My life-altering first lesson in professional problem solving.

When I was in college I spent my summers at home in Vermont working for a party rental company. I set up huge party tents with other college athletes, a few rugged high schoolers and a handful of experienced veterans who had real jobs, but would help set tents on the weekends for extra income (and presumably to show us what brands of jeans were cool a decade ago).

There was lot of beef on that crew. You had to be strong because the job entailed lugging tents that weighed more than you did and carrying all the tables, chairs and dance floors needed to get your party on.  You also had to be able to hammer 40-inch steel spikes into the granite of Vermont and New Hampshire.  This was not a job for the chess club.

Learning the ropes.

The first few tents I set up were in idyllic settings on lush, sprawling lawns. The tents were erected (snicker) in textbook fashion.  You laid the tent out flat. Pulled the ropes straight out from the tent. At each rope you drove a spike into the ground four feet from the tent. You tied the ropes to the spikes. Then you set up a side pole at each rope to support the perimeter of the tent. Finally, you set up the tall center poles in the (surprise…) center of the tent.  I was a pretty smart kid. I caught on quickly.

Then I went on what I thought would be a really easy assignment.  I was sent to set a small 20 foot by 20 foot square tent in a woman’s front yard with one of the veterans. I thought we would be done in twenty minutes.

Then came the problems.

When we got to the house I immediately began to worry.  There was no large field of green. There was what amounted to a small rug-sized lawn squeezed in front of a small house.  There was no 20′ X 20′ space to be found. There was no way to place the spikes back 4 feet from the tent so we could tie the tent down and anchor them properly. In one corner of the yard the porch of the house prevented us from driving any spike at all.

This was not good. A woman was expecting a tent for her party, but we weren’t going to be able to set it up in this space. The backyard had even less lawn. So that wasn’t an option either. I turned to Dave, the veteran, and said, ‘This is bad! We can’t set the tent. It doesn’t fit here.’ Dave was completely unfazed. He said, “Come on Greenhorn.  Let me show you how it’s done.’

The Eye-Opening Transformation

What happened next changed me in ways that will impact my clients for the rest of my career.  Dave found solutions for every single problem. Instead of setting the tent in the standard, follow-the-manual way, he set it in the way the situation allowed.  Dave mapped out a plan that I had completely missed.  He tied the tent ropes, that normally get tied to spikes in the ground, to anything that would hold them.  We tied ropes to the fence. We tied ropes to trees.  We tied ropes to the railing on the front porch of the house. The bushes and flower beds I thought prevented us from setting the tent in the front yard simply ended up under the tent, adding ambiance. And everything looked perfect.  The tent pulled straight and tight and clean, despite the fact that half of the anchor points had been improvised to accommodate for the environment.

It felt like my brain grew 500% that day. I quickly learned to love the challenges of compromised conditions. Over the next three years I became so adept at problem solving I believed there was no problem I couldn’t overcome.

 

Putting the lessons to work.

Today I use the mindset I developed setting tents in my advertising career. At my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, we deeply believe there is a solution to every problem. We don’t focus on what we would have done in the best case scenario.  We explore what can be done given the reality. What can be done with the hand we have been dealt.  That means no excuses. We always work to maximize the outcomes given the current situation. Because the key to life is a good plan B or C or D.

Don’t spend a moment thinking about how things should have been done if the situation were different. Focus on how to bake the best cake with the ingredients you have right now. It’s the only way.  Put all of your time, thought and energy into solving the problem in front of you. Recognize your assets. Make them work for you. Just like Dave showed me how to make that tent work in that small yard back when I was just a Greenhorn.

 

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How Mark Zuckerberg helped me put my life back together.

Some people live their entire lives in one nest. You know the type. You can see the hospital where they were born, their high school, their first job, their bowling alley and their nursing home all from the highest point in town. That’s not me. Life has been an exciting adventure of change from the jump. I lived in five states by the time I started 7th grade. I went to college 1000 miles from home. And I have traded license plates many times since graduation. #WitnessProtectionProgram.

