November 16, 2020
Case Study

Creative Leadership Ideas: A behind-the-scenes look at how 9 companies run their marketing departments and agencies


On MarketingSherpa, we usually bring you a roundup of effective marketing ideas from your peers to inspire your own concepts and campaigns.

But in this article, we go a step further. We look at the ideas behind the ideas – the culture and practices that foster effective marketing.

Read on for ideas from a pizza restaurant, software companies, a consultant, children’s clothing store, and content websites.

by Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute

Creative Leadership Ideas: A behind-the-scenes look at how 9 companies run their marketing departments and agencies

This article was originally published in the MarketingSherpa email newsletter.

Marketing is unlike other business disciplines. While departments like accounting, human resources or manufacturing are built on a bedrock foundation of rules and processes, marketing departments rest atop the ever-shifting sands of consumer desire, macroeconomic fluctuations, and new innovations in the market.

Marketing’s true currency is ideas. So the core skill in marketing is creativity.

Which means, marketing departments (and the consultancies and agencies that serve them) must be managed in a different way than the rest of the business. Managed to enable a team of artist-scientists-technologists to come up with the next great idea that better serves the customer, communicates value, and ultimately, helps the business meet its goals.

To spur your thinking about your team’s culture and management practices, here are ideas creative teams from across the globe.

Idea #1: Conducting hypothesis-driven marketing tests to gain valuable customer insights

Every decision made in a marketing department or ad agency has a certain assumption baked into it – this is the most effective way to reach, convince, or serve the customer.

In many departments and agencies, those decisions are made based on someone’s gut opinion.

A more effective way is to actually test those assumptions and measure real-world customer behavior. However, the approach can necessitate an important shift in many departments and agencies – from “we are the experts so we know what works best” to “we are the experts at discovering what works best.”

For example, a home hemodialysis machine maker engaged MECLABS Institute to help improve its conversion rate (MECLABS is the parent organization of MarketingSherpa).

Here is a look at the original paid search landing page (which has been anonymized).

Creative Sample #1: Original (control) landing page for home hemodialysis device

Creative Sample #1: Original (control) landing page for home hemodialysis device

The team hypothesized that a bigger focus on the machine itself would increase conversion and created a landing page treatment to test against the original (control).

Creative Sample #2: Treatment landing page for hemodialysis machine

Creative Sample #2: Treatment landing page for hemodialysis machine

The treatment resulted in a 41% relative decrease in conversion. Most marketing departments would have just run with the new approach assuming it was better. By testing, the team was able to try a new approach but limited the down-side risk and learned, in fact, that they would have hurt results by launching the new page.

They were also able to learn about the customer. By questioning the results and diving into the data, they determined the imagery and copy about the hemodialysis machine was not clear enough and tested another treatment.

This time the image presented the machine in a real-life situation so visitors could quickly gauge the device’s size and how it is used, and supporting copy focused on specific product features.

Creative Sample #3: Second treatment landing page for hemodialysis machine

Creative Sample #3: Second treatment landing page for hemodialysis machine

The team tested the second treatment against the original. The second treatment produced a 74% relative increase in conversion.

You can learn more about this experiment – along with ideas for establishing a culture of testing in your organization – in A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Creating an A/B Test from MarketingExperiments (MarketingExperiments is MarketingSherpa’s sister publication).

Idea #2: Planning like a movie star

Annual strategic planning can be an inspirational way to bring the team together around a shared goal. Or it can be the drudgery of daily meetings that go nowhere, all the while the “real” work just keeps piling up. Depends how you execute it.

Ultimate Guitar takes an especially creative approach called Seasons. “The naming of ‘Seasons’ means that strategy planning is a big plot, but it changes sometimes — like with a TV show. The result of such work helps to re-think and renew the vision on our values and form the OKR (objectives and key results) plans for next quarter and further,” said Mikhail Kirilin, PR manager, MuseScore (which is owned by Ultimate Guitar).

The software company’s process is optional for every employee. They can decide if they would rather stay on their regular tasks or join one of the Seasons teams for a strategy session.

But these teams aren’t just stuck in boardrooms with spreadsheets, whiteboards, and markers. They take a creative approach – creating a movie about their plans. So, for example, one team created a short movie about a new feature that enabled Ultimate Guitar's mobile users to upload their guitar tablatures through their mobile devices.

This approach reminds me of a fun group project in school making a video with your friends about the Louisiana Purchase or the impact of industrialization instead of writing a long, boring history report.

To help their teams learn the skill of movie making, a local professional video production team is hired to create a three-day master class. Every day is divided into a lecture part and practice – for example, an expert teaches how to work the camera in the morning and in the afternoon the team does the video shoot.

The first day is focused on the script, the second day is shooting and sound recording, the third day is dedicated to the final cut with all the teams editing their movies with a mentor from the video production team and, finally, making a finished movie.

On the fourth day they have a movie awards ceremony, complete with black tie dress and a red carpet.

