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UK Insights

5 areas where improv can help marketers

Kirsty Cooke

Head of Digital Content, UK

Brands 02.03.2018 / 16:00


How can improvised comedy help marketing departments be more creative, innovative, successful and fun, and work better together?

Who knew comedy and marketing had so much in common? With the announcement in January that Kantar Millward Brown had launched a joint venture called Brandstage with The Second City, an improvisation-based comedy theatre and school, it prompted the question: what can improv – the spontaneous creation of theatrical performance – do to help marketing departments? Steve Kakos, Vice President at Second City Works (the corporate arm of Second City) and Kelly Leonard, Executive Director of Insights and Applied Improvisation, helped explain where the worlds collide.

1. Understanding humans and human nature

Improv is an art form where theatre is made up on the spot without a script. However, in learning this art form, improvisers often go ‘back to basics’. Playing games from childhood, reacting honestly in the moment, and following ideas without judging them (avoiding self-correction) are all things you can expect to find in an improv class. As you learn to play characters, you learn about perspectives, and become more able to see the world from a different point of view.

Leonard claims there is the deep (and growing) link between improvisation and the world of behavioural science. In his work with the Center for Decision Research – where he looks at behavioural science through the lens of improvisation – he has uncovered numerous examples where findings from improv match with existing science; it’s also being used to make discoveries in this field. Marketing, like improv, is rooted in human behaviour.

It’s been shown that the part of your brain that comprehends a joke is the same part that has an insight. Getting the Joke: Insight during Humor Comprehension – evidence from an fMRI Study by Hou et al notes that ‘as a high-level cognitive activity, humor comprehension requires incongruity detection and incongruity resolution, which then elicits an insight moment.’ And also that ‘...jokes appear to involve executive functions, such as thought organizing, insight development, information disambiguating, schema shifting and bridging inferences to re-establish a new context.’ For market research and for comedy, it’s all about incongruence and pattern-making and recognition.

If you’re a marketer who wants to better understand humans, take an improv class (or watch a show). It’ll reveal so much more about people (and yourself) than you can read in a book.

2. Collaborating – and supporting each other

Improv is a team sport; a successful performance relies on an elusive kind of collaboration where there are no egos, everyone supports each other, and active listening is the name of the game. ‘Yes, and…’ is the mantra of improvisation. In improv, perfomers agree and add – they don’t block ideas and they don’t steal focus from others. ‘If everyone looks stupid, nobody looks stupid’, is another common mantra.

‘Marketers speak a lot about being disruptive, capturing attention, making a splash – it’s all very outcome-driven,’ says Kakos. ‘But a lot the magic is actually backstage. Improv works to help create creative ensembles, not just individuals with strong voices. It’s about creation through collaboration, which we know is more effective and repeatable.’

It’s hard to create this sort of environment between agencies and brand clients, and leaders and junior members in a marketing team. But a collaborative process, especially at the research phase, can produce better results later, while making the process more enjoyable for those involved.

‘There’s a fundamental misconception of what creativity is: it’s not one person’s great idea,’ says Leonard. ‘Creative expression and being innovative involves listening and collaborating and working together. In improv, we co-create both with the ensemble and with the audience – improv is basically rapid prototyping.’

As Tim Kibbey and Patty Bloomfield of Kantar Millward Brown’s Firefly practice note, ‘In Brandstage, everyone works side by side to discover new territories, ideas and insights, blurring the lines between the different functions within client teams and between clients and their consumers.’

Kakos explains that Brandstage ‘strips away a lot of the status and hierarchy that can hinder good ideas. It gets rid of the dreaded “grand reveal” that many marketers find too risky, and lets you try tons of half-baked ideas to see what’s working and what’s not real-time, thereby creating more of a meritocracy – it’s not about what the most important person wants.’

Leonard adds: ‘Everyone has to drop the ego and be in the room together. There is loads of data that shows uncooperative yellers literally hurt production and productivity and make companies less successful.’ Improv, with its focus on agreement and building, forces you to behave well – it’s like ‘manners on steroids,’ according to Leonard.

If you’re a marketer who wants to be more creative, seek out collaboration. Use the principles of improv to make your team feel like rockstars and you’ll find you get better results.

Collaboration -wide

3. Embracing risk

This rapid prototyping and ‘fast failure’ philosophy tap into another key element of improvisation: embracing risk. In improv, whether in a classroom or on stage, performers are encouraged not to think too much about whether or not what they say is ‘right’ – because anything can be turned into a decent scene with good teamwork. In fact, some of the funniest, or most insightful, scenes can come from what might have been considered a ‘mistake.’ Not only does it produce great theatre, it makes individuals braver. ‘From my own experience of improv, the failure without consequence, over and over again, makes you pretty courageous,’ says Kakos.

