost. Now, they didn’t know if they were coming on stage just to have their pants pulled down, before being forced to hand their hand-me-down awards to Manchester By The Sea. I watched it all several times. I will remember those seven minutes of award show infamy longer than I will remember the movies.  

What we can learn.

However, it is important that we take away more from this than the uncomfortable entertainment. Following the debacle I heard many people exclaim, “Someone should get fired over that mistake!”  Let’s think bigger.

We now know that the presenter, Warren Beatty, was handed the wrong envelope by a Price Waterhouse Cooper accountant. PWC has done this for 83 years. Which means a new gremlin was introduced that exposed a flaw in their process. As the founder of the ad agency The Weaponry, I see Envelopegate as a welcomed reminder that we should all use our mistakes to help improve our processes. Not to punish the mistakers.

checklist-book-image

In the book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (yes, I really read a book about checklists) Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon, champions checklists as a way to ensure processes are implemented that help save lives in hospitals. He also cites checklists for having done more to prevent airplane crashes than any other innovation. If a checklist helps save lives in hospitals and on aircraft, certainly a checklist could be used to help save some unfortunate moments at The Weaponry and in Hollywood. And probably when you leave a restroom.

Simple Solution

A simple checklist used by the PWC accountants backstage, and the award presenters, would have prevented the mistake.

  1. Ask presenter what award they are announcing.
  2. Check run of show list to make sure the award they are scheduled to present matches answer.
  3. Read the award category written on announcement envelope aloud to make sure it matches before handing it to the presenter.
  4. Make presenter read the category on the announcement envelope aloud to make sure it matches before allowing them on stage.

Boom. Done. Bonnie and Clyde get away.

A Story

Once upon a time I was shooting a TV commercial in Indianapolis for Donatos pizza. When we arrived at the production company’s office for the wardrobe fitting, I was shocked to see the wrong actress there, trying on clothes. After a quick and panicked huddle we understood what had happened. It seemed that once the client signed off on our talent choices for the commercials, a message was relayed to the production house that we would be using all of our first choice talent. So the production company called, and hired, all the first choice talent. However, the first choices were not the same on both the agency’s list and the production company’s list. Yikes!

That afternoon, the production company made magic. They tracked down the actress who should have played the lead, and got her on a flight that night from Iowa City (which is where you go when you don’t think you got the lead in a pizza commercial) to Indianapolis. The next day we shot the commercial and it turned out great. More importantly, we improved our process. After that, my teams have always confirmed the talent choices by name, not first choice or backup.

What you can do now.

Today, I encourage you to watch the clip from the show again. Because it reminds us that mistakes happen. Mistakes are great at indicating flaws in our systems and processes. If we respond correctly, we come out stronger, with a better way of doing things and a lower chance of that same mistake happening again.

Through better processes we can save more lives, we can avoid plane crashes and we can prevent a lot of embarrassment. Getting angry doesn’t prevent a mistake from happening again. Getting better does. There is no need to fire anyone. I think we can all agree that the person responsible for the Best Picture goof will never, ever make that mistake again. Just as Steve Bartman will never again interfere with a fly ball.

If you have a process improvement story spurred by a mistake please share it in the comment section. You may help others avoid the same mistake. Or maybe you’ll just make us laugh. I’ll take either.