I love my nomadic lifestyle. I have been exposed to traditions, foods, history, religion, weather and sports from a wide variety of angles. This has been a blessing for a creative professional. The one oddity, is that for a very long time, when I changed chapters, I would never see or hear from people in the previous chapter again.

But in 2007 that all changed. Because of Facebook. That thing that we so often take for granted as a silly time waster, quite literally changed my life. It allowed me to reconnect with childhood friends and neighbors from New Jersey, Wisconsin, Missouri, Vermont and New Hampshire.  Then I was able to find classmates from The University of Wisconsin. And coworkers from Cramer Krasselt, and Engauge. (Ohio, Georgia and Moxie/Publicis Groupe were added later).

I reconnected with clients and vendors. Neighbors and distant relatives. And people I’ve met at parties and on planes (I’ve met a lot of people on planes). Suddenly, I stopped losing track of people. As a people collector and connector I no longer have to box friends up and store them on a shelf every time I move or change jobs. Now I can play with them whenever I want.

Of course there is LinkedIn too. Which I love. The great Link-A-Roo has allowed me to reconnect and collect people in another, more quasi professional way. (The quasi is all me LinkedIn. You have been nothing but professional). I recently discovered that my friend Nissa Kubly (UW Track) and Cher Fesenmaier (cousin) both work at the same high school in Phoenix.  One of the craziest connections that I discovered through LinkedIn is that three of my friends, Neil Miklusak (college buddy from Wisconsin), Audrey Lowder (former co-worker at Engauge in Atlanta) and Erika O’Toole (we met on a flight to NYC) all work together, in the Empire State Building, at LinkedIn!

The simple fact is that if it were not for Facebook and other social platforms I would likely never see, or have any interactions with the majority of my friends and Linkys ever again. (I don’t know what you actually call a person on LinkedIn. Linkletters? Linkins? Linklings?

As I have started The Perfect Agency Project, my connections have become even more important. I am always looking for ideas, support and people to join the project.  Over the past few months, thanks to my online network, I have reconnected in person with dozens of people I hadn’t seen in 10 to 30 years. That’s cray.

So thank you to Mark Zuckerberg for allowing me to have my personal “This is your life’ moments every day. It is absolutely mind-blowing to think I may never lose a friend again. Except maybe Alex ‘Big Drawz’ Mautz, my college track teammate who moved to San Diego and must enjoy such perfect weather that he never needs to connect to the rest of us.

As a fun demonstration of the topic of this post, and to see who, if any of my people read this all the way to the end, I would love for you to share a word or a sentence about how we know each other. Thanks for playing.

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.

When Plan A, B, C & D Fail.

I love meeting new people. And I love helping people solve problems. And I got to do both of those things this morning before most people were alarmed by their clocks.

I arrived at Hartsfield Jackson International airport in Atlanta just before 6:30am for a flight to New York City. As I write this I’m flying to meet with a celebrity on the set of her TV show about some upcoming work we will be doing together. But as I stepped out of my car in the parking garage a panicked woman approached me saying, 

“I’m so sorry to bother you. But I just locked myself out of my car. My phone, purse, laptop and suitcase are all locked inside. I don’t know what to do.”

Talk about an exciting start to your day! She said she was flying to St. Louis on an 8:00am flight. So we started going through our options. And yes, I said OUR options. Becuase as a professional problem solver when someone brings me a problem it becomes my problem too. Except for maybe hair loss. With hair loss you’re on your own.

So like a couple of resourceful first world problem solvers we sprang into action. I pulled out my trusty smartphone and we called the airport to see if they had an unlocking service. They didn’t. Boo. But they did offer us the phone number of a locksmith partner that may be able to help. Yay! 

So we called the locksmith. And yes, they could send someone to help. Yay! But not until  9:00am. Boo.

So we looked at other options. 

Me: Do you have a AAA membership?

Kelly: No.

Me: Do you have emergency services through your car manufacturer?

Kelly: No.

Me: Hmmm. Do you have any sevens?

Kelly: No. Go Fish.

Me: What time is your meeting in St. Louis?