The lesson for marketers isn’t just around individual contributions – as Kakos notes, the best ideas come out of bad ideas – but about brands being brave enough to try new things. ‘Being a brave brand is being Amazon and going through a decade where you don’t make any money, but you are obsessive about getting it right. Of course, it’s not brave to be another Amazon and simply copy them. Like an improviser to an audience, you need to be vulnerable in front of the very people you depend upon – for brands, that’s their customers.’ 

There are plenty of examples of brands who embraced difficult truths and ultimately made their brands stronger. Kantar has numerous insights to suggest that bravery is hugely important for brands who want to stand out.

According to Kibbey & Bloomfield, audiences in Brandstage also reveal more insights due to the nature of risk-taking in improv: ‘They share more boldly and honestly; humor gives them permission to be vulnerable.’ And Kelly comments that the sessions not only generate tons of ideas, but those involved ‘feel great after because you were affirmed during the process.’

If you’re a marketer who wants to be braver, create a team culture where you take more risks. Get comfortable with ‘failure’ and you’ll build a more authentic brand.

4. Having fun

And this wonderful affirmation brings us on to point four – having fun. Like watching it ought to be, doing improv is pure, unadulterated fun.  

Kakos notes an interesting phenomenon in marketing: ‘People got into this business for a reason. It’s the creative outlet for people who want to work in business! But a lot of marketers are under stress, worrying about costs, and forgetting how to be playful.’

Alongside a willingness to take risks, the playful element of improv can help us tap into ideas and solutions we may have missed or felt we shouldn’t share. Adult playtime is important for making connections and staying sharp (as reported by NPR); social skills, creativity and even health can be impacted by ‘recreational deprivation’, according to Psychology Today. As noted in point one, a childlike imagination can help build empathy and aid problem-solving.

At a more basic level, a playful instinct is invaluable in marketing, where many successful campaigns use humour to engage audiences and land (sometimes actually very serious) points.  

In the Brandstage environment, a sense of play is crucial to get everyone on the same page. ‘You may have someone from compliance (who is more risk-averse), the audience members, an insights person, a brand person, someone from PR – all people with different interests, but interests that are possible to align. But how often do you get them in the same room? You need the sense of play in order to put up ideas and fail fast,’ says Kakos.

If you’re a marketer who doesn’t enjoy coming to work... why not? Improv teaches us to ‘follow the fun’, and this is useful advice in life, work and advertising campaigns.

Ideas -wide

5. Generating new ideas

All of the above contributes to creative output – to new ideas that would never have emerged otherwise. In improv this is about scenes; in marketing it could be campaigns or products – and this is what Brandstage enables marketers to produce.

This approach takes what is essentially a focus group of consumers, gets them talking about issues important to the brand in question, and then lets them watch (and comment on) a group of improvisers performing scenarios that reflect the topics discussed. As Kibbey and Bloomfield note: ‘The performers become, in effect, human stimuli.’ Firefly moderators then talk with the audience about their reactions to the scenes, resulting in a deeper understanding of their needs, and what potential actions could be taken on the insights at hand. ‘Hilarity often ensues, and the unexpected always occurs, which has resulted in breakthrough ideas on how to act upon insight,’ say Kibbey and Bloomfield.

‘Innovation happens at the edges; this is where comedy comes from – the harder thing rather than the easy thing,’ notes Leonard. ‘During the Brandstage experience, there is almost always surprise at the insights gleaned. The angles taken; the path that comes out of the white space we create – people don’t expect it.’

For Kakos and Leonard, The Second City is itself a great example of the ‘sustainable innovation’ they want to help brands achieve. It’s not about having one great idea, once – it’s about having process that helps generate these great ideas. ‘We hang our hat on our alums time and time again – the likes of Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carrell and Mike Myers – but we’ve actually turned out new generations of talent six times over, people who now make up the cast of SNL and other high profile media. We want to help our clients do likewise, to birth new brands and new ideas, repeatedly.’

If you’re a marketer who wants to innovate, check out Brandstage.

Brandstage – a process that is disarming, collaborative, generative, and risk-free fun for all involved – is a great example of why you’ll be hearing a lot more about improv in marketing. Vulnerability, collaboration, imagination, and boldness are key to performing improv; learning the skill has known benefits to any human being who interacts with other humans and wants to build confidence, think differently, communicate better and be a supportive friend/colleague. All great skills for the marketing community, surely?

Source : Kantar Millward Brown

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