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Paul Charney of Funworks: how collaboration, comedy and science saved my clients

Paul Charney is CEO and co-founder of Funworks, a creative agency built around collaboration based in San Francisco. He previously served as creative director at Goodby Silverstein and Partners and is co-founder of Killing My Lobster, an improv troupe in San Francisco.

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“That was great, Paul. But we’re curious, are there any other ideas that didn’t make it to the meeting? Like a different idea, perhaps? One that addresses our need for retail activation?” That’s what the client said once I finished my presentation. My head started to spin. Retail activation? That’s what they wanted? I thought we were re-launching their entire brand! I’d just read four scripts featuring Harry Dean Stanton espousing the virtues of taking a daily shower with this particular brand of soap. What just happened?

That agonizing feeling in my stomach became a pounding headache lodged in my eye. After sharing 90 minutes worth of completely blown-out advertising campaigns, including banners, TV spots, viral videos, in- store experiential ideas, Facebook extensions, the whole shebang, the end result was the dread sentence: ‘So what else do you have?”

In retrospect, I know exactly what went wrong. We spent four weeks in our little creative castle in the ad agency sky working long hours, pushing each other to create award winning work, silo-ing ourselves in our offices, we were going to make our client ‘famous’ while padding our portfolio with work that would impress David Droga.

The problem was, during those four grueling weeks, we never really checked in with the client. Not deeply, anyway. Sure, we did what creatives are supposed to do – we chatted with the client by phone, assured them that the work was going to be great and prepped for the big reveal. But we never had a moment where we collaborated early on, came to alignment on an idea and then checked their expectations against ours.

As I stood there before the soap client, aching head in my hands, I realized I could no longer work like this. There had to be a way to work with the client and not just for the client. I thought, what if we invited the client into the early part of the creative process? What if we learned what’s in their head and where the dead ends are before wasting hundreds of hours and millions of dollars?

So I left my firm and created Funworks, an innovative ad firm that brings the client into the creative process right from the start. I learned the value of collaboration from my many years working in the world of sketch and improv comedy. Improv technique is founded upon the notions of building and sharing ideas. Whether crafting dialogue in the writer’s room or performing live on stage, sketch comedy artists always collaborate, using the ‘Yes, and…’ technique to generate new, original and memorable ideas that stick. Why does it work? Because the ideas are built on a shared truth that makes everyone in the room laugh or connect in some way.

The scientific community has studied this phenomenon, exploding with new research explaining how humans generate creative ideas. We have a better understanding than ever of the environments, relationships, and brain states most likely to elicit novel insights. Brain imaging studies from Johns Hopkins University reveal that a relaxed brain in a ‘mind-wandering’ state is ripe for developing imaginative concepts. This explains why some of our best ideas come when we’re in the shower or on a run. Psychologists from the University of Chicago have demonstrated the critical importance of the ‘flow state,’ the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment of the process. Others look at ideal environments for collaboration and creativity development. It is in this precise sweet spot, scientists tell us, that humans are most likely to generate innovative and original ideas.

Using techniques supported by this research, Funworks tries to create the ideal environment and mind state for clients to collaborate effectively and generate new ideas. We put them into a room with professional sketch comedy and improv artists to help them relax, laugh, and test fresh concepts. The result is a new model for generating ideas and getting them approved quickly by clients. In fact, we’ve studied it. The Funworks ‘Creative Algorithm’ delivers work three times faster with 100 per cent client alignment. We discover insights, truths and solutions so much faster than the traditional advertising model. Why? Because the client is in the room from the start. They know their business really well and they like to be creative.

An example of this is the work we did with Pandora. They came to us with the challenge of launching a campaign highlighting their first new product feature in years. The problem was they only had six weeks to launch it. By working with Funworks and our team of sketch and improv comedians, we quickly landed on an exciting insight around which Pandora built into an entire campaign. The insight was simple. What do you do when you hear your favorite song come on? Within the room there were shouts of ‘Turn the sh*t up!’ ‘That’s my jam!’ ‘That’s my sh%t!’. The shouts came from the client, Funworks and the sketch/improv artists. There was a genuine feeling of a shared moment of insight. It became obvious that this was the idea to build off of. Alignment between agency and client led to getting the work into market faster, which led to results that far exceeded expectations.

Another client that benefitted from working with Funworks was Hewlett Packard. They had to move quickly in order to promote an upgrade to Windows 10. The biggest challenge was this project involved three distinct partners – HP, Microsoft and Intel. Three big big companies with a lot of skin in the game. However, our HP client was smart. He invited representatives from Microsoft and Intel to be part of the process. The insight we ultimately built the campaign around was actually introduced by an engineer from Microsoft. He threw out the fact that 600 million people had PCs four years or older because they were scared of upgrading based on their Windows 8 experience. This led us to the truth that people were genuinely nervous, which led to our creative platform – a support group letting people know it’s now safe to upgrade their software. The creative platform was approved by all three global players in record time – an unimaginable feat in today’s agency environment.

What we’ve learned is that this collaborative process works, and gets the client to internal alignment on a single creative direction quickly, saving everyone time, frustration and money. We don’t have to compromise our ideas because the client engages with us from the start, as we help shape concepts that feel right to them early on. There are no surprises. If I had gone through the traditional process of fleeing to my creative castle for four weeks, there is no way in I could have sold Pandora on a campaign called ‘That’s My Sh*t!’.

Through early collaboration, targeted scientific research and a few comedians in the room, the client understands how we arrive at our campaign ideas and they tend to be thrilled with the results right off the bat. The best part is, I haven’t heard the question “Is there anything else?” in years.

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