Creative approaches to problem solving, featuring John Osborn

Creative problem solving. What is it? How does it work, and why? In this Appalachian State University SoundAffect podcast, we talk with BBDO president and CEO John Osborn about the advantages of applying creativity to situations in the workplace and in life.


  • Megan Hayes: On April 14, Appalachian State University had the pleasure of hosting John Osborn on our campus. He spent time with our students in small groups, and addressed our entire campus with a talk about the importance of service to others, and the role of business in this endeavor.

    MH: John Osborn was named president and chief executive officer of BBDO in New York in 2004. BBDO is the world’s most awarded advertising agency. The agency got its start in 1891 and now with 15,000 employees and 289 offices across 8 countries, it is the second largest global advertising agency network with it’s headquarters in New York. During Osborn’s tenure, the agency has been named agency of the year 15 times by various media outlets, and has delivered some of the most innovative cross-channel ideas in TV work in the industry. Commercials from BBDO New York for Snickers and M&M’s were voted the most popular in the Super Bowl in two of the past five games. In 2014, a commercial for GE was nominated for a Primetime Commercial Emmy. John Osborn served as chairman of the board for the Center of Excellence in Advertising at Howard University, and as chairman of the board for the American Advertising Federation. He earned his BA at Dartmouth, and continues to serve as a member of its alumni association.

    MH: While on campus, John Osborn came by the Greg Cuddy podcast studio to talk with us about creativity and creative problem solving in the workplace.

    MH: Mr. John Osborne, welcome to Sound Effect. Thank you for joining us today.

    John Osborn: It’s great to be here.

    MH: In our research on you, we found an address that you made at the Creative Problem Solving Institute Conference, I think it was in 2013 and we were really intrigued by this because at Appalachian, we work really hard to nurture and develop creative problem solving skills in our students. We find that when they learn these creative approaches to problem solving then they take that beyond the classroom and they really find ways to learn in every experience that they have in life. This is something that we are interested in talking with you a bit more about because, well for one thing we feel like it’s something we feel like we do pretty well at Appalachian so when they leave here, they are able to explore the ability to utilize different approaches to solving problems in the work place and in life. So one of the things we want to talk to you about is your philosophy and your approach to creativity in the workplace and also in life.

    JO: Well that’s a great question and that’s a big question and we could probably spend a couple of hours talking about this very topic, obviously creativity, for us, is our entire business. It is our business in every way, shape and form, it is how we are judged, it is how we attract new business, it is how we maintain the business that we have. When we take a look at creativity, it all starts with understanding what the problem is. Sometimes we get given a problem but it’s not necessarily the actual problem, so when we are first presented with a challenge or a problem, the first thing we do is we step back and we unpack it. We look at really what are influences behind that problem and we truly try and understand it, obviously research and data and analytics play a much bigger role today in that process than it ever has. Additionally we look at things that go beyond what I will call the traditional ways of understanding the problem, so we still do focus groups but more often than not we will go into people’s homes, we will watch how they truly behave. As Yogi Berra once said, ‘You can see an awful lot by just observing.’ So through that process, we are able to get a much better handle on what the actual issue really is. That sets up what we will call our briefing process where we try and distill it down into something manageable and we build our strategies on that, and obviously our strategies are the rocket fuel that enables us to do the executional work that we do, but it all starts with the problem solving.

    MH: So you obviously work in a creative organization with creative people. Can you talk about why this important for you personally and what you personally get out of that experience?

    JO: Well I love the whole creative process. I think that while I am not a creative, I consider myself somewhat of a creative person. I would describe myself as someone who is creatively curious. We, in the agency, organize ourselves in a very open way, physically open. One of the biggest changes that we undertook within BBDO was we literally tore the walls down. The days of advertising movies or shows that you may have grown up on where there’s a creative team sitting in a vacuum, in an office, throwing pencils at the ceiling, that’s not really how problems are solved any longer. It takes a group of diverse people with different backgrounds sitting around a table, coming up with what these ideas are. Media needs to be inextricably linked with the creative idea itself, part of that is driven by technology and the explosion of different apps and different types of technology that are available to us today. It’s a group effort; it takes a village in every essence of the definition of that.

    MH: Kind of pulling up a little bit, how do you define creative problem solving? What is it in terms of what that looks like? You talked about that a little bit, but if you were going to say, ‘Okay, this is what creative problem solving means.’