Creative Sample #4: Awards ceremony for movie-based strategic planning sessions

Creative Sample #4: Awards ceremony for movie-based strategic planning sessions

“Every new planned feature is reviewed through the movie shooting. We can look at it from a totally different angle,” Kirilin said. “After Seasons are finished, we complete and approve the plans with OKRs and KPIs (key performance indicators) for every product and it's team for the next quarter.”

Kirilin noted that Seasons was turned into a remote conference format this spring due to the pandemic.

Idea #3: Make the walls talk

It is crucial for the customer experience to communicate the brand and value proposition. But what about the employee experience?

Mellow Mushroom is a chain of pizza restaurants known for its creative, art-filled dining experience. The company takes the same visual approach in its business development department and has commissioned muralists to paint the interiors of its offices. Employees also have the opportunity to design their own office spaces using pieces of art from the Mellow Mushroom collection.

“Providing the opportunity for employees at every level to have their own office space is a rarity today. Mellow Shroom Crew HQ members have their own setting to create a comfortable and inspiring work environment for themselves,” said Elizabeth Brasch, Director of Creative Services, Home Grown Industries of Ga., Inc. dba Mellow Mushroom.

The Mellow Mushroom business development team is currently going into the office during the pandemic, but on alternating days, and working from home the rest of the week. Some employees are trying to bring the office experience home with them. For example, Brasch personally hired Ben Janik, one of the artists from the chain’s Art of Mellow campaign, to paint a mural in her condo.

Creative Sample #5: Mellow Mushroom employee with office-inspired mural in her condo

Creative Sample #5: Mellow Mushroom employee with office-inspired mural in her condo

Idea #4: Breaking down any barriers with other departments

“One of the things that our marketing team does different than other companies is that we refuse to segment ourselves from other parts of our company,” said Ottomatias Peura, Chief Marketing Officer, Speechly.

“For example, involving ourselves in the step-by-step of product development has made us more aware of how our product can apply better to our customers’ needs. It also has given us the ability to better communicate our customers’ insights and needs back to our development team so that we can create a better product.”

Getting involved in product development at the software company has also helped the team tell better stories through its marketing by better understanding the product as well as have a product that more naturally fits a customer need. “The more you shape the conversation and the product around [customer] needs, the easier your marketing becomes,” Peura said.

Idea #5: Living like the customer

One of the things that makes marketing so challenging is the marketer’s blind spot. Simply put, we see the world through our own eyes…and with our own biases. Unless we make a special effort to empathize with the customer, our marketing messages and products will not resonate with the customer.

Here’s a nice behind-the-scenes look at how to build customer empathy into a project. The team at product design consultant Pensa is constantly trying to find ways to experience the customer’s perspective. For example, they lived the life of a diabetic for a week when working for a glucose meter client – needling their bodies and testing blood multiple times a day.

“Getting into the real, day-to-day lives and experiences of the people for whom we are designing is key to the success of the new product experience. One of the tools we always try to use is our own immersion by transforming ourselves into our audience, and experiencing their needs firsthand,” said Mark Prommel, Design Director & Partner, Pensa.

When working on a new razor design, four designers shaved exclusively at the office for eight months. “We had to get on a schedule as a team so that we were only shaving at the office and recording every stroke. Our faces were our testing ground and we bled for this product!” Prommel said.

When working with a luggage brand, the team flight-hopped cheap airlines seeking inspired ways to improve the worst travel experience. While struggling with ideas for new deck-staining tools, they built an entire deck in their office—complete with boards, balusters, stockade fence, and a chaise longue.

Creative Sample #6: Design consultant trying to mimic the customer experience’s using wood tools

Creative Sample #6: Design consultant trying to mimic the customer experience’s using wood tools

“Mapping out every moment of the customer journey allows [our team] to really test ideas, iterate and create truly thoughtful product experiences,” said Marco Perry, Founder, Pensa.

Idea #6: Establishing periods of focused time

“From my time at an agency I learned that focus is the true way to success. True focus can be hard to reach if you get disturbed every 10 minutes by a mobile notification, a question, a person walking through the room, etc.” said Patrick Hoffmann, Head of Press, Kids-world.

So he instituted periods of focus for his team. Five times a day, for periods of 30 minutes each, everyone focuses on their own tasks at the children’s clothing store and does not communicate with each other, check social media, etc. Outside of those focus times, the team brainstorms ideas, gets answers to questions from coworkers, and prepares their next focus task.

In a play off the Pomodoro Technique, Hoffmann calls this process Mango (Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, so Hoffmann chose the name of another fruit). The team is either “in Mango” and not to be disturbed or “not in Mango” and ready to collaborate.

“We now reach our process goals by Thursday instead of Friday which frees up more time for other tasks,” Hoffmann said.

