To have more great ideas stop thinking about it.

I love ideas. New ideas tingle and jump in my head like pop rocks. If that is how crack makes you feel I would like crack. A lot. Ideas are the seeds that grow every kind of human-induced improvement on this planet. Yet many of us don’t spend much, if any time ideating.

I love the entire ideation process. I love loading my brain with information by reading and researching. Great ideas come from rearranging the ingredients in your head in new and novel ways. The more ingredients the more possibilities.

But after you top off your brain with input about the problem to be solved comes the most valuable part of the process: Stepping away from the problem completely. And doing nothing. That’s right. Just let the elements do what they want to do. Not what you want them to do. Yet, deep inside your mind, the ideas are growing. And fermenting. Brewing and bubbling. Forming and frothing. Without any additional effort from you.

This part of the process is like making cheese. Or wine. Or a baby. Well not making a baby. Just the baby-growing part. To the naked eye it looks like you are being lazy. The fun distractions at advertising agencies and other creative environments are great at getting team members away from the active thinking and into incubation. That way you don’t get in the way of the natural process. Think of it like baking a cake. Opening the oven door and jabbing toothpicks doesn’t help transform the batter into cake. Time and heat do the work.

The incubation period is the most valuable step in developing unique and differentiating ideas. Yet it is absolutely free. At The Perfect Agency Project we don’t charge for the time when we’re not actively thinking about challenges. During this phase of the process you can multitask. Or sleep. Or make cheese. Or compost. Or babies. The longer the incubation period the more you compound the interesting.

Unfortunately, for the professional creative, the incubation period is an endangered part of the process. Over the course of my career this valuable time has been disappearing like the Brazilian rainforest. And record stores. A lack of planning on the part of the requester hacks at this time. So does a lack of patience. But creatives thinkers have not done enough to promote the ROI clients earn on this free time. I hope sharing this post is a first step in re-establishing the importance of this step.

To make sure you get the most value out of the incubation period start early, build in time for nothing and let the team sleep on it. I often wake up and find myself perched on a great idea like a hen sitting on a warm egg. Resist the temptation to see work ASAP. You will often get the best results if you see the work ALAP.

So spend less money. Offer more time. Let your team know the outline of the challenge early. And watch the great ideas emerge like popcorn. And wine. And babies.

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An idea to make debates useful again.

On Sunday night I watched the presidential debate. It was ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, I was highly entertained. But the debate failed miserably at its sole purpose: helping Americans become better-informed voters. There was so much talk about non-issues, non-answering of questions and unverified fact-spewing that all of America was dumber for having watched it. Entertained, but dumber.

When it was finally over I switched channels and watched the Sunday night football game. Taking in the final 15:00 minutes of the Packers and Giants game was like mental sorbet, cleansing my palette before I prepared to think like a human again on Monday morning.

But a funny thing happened when I woke up the next morning. I had an idea to solve the debate problem.

Let’s make debates more like football games.

One of the great things about a football game is that it follows a clearly defined set of rules. There are pre-established ways to score points. There are also consequences for breaking the rules. The debates should have the same structure.

edhochuli

Instead of having a moderator like, say, Lester ‘Don’t-Mind-Me’ Holt, we would have referees, like Ed Hochuli. Ed is a trial lawyer when he’s not flexing his zebra stripes.  He’s the man we need controlling the candidates.

The Perfect Agency Project’s debates look something like this:

  • Moderators are replaced by referees (didn’t I just say that?): refs put the question in motion, blow whistles to stop the talk and penalize participants for breaking the rules of the debate.
  • Penalties: The ultimate penalty in a debate is air time. If you fail to answer the question, stray off topic or introduce false information, you have to sit out questions. Debaters have to serve there ‘Time Outs’ in a hockey-style penalty box. I would have Martha Stewart design it.
  • Run over your time limit: a whistle blows and your mic is cut off. If we can humiliate Hollywood stars by cutting their mics off during an acceptance speech, surely we can do the same to long-winded presidential candidates.
  • Talk when it’s not your turn: You lose time. This is just like being offsides in football. Or encroachment. Or interference.
  • Unpresidential-like conduct: Your mic is cut off. A third-party candidate walks on stage and replaces you for the next question.
  • Answer a question: score points on a 1 to 7 scale based on the quality of your answer.
  • Don’t answer the question: no points
  • Make false claims: the referees stops the debate, sites the facts, sends you to the Martha Stewart penalty box.
  • Nachos: Let’s all eat them. Just because.

