I’m a great admirer of entrepreneurs. I know that success can often be elusive. One entrepreneur I know said he started out with nothing, and still has most of it left. Another claims that his company has been listed for four years in the Misfortune 500. But I’ve been acquainted with some successful entrepreneurs as well. Perhaps the most successful is Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City. As you may well be aware, he grew up in a lower middle class household, worked his way through university, got a job with a Wall Street firm as a trading room clerk for $7,000 a year, and became a rising star at the firm. But when it merged with another, he found himself out of a job. With his separation package, he started a new company, Bloomberg, LLP, and the rest is history. In 2002, Michael Bloomberg was inaugurated mayor of New York City. He pays himself a salary of one dollar a year, and through his foundation gives millions—probably billions—of dollars to charity. Mike Bloomberg has got to be an inspiration to any aspiring entrepreneur. I can’t wait to see what he does when his third term as mayor ends in 2013.
Mike’s story—finding himself out of a job—always reminds me of the entrepreneur who was asked by a reporter about what inspired him to start a new business. “It was something my last boss said,” replied the entrepreneur. “Oh, really? What did he say?” asked the reporter. “Just two memorable words,” said the entrepreneur. “You’re fired!”
I’m not an entrepreneur, at least I don’t think of myself as one. My professional life was pretty much limited to creating advertising, creating advertising agencies and building brands. But because the organizers of tonight’s event saw a relationship between entrepreneurial thinking and creativity, they asked me to share a few perspectives from my advertising career on the power of creativity. I’ll do that, then try to link those observations to business innovation.
Mad Men Rethinking Creativity
We like to think of New York as a center of creativity in both culture and commerce. Among other things, New York is the setting for the three-time Emmy-winning television series Mad Men, about the advertising business along Madison Avenue in the ’60s. My office is still on Madison Avenue but we no longer spend our days and nights smoking, drinking and womanizing. Back in the day, there was a bit of that, I suppose. To be honest, I met my wife, then a young trainee in our agency, when she burst into my office one night seeking refuge from the inebriated attention of a senior account executive who was chasing her down the hall. To this date I’ve never admitted to the accusation at the time that I paid the guy $50 bucks to chase her into my office.
The Bernbach often referred to on the Mad Men show is Bill Bernbach, the late founder of DDB. He’s the “B” in DDB, the agency of which I am now chairman emeritus. Bernbach did work for Volkswagen starting in 1959. When Detroit was promoting big cars, Bernbach introduced the Volkswagen Beetle to the United States market, urging drivers to think small. And with ads using irony and honesty to say, for example, that while the Beetle pictured in the ad might look fine to the reader, a fussy, meticulous German inspector had found a minor flaw. Ergo, the headline “Lemon.”
In the end, Bernbach made this underpowered little German car with an underpowered American ad budget the iconic choice of smart buyers. It was the status symbol for those who needed no status symbol and soon became the best selling import in America. That’s just one example of the power of creativity from the days of the Mad Men.
From What Is to What If
There have been many books written on the subject of creativity and how to unleash its power. But if you’ll allow me to oversimplify the process, it often comes down to changing the words “What is” to the question “What if?”
People who create new products, new images—even new organization—first develop a keen understanding of the status quo: What is. Then, using their imagination (which Einstein reminded us is more important than knowledge) they dare to ask the question: What if?
In 1970 a U.S. track coach named Bill Bowerman felt that running shoes were too heavy and asked, “What if we poured melted rubber in a waffle iron?” The result: Nike shoes. In 1979 Sony founder Masaru Ibuka asked, “What if people could listen to their music while they were walking around?” And thus the Walkman was born—the precursor to the amazing portable music devices we enjoy today. In advertising, what we call creativity often results from finding new combinations of existing ideas or objects.
In 1986 we looked at where the advertising industry was going and asked, what if two creative organizations, Needham Harper Worldwide and Doyle Dane Bernbach, were combined to create DDB Worldwide, to make sure that Bill Bernbach’s idea of engaging consumers with warmth, wit and good humor could be experienced by clients around the world? Today, DDB Worldwide is unleashing the power of “Bernbachian” creativity for clients in 96 countries.
But the power of creativity can be used to do more than create sales and make money. It can be used to create awareness and stimulate action on issues of collective concern, from energy preservation to eco-initiatives to conflict resolution.
There are myriad examples of the power of creativity and business innovation lifting societies and addressing human need. I’ll close with just five:
- Play Pumps —A former South African advertising man named Trevor Field asked, “What if a children’s merry-go-round could serve as a pump to draw water from the ground so villagers in Africa wouldn’t have to walk miles to get it?” So far, 1,500 Play Pumps have been installed, providing fun for kids and water for their villages.
- Water Purification Packets — Someone at Procter & Gamble asked, “What if a powdered mixture could be poured into a pail of dirty water to make it clean and safe to drink?” To date, 200 million of these packets have been distributed in 57 countries to provide two billion liters of clean water.
- World Bicycle Relief — The head of a Chicago bicycle parts firm asked, “What if we gave bicycles to students in poor countries who are now walking more than three hours to school?” So far, World Bicycle Relief has given away more than 71,000 bikes; now the time children used to spend walking can be used for studying.
- Vision Spring — What if community members in emerging countries could be employed as an entrepreneurial sales force to provide affordable glasses and correct 40 percent of the vision problems in their countries? Dr. Jordan Kassalow, a practicing American optometrist, is providing better eyesight and employment at one and the same time. So far, his organization Vision Spring has provided 400,000 pairs of affordable reading glasses and sustainable employment for 9,000 entrepreneurs.
- Education for Employment — Ron Bruder, who describes himself as a serial entrepreneur, asked “What if we inquired of local employers in the Middle East what skill sets they need, and then trained unemployed youth in exactly those skills, be it air- conditioning repair, land surveying or whatever?” Of the more than 1,000 graduates of Education for Employment, 85 percent are now gainfully employed. Ron hopes to see 50,000 more graduate over the next five years.
The power of creativity
As we go about our businesses, unleashing our own powers of creativity to pursue growth and profits, I hope we will also look to the needs of the larger world around us, carefully observing what is. And then, using our imagination, our passion and our entrepreneurial skills, dare to ask:
It is up to each of us to fill in the blank.
Address to “The New Beginning” Entrepreneurs Dinner
Time Warner Center, New York
October 5, 2010
Founder & President, Business for Diplomatic Action
Chairman Emeritus, DDB Worldwide
*Editors Note: Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA), the not-for-profit group formed in 2002 to enlist the U.S. business community in actions to lift America’s standing in the world, brought its operations to a close effective December 31, 2010. In announcing the decision, BDA founder and president Keith Reinhard noted that world opinion of the United States has improved dramatically, with the number of countries seeing America as a positive influence now once again outnumbering those that see us as negative.