    JO: Well, for us, creative problem solving, more often than not, I will come back to a word we use a lot and it’s called reductionism, it’s a really complex world that we live in. There are no easy answers. It is fairly complicated. So one of the things we try and do is we try and simplify. We simplify our ideas and our briefs down to as few words as possible and we are pretty ruthless in terms of how we do that. Overseas for Guinness beer for a long time, the essence of the strategy behind Guinness, for example, was good things come to those who wait, sort of counter intuitive if you think about it because one of the knocks on Guinness is it takes a while to pour a perfect pint so what we did was we flipped that around into actually a positive thing. Sometimes the best things in life take a little bit longer to wait for. Our Snickers campaign really pivots off of a very simple strategy but the rearticulation of that strategy is quite clever, and its, “frankly you’re not you when you’re hungry.” It was right there in front of us the whole time and it took a whole bunch of people and a lot of analytics and everything else to come up with but really the idea was born out of a group of people sitting around talking about it and understanding what the essence of hunger and satisfaction really is all about. So, sometimes it’s not coming up with a definition of a new problem or even an idea, it’s just the rearticulation of the idea that makes it more relevant to the audiences and the times in which we live.

    MH: Do you find that that applies to noncreative situations that might not necessarily lend themselves to a creative team, maybe a board meeting or finance meeting or something that might not be, you know, maybe as fun as trying to figure out an advertising campaign or slogan?

    JO: Well, despite the fact that I just described how important data and analytics are, sometimes it comes down to common sense. One of the simple things we try and do is we try and put ourselves in the shoes of the people we are trying to appeal to. If we are trying to market to millennials, it is helpful to have millennials developing the ideas. If we are marketing to a female skewed consumer groups, it’s great to have the right kinds of people literally working on those campaigns. We try and put ourselves into the shoes of those that we appeal to so that we can better understand the challenges and seek out the opportunities that they may be facing into. Our FedEx work is an example that comes to mind. FedEx has always been a company that stands for absolutely positively, but they’re an enabler, what they try and do is they try and appeal to small business to help those businesses be as successful as possible, and one of the ways they do that is they demonstrate it through the lense of ‘Hey we get it. We understand how business works today. We understand that you’re under extreme financial pressure. We understand that it’s torture going through airports.’ So, for lack of a better example, through FedEx print ship online, you can download your presentation at a FedEx office, you can have it forwarded and bound at the destination site so you don’t have to lug portfolio bags through airports, they way we sometimes used to have to do. It’s just that level of understanding that I think, whether you are in a boardroom or in a client meeting or you’re trying to unpack and solve a problem, those simple rules of engagement come into play.

    MH: Can you describe a situation that wasn’t necessarily related to developing and ad concept but required a lot of input and creativity to solve and how did that work?

    JO: The process can be a little bit messy and I think for this question I will come back to a word called partnership. Partnership is the essence of our business it’s more important today than ever. Why is that? Because despite the fact that we try and stay on the cutting edge of technology, the world is moving at a hyper speed that is really close to impossible to keep up with. So one of the things we’ve tried to do is, and this is counterintuitive to an agency that likes to sort of own the quote unquote ideas, is we’ve had to open up our doors, knock down our walls and invite partners into the agency not only to share with us what’s coming up around the next corner, what the next big innovation is, but actually to role up their sleeves and work with our creative people on how these various technological advances might play out in a marketing solution. One of our cases here was our Lowe’s Vine videos. Vines had been relatively new on the marketplace, no brand had found an application for those Vines, and Lowe’s is what I would call a generous brand. Part of the method behind the madness of our Lowe’s marketing is offering tips, little tips of generosity to people, to help them through the challenges of home improvement and we challenged ourselves and we said, ‘Can we give tips in the form of six second Vine videos?’ So we filmed these things in house, in our production studio. This is another theme that comes up more and more, fast, good, inexpensive. In the old days it used to be ‘pick two you can never have all three.’ If it has to be fast and good, there is no way that in can be cheap. If it has to be inexpensive and fast, there is no way it can be good. Well now, everybody expects it all. So by partnering with Vines and with our creative teams, we came up with these little gems of six seconds of generous tips on how to get a stripped screw out of a piece of wood or how to water your plants for a week when you’re traveling. Little tips that really caught on and now we’ve got about 100 of these things that we’re cross-pollinating all of our social and digital channels with and it’s really caught on like wildfire. I can think of four or five more examples but partnership, partnership, partnership is really the core theme there.

    MH: So you may have already answered this question but how do you characterize your management style?