But this is just a start. Now it’s time to add your ideas to the comment box. Don’t mention any candidates by name. It’s not that kind of show. Just the football-style rules we could incorporate to make the debates fair and informative. Points will be awarded for good rules. A flag will be thrown on anything that is offsides. Ready? Set. Omaha!

6 lessons from the class everyone should take but no one ever does.

I work in advertising. I know the value of the New and Improved. Which is why I am always trying to create a newer, improved-er version of myself. I realized at the beginning of my career that if I wanted to catch up to the best professionals in this industry I was going to have to do my homework. So I began studying and learning. Not in a structured school program. But in a self-directed, choose-your-own-adventure, movie montage kind of way.

Like most people who are into self-improvement, I have focused heavily on communication skills: public speaking, presentation skills, selling skills. But the deeper I get into this game Prince called, Life, I realize that most people (including me) spend too much time on the wrong side of the equation.

The most effective and important communication skill is not speaking. It’s listening.

Listening is where all success starts. It is only through listening that we understand the problems that we need to solve. It is how we hear what isn’t said (don’t think about this too hard or it sounds really stupid). Through listening we learn about other people. We learn about their history, their values, their styles and their quirks. Which allows for deeper, more meaningful and more valuable relationships. Yet when was the last time you heard about someone going to a listening seminar?

So here are The Perfect Agency Project’s 6 Keys To Improving Your Listening Skills. These are sure to make you a better, bigger-eared version of yourself.

1. Listen Competitively.

Start by trying to be really good at listening. You already know the little things you have to do to be a great listener. We learned them playing Simon Says. Look at the person talking. Give the person speaking your full attention.  And do this like your earning potential, relationships and Parent Of The Year award depend on it. Because they do.

2. Shut your mouth.

We are often so compelled to talk that we stop listening. If you want to be a great listener you have to silence your own impulses. And focus on your role as a listener. This means you are not providing answers, or solutions or opinions. You are harvesting. Not planting. Know what season it is. Bring the right equipment to the field.

3. Keep your partner lubricated.

I don’t mean with alcohol or KY.  With affirmations. And demonstrated interest. Lean in. Show you care. And you will keep others flowing with information. Yet without the annoying public outcry that comes with waterboarding.

4. Listen with your Spidey Sense.

Go beyond the words that are said. Note the tone. The emotion. Those things are like limps, signaling that something deeper is wrong. Or they could signal that someone is in a good mood that exceeds the norm for the current situation. Maybe they just got engaged. Or maybe they are on drugs.

5.  Play back, Jack.

The curtain call of any good listening session is the summary of what you heard.  The highlight, simplified conclusion or takeaway that demonstrates that you really heard what was said. What was implied. And what is now important.  Do this and you will always leave a conversation with more personal equity.

6. Lock up the valuables.

The most important listening skill is keeping the private stuff private. You have to know which things you heard were intended for you alone. And don’t talk about them. When people know that you are trustworthy they tell you more. You become an important confidante. An insider. It’s like being sponge-worthy.

Improve your listening and everything else will improve. Better relationships with your friends, family and co-workers. Better solutions to problems. More and better networking. And better creative ideas. If you have your own tips and tricks for better listening I would love to hear from you.

Could you pass the Fender Bender Test?

Sunday afternoon I was in a fender bender. Boo. I was driving my daughter home from basketball practice. We were having a nice conversation about her practice and I was looking forward to making chili when we got home. Then I was going to bake a couple of pies with the apples we picked at a local orchard in the morning. Then Normal Rockwell was going to sue me for infringing on his schtick.

I was driving within the notorious Five Mile Circle of Doom: that 5 mile radius that surrounds your home. Statistically, this is where the majority of accidents happen. As I passed into the invisible circle I slowed down because a tanker truck was stopping at a railroad crossing in front of me. Then I heard it. That telltale crunchy metallic BANG of a car slamming into another car. A moment later I heard another BANG. But this time I felt it too. I had been hit from behind. And suddenly the chili, apple pie and Norman Rockwell lay in shattered fragments on the pavement. Now Danica Patrick was going to sue me for stealing her schtick.