Idea #7: Brainstorming with a remote workforce using Microsoft Excel

If we were playing a word association game, and you gave me the word “creativity,” I would never spout out “Microsoft Excel.” But the ubiquitous spreadsheet software is a key tool for Jacob Pinkham’s remote team of nine.

“From my years of experience I really wanted something special for my marketing department. A creative space, open space where everything is considered. Working remotely I had to generate the same vibe through the screens,” said Jacob Pinkham, Founder and CEO, In Smooth Waters.

It starts with a shared Excel sheet where everyone can add their idea and their name. Pinkham checks the file daily, working closely with the team’s content manager, to put the good ideas into their own Excel tab. Then they have an open meeting for anyone in the company to participate and discuss the ideas, elaborate, remove, or build on the ideas

“Allowing everyone the opportunity to be creative raises team spirits, especially while we are on lockdown and working remotely. My employee retention is at an all-time high. They are excited to come to work when it’s campaign time!” Pinkham said.

This process leads to the lateral thinking that is so key to in-person brainstorming. In other words, sometimes “bad” ideas lead to good ideas.

As an example, someone added an idea in the Excel to have Arnold Schwarzenegger test life jackets on the website.

“I brought it up in the weekly meeting. We had a good laugh about this…it was then that ideas started to bounce.”

They might not be able to get Schwarzenegger on board, but why not get a famous actor? And then an idea came up to film the reviews with non-famous actors. As they were considering costs and budgeting, someone piped up with the idea of sharing other people’s videos testing the equipment – influencers who already have a following.

“From there we got onboard and researched influencers on Instagram and YouTube who tie in with our brand image. It's a win-win situation. The influencer is happy to be listed on a website in a ‘best’ category, and we have the content that we were looking for with zero expenditure,” Pinkham said.

“This isn't such a huge crazy idea, but it is one that brought a lot of traffic to our website and widened our audience,” he said.

Idea #8: Getting out of the office to come up with creative ideas

“I have seen my fair share of marketing departments. From compact and stressed to wide-open and, well, fun. I want my team to follow the latter course. I want them to swivel in their chairs for hours on end, thinking, thinking of that great idea. I encourage them to go out, take a walk, do some sport,” said Trond Nyland, Founder and CEO, Cordless Drill Guide.

Nyland was brainstorming with his team for a May the 4th promotion (a pseudo-holiday celebrating Star Wars). His team of four was brainstorming at the office and he sent them home to come up with ideas.  The team reached out to spouses and close friends for ideas.  

While the team came up with several creative ideas they couldn’t execute on, those creative ideas ultimately led to the following email copy:

In a galaxy far away there are dark forces and Jedis.
In this galaxy here there are cordless drills.
Neither galaxy needs wires or plugs.
May the Fourth be with you.

“We had an amazing result. We received feedback stating how it was nice to realize that our company is human, with a sense of humor. It didn't [make] sales shoot through the roof, but those customers are gonna stay with me, that's for sure,” Nyland said.

“If someone wants to go away for a few hours during the office working day, I allow them. I understand that ideas, improvements, solutions can arise at a time when least expected,” he said. “I don't want my team to feel that they have to produce their workload during working hours. I also don’t want them to be working after working hours, on top of their eight hours. With remote work it is easier as we have flexible working agendas. Just be present for meetings and log on whenever you have productivity.”

Idea #9: Bring the team together for a little creative fun

Marketing, at its core, is a creative endeavor. And sometimes you just need to bring the team together for a little creative fun to get those minds working.

One example is a drum circle. “We do a daily drum circle every morning around 11 a.m. to relax, open our minds and get the creative juices flowing. No one talks or asks questions; we just jam out for about 10 minutes. I know this won't work for every company, and definitely turns on the type of individuals that work for you, but it's been super effective for us,” said John Ross, President & CEO, Test Prep Insight.

Ross says that the company’s Facebook ad campaigns have seen a 1.8% increase in click-through rate (CTR) since the ritual started about a year ago.  

It is, of course, impossible to isolate the effect the drum circle had on those results, but Ross does make this point, “When you remove the hustle and bustle of everyday work, your brain is freed up to think about anything and everything else. This uninhibited trail of thought often leads to some really cool ideas, which we discuss after our little drum session. There have been countless ad ideas and approaches to things that have come out of this daily ritual.”

This got me thinking. Would a tactic like this work through videoconference for a remote team?

Ross told me, “We actually tried the drum circle over Zoom the first week of working from home, but it quickly lost steam. So we actually put it on hiatus for a couple months there, but the first week we were back in office in June, we re-instituted our daily ritual. I didn't notice any empirical effect on our data from not holding those sessions for a couple months, but it was also a small sample size, and COVID itself kind of threw things off March to June.”

Related Resources

Corporate Creativity: Managing your marketing team (and career) to balance innovation and execution

My Five Greatest Mistakes as A Leader: 30 years of painful data (that might help you)

Marketing Leadership: Aligning the entire team around the unifying vision is an integral part of project management

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