Kelly: 11:00am.

Me: So a later flight won’t work?

Kelly: No. And my company is counting on me to be there. We have built a technology product for this client and they are refusing to close the deal becuase they don’t understand it. I need to walk them through how the product works and solves their problem or the multimillion dollar deal will fall apart! (Dun-Dun-Dun!)

Me: Do you have your drivers liscence? 

Kelly: No.

Me: Why don’t we go see how we can get you through security without ID. (Heck, I got into bars in college all the time without an ID. How hard could it be?)

Kelly: (reluctantly) Let me check my car one more time just to make sure I’m not losing my mind.

At this point she walked back to her Ford Edge for another check. And I began searching on my phone for a Ford dealership that may be able to help.

A moment later she returned, slumped her shoulders and said, “You should go and catch your flight. And you can tell everyone on Facebook and Twitter that you met the dumbest woman in America. Becuase I have a Ford Edge. And the Edge has a keypad on the driver door.”

Me: Do you know the code?

Kelly: Yes.

Me: So you’re all set! 

 Kelly Yes!
At this point Kelly and I, strangers only moments ago, hugged, laughed and cheered on the top of the parking deck at the airport in the pre-dawn darkness. We celebrated our victory like we had just won the Showcase Showdown on The Price Is Right.
So I made a new friend this morning before 6:45am. Kelly made her flight. I got a test run on a valuable problem solving scenario. The Ford Edge got serious credit for a great problem solving, flight catching and potentially deal saving feature. And as Kelly said, I got to tell all of my friends on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn about her morning. Have a great day Kelly! I hope you close that deal. But don’t close your car door until you have your key in hand.

 

I Owe My Career To The Vanilla Ice Philosophy

I have a philosophy about philosophies.  It’s that everyone should have one. I believe we all need something to ground our actions, beliefs and decisions. It is our philosophies that create the bedrock of our character and our personal brands.

I also have a philosophy about the work I do as a professional creative. It encompasses why I believe advertising and marketing exist. And I stole it from Vanilla Ice. Yes, I am an evangelist of the Vanilla Ice Philosophy. What? You’ve never heard of it?  Right now consultants at Deloitte, Accenture and McKinsey are looking at each other asking, “Do you know what hell he’s talking about?” (And I know you guys read this. #analytics!)

Allow me to explain. The Vanilla Ice Philosophy was first introduced 25 years ago in Mr. Ice’s hit song, Ice Ice Baby. The philosophy emphatically states, “If there was a problem, Yo! I’ll solve it!”

It’s that simple. And it reminds me that there is only one reason agencies exist: To solve our clients’ problems. Fortunately for us, our clients always have problems (some more than others).  Sometimes they are really difficult challenges. Sometimes they are good problems to have.  But they are always there.  And solving them puts food on our tables.

I also love the attitude of this philosophy. You know, the “Yo! I’ll solve it!” part.  Because like an athlete who wants the ball, puck or frisbee when the team needs a big play, I always believe I can find a solution. So throw me the problem! Business is now my competitive sport. And I build teams full of people with the same competitive mindset.

Clients constantly warn us of big challenges or tight deadlines that make their problem difficult to solve. But our team never flinches. We’ve seen too much and overcome too many challenges. In short, we are hard to scare.

So what makes the perfect agency good at solving problems?  Again, we turn to Vanilla Ice. He doles out important instructions in the opening line of Ice Ice Baby. Because he knew in his infinite icy wisdom that the key to solving problems is to collaborate and to listen.

Collaborating means we work together. Our agency huddles together to put the best minds to work as one. We also collaborate extremely well with our clients. By representing all perspectives in the solutions we know we come up with better options than we ever could alone.

Listening means we hear the real problem to be solved. We listen for understanding. We listen for insights. We listen to hear the key problem we are trying to solve. In corporate America too much time is wasted by not hearing, identifying or responding to the real problem.

So thank you Robert Van Winkle. Over the past 25 years you’ve made great music. You’ve made us dance. And you have penned some solid philosophy that I follow every day. Word to your mother.