I pulled my car off the main drag and onto a side street. I got out of the car. And that’s when I realized what had happened. I had been part of a 3 car pileup. I was the third and final ball in a Newton’s Cradle fender bender.

Back on the main road there were two cars still intimately engaged like two dogs getting it on in public. Which is always such an awkward thing to see. Even for dogs.

After a moment the two cars disengaged and gingerly limped off the main road and onto the side street with me. We got out of our cars and remembered to first ask if everyone was okay. Then we introduced ourselves. This is one of the all-time oddest ways to meet someone new. Hey, crash here often?  How about this crashing inducing weather we’re having?

First I met the woman who hit me. I’ll call her Laura (because that is her first name, and her last name is too difficult to spell). She was driving a new grey Honda Oddessy mini van. She had a car full of humans and was finally heading home from a long day of volleyball at the high school.

The person driving the car that created the crash was a tall goofy boy who was college-dropout aged. He was odd. And he raised an eyebrow of the responding police officer who said, “I’m going to talk to him first. He’s acting pretty shifty.’ But I don’t think he was acting. That was just him being himself.

This left me, Laura, her kids, and soon her husband John (who came to help) to talk amongst ourselves as we waited. And the more we talked the more I liked them. They were nice people. Laura asked my daughter how her basketball practice was. Which was a very nice thing to ask a kid who had just been in her first accident. And it demonstrated Laura’s ability to think beyond herself, even though her brand new minivan has just been dented, gashed and bruised. And her engine was now wheezing like a junkyard conversion van. John was friendly, composed and funny. He said, ‘Well at least it didn’t happen during the Packer game.’ I laughed.

But as we talked we realized we had more in common. Laura and I had both gone to the University of Wisconsin. We quickly found several people we knew in common. And then we realized that we both work in (and love) advertising.

So there we were. Our cars dented and saddened by recent events. Yet Laura was cool, collected, considerate and humorous. Which are the traits you need to have to be successful in advertising. Because in this industry fender benders and traffic jams and last minute surprises are routine. After this surprise-round of speed networking we decided that we should meet again to talk about doing business together.

While we at The Perfect Agency Project don’t recommend getting in an accident, it does provide a valuable look at how people respond to the negative. It gives you a good look at who they really are under pressure. And if you like them then, you will probably like working with them too. Laura passed The Fender Bender Test with flying colors. Would you? I encourage you to think about it. But I hope you never know.

3 rules of marriage I should have told Brad and Angelina.

If you want to do something great, like create the perfect agency, it’s helpful to have a great partner on your side. Like my wife, Dawn. It doesn’t even matter which side of you they are on (just choose one and go with it). But finding a compatible partner for your life-business is really hard.

I reflected on this as I heard about the shocking break up of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Ok, so I wasn’t really shocked. While I am certainly not a pessimist, I am pretty good at spotting trends. And I know that if you are a famous person and you marry another famous person, you’re not likely to end up in the Marriage Hall of Fame.

Despite the fact that we once shopped at Famous Footwear, my wife and I are not famous. And while studying for our marriage (yes, we really studied) we learned some important facts. One was that 50% of marriages die before the people in them do.

Like most couples, Dawn and I celebrate the victories in our marriage. Like anniversaries. Next week we will have been married 14 years. And we celebrate the anniversary of our first kiss. Mostly because it was the day I stopped hopping like a frog.

But there is another thing we do in our marriage that most couples don’t do. We view other couples’ divorces as our wins. I realize this sounds bad. But if 50% of marriages fail, this is a game of survival. And while we are always saddened to hear of a friend, coworker or family member that got voted off Marriage Island, we’re thankful to still be playing the game.  When we hear of a couple splitting up, Dawn and I always high-five (seriously).  It’s as if we just scored a point in the Marriage Sand Volleyball league.  We knew someone was going to lose that point. And it wasn’t us.

There are lots of ways to help ensure your marriage is successful.  But if I was in charge of the Department of Homeland Matrimony, I would create 3 laws to improve the marriage success rate.

  1. No famous people marrying other famous people.
  2. No getting married before you are 30. We change too much during our 20’s and make too many dumb choices.
  3. Everyone must listen to the audio book, Marathon Marriage by David Moore. Dawn and I got this 4 CD series as an engagement gift from my Auntie, Jan Faust. It made us think about and discuss important issue before we signed the contract. It tried to scare us out of running the marathon. And it forced us to think about building a strong marriage that will last. And not just throwing a great party.

Brad and Angelina, if you are reading this, I’m sorry things didn’t work out. I’m sorry you and the six kids have to go through this tough time. I’m sorry it is being talked about in all of the media. But I’m thankful it is you, and not me.

Why there has never been a better time to wear white.

Welcome to After Labor Day! This, unfortunately, is the darkest time of the year. Because now we are supposed to put away our white clothing until Memorial Day. Or until Diddy invites us to a party. Whichever comes first. I have known about this rule since I was old enough to make my own fashion faux pas. But I didn’t understand the rule, until now.

After long minutes of research (hey, it’s the information age) I discovered the Labor-Day-White-Thing was basically a mean girl rule established by a small gaggle of old money biddies in the late 1800s. They decided that they would use the imaginary rule to identify and ostracize new money ladies who didn’t know the insider rules, and wore white on the wrong days. Yet over time everyone adopted this standard.

How lame is that?  

This isn’t a rule. It’s a joke. Or at best a standard we follow without reason. With this knowledge, how do you pick out your clothes tomorrow?

There are two ways to view these widely followed, but non-rule-rules.

  1. We can adhere to them, just like everyone in-the-know.
  2. We can see them as the gifts they are. And use them to help us stand out from the masses.

When I was in college I had a track teammate named Alex Mautz. Alex liked wearing shorts so much he decided not to pack them away after Labor Day, or Halloween or Thanksgiving. In fact, Alex wore shorts every day for an entire year. Which is no big deal if you live in Florida. Or Ecuador. But we lived in Madison, Wisconsin. Where I experienced -26 Fahrenheit without windchill. Alex turned heads everywhere he went. Not only was he memorable, he provided total strangers with an instant conversation starter from November through April.

One of the most important things we do at The Perfect Agency Project is find ways to help people and organization stand out from the crowd. That’s how you build a memorable brand. And if you want to be noticed, cultural and category norms are a gift.

White wedding dresses don’t stand out. Red ones do. I have seen thousands of diamond engagement rings that all blend together. But my sister Heather’s stands out. Because it’s an emerald ring. Chick-fil-a is one of my favorite restaurants. But unlike most restaurants, it isn’t open on Sundays.  Yet Chick-fil-a is the first restaurant I think of every Sunday (can I get an Amen?).

If you, your brand or business want more attention, find a convention and start doing the unconventional. There are opportunities all around you. If you would like help finding your white clothes after Labor Day let me know. We could grab some caramels and talk.

Why September 6th is the most important day of the year.

Happy New Year! That’s right, Tuesday September 6th is the real New Year’s Day. I know you’re probably wondering what the Dick Clark I’m talking about. Allow me to explain.

Americans traditionally celebrate the new year at the worst possible time. In January you are stumbling out of the most hectic and stressful time of the year. Which makes it a poor time to set new goals, quit bad habits and reinvent yourself.

The simple fact is that the fall, not spring, and certainly not January 1st is the best time for new beginnings.

If you were a tree, today is when your next ring would start to grow. Preschool starts in the fall. And so does Kindergarten, middle school, high school and college. Which means fall is the start of the next chapter for kids, parents and teachers alike. The day after Labor Day is the first day schools everywhere are back in session and fully engaged.

When summer break is over for kids summer vacations are over for adults. Which means that starting today we are all back to work. Our businesses are operating at full strength for the first time in 3 months. Factories are humming. Offices are buzzing. And farms are really farmy.

Churches now begin their regularly scheduled programs. So if you see a church, and see a steeple, open it up and you might see all the people.

The new television season starts now.  Both NCAA and NFL football kickoff now too.

This is a great time of year.

For those of you who used your summer vacation days well, you are hitting September 6th fully recharged. Not only did you take the last three months to fill up on Vitamin D, travel, relaxation and inspiration, you got a three-day weekend to top it all off.

Now that your tanks are full and you are refocused it is time to treat this like the new beginning you almost missed. Set new goals. Drop a bad habit. Pick a new challenge. Plan your next chapter. Grab that next rung. Or build your own ladder.

At The Perfect Agency Project we are fully engaged. Your team should be too. We’re all primed, rested and ready.  Let’s push hard. Have fun. And make this the best year ever. And here you thought today was just another Tuesday.