    JO: Well, I think those who know me pretty well, and most people do know me pretty well because I’m pretty much of an open book, would describe me as fairly humble, highly caffeinated, I’m fairly energetic. I try very hard to stay focused. I’m fairly impatient but I’m a pretty good collaborator and I really believe and I love building teams and then empowering those teams to get ideas over the finish line. I just want to touch on that for one second more.

    MH: Yeah.

    JO: There are lots of ideas floating around but they are sort of like dandelions on a windy day. The can sort of just ‘puff,’ blow into the wind. One of the biggest challenges and one of my biggest frustrations is when you work on an idea and you get up to the five yard line and you just can’t punch it over the goal line, you can’t quite get the idea to happen because maybe you haven’t articulated it the right way or maybe you haven’t explained to the client just how easy it is to execute whatever it may be. So that is one of my frustrations, is getting the ideas, that’s one thing, but getting them to happen is true success.

    MH: Sure, yeah, for sure, there are lots of little stumbling blocks along the way and rabbit holes to fall into.

    JO: Lots of pitfalls and obstacles, yeah.

    MH: So what do you find the biggest contributors are to finding creative or newer approaches to problem solving?

    JO: One of the biggest problems to problem solving is to frankly finding the best talent in the industry. People ask me sometimes what I do. A lot of what I do is being relentlessly focused on talent. Both finding the best talent and also keeping the best talent. And when people ask me what sorts of people thrive at a BBDO or in the industry, I think the best answer really comes back to the kinds of values our best people embody. Those values, we have ten of them, I won’t be able to remember all of them but I will try, these are things that stick out in my mind. People who are about we, not me, hand raisers not finger pointers, people who bounce back, this is a business where you get knocked on your rear end often and I think your success isn’t how high you fly in the good times, it how you bounce back in the tough times. People who radiate and don’t drain, people who walk into the room and just suck the air out of it, and we try and radiate. We look for closers, that’s building on what I just explained to you, which is closing, ya know getting the idea to happen. People who present themselves and the agency well whether they are in the office of out of the office. People who clients love and respect. People who unquestionably do the right thing, they have a moral compass and they have an understanding of and a belief in our value structure, which often times, I have found, overlaps pretty well with a lot of the clients that we are fortunate enough to work with, there is a great deal of overlap in those values, it’s great. So winning the war on talent and that’s kind of the value structure we look for.

    MH: Yeah, so when you’re thinking about hiring talent, do you find that perhaps in some ways you can train them on the mechanics as long as they have those values?

    JO: We try and get a gage on what the values are, but I mean culture trumps anything else, so if you don’t have the right culture, and the only way to have the right culture is to have the right people who embody the right values, then you’re really nowhere, so yeah I believe in obviously the values are sacrosanct and you can do a lot by training and we spend a lot of time mentoring some of our best people and giving them additional training, whether it be in certain technologies or understanding the media landscape, any and all of the above.

    MH: So we’ve talked a lot about creativity in the workplace but have you applied these approaches to your nonprofessional life and if so, how?

    JO: I have, my nonprofessional life is like a tangled spool of fishing line in a way, it is multidimensional, I have two young kids and a dog and a lovely wife who puts up with me and is terrific and so that’s obviously at the very high end of my priority list. I also spend a lot of time, and I enjoy spending time with the Police Athletic League where I am fortunate enough to be the president of the board. It helps an awful lot of kids, kids who really need help in the boroughs around New York City so I really believe one of the best investments anyone can make is in the future of a child and the American Red Cross that I fell in love with when we actually pitched their business about four or five years ago and after Sandy hit New York I was pretty hooked on that so now I’m serving on the Board of Directors for that. I believe it is important to serve, my challenge is, and it will never be perfect, I don’t care you’re a male or female, whether you’re a millennial or a generation x or whoever you are, the balance of time is never something that is going to be perfect. So, I’ve learned how to say no probably more than anything else in the last couple of, well certainly in the last decade.

    MH: It’s hard to do.

    JO: Yeah, but I think the balance is more roughly right than it is precisely wrong, I think it’s a pretty good balance, and I couldn’t take on anything more right now, particularly if ya know managing the BBDO New York office is obviously, takes a lot of emphasis and focus and time as well, but ya know I’m into it and I think that whether it’s serving clients or you know making sure I being the best dad and husband I can be, or whether it’s serving the not-for-profits that I’m really proud and honored to be a part of, I see at all as sort of this mantra of really being built to serve and trying to give back to this world that has given me so much at least up until this point in my life and in my career.

    MH: Sounds like that might something you just encourage just through your corporate culture as well.

    JO: I think so, I think that you’re absolutely right. I don’t have all of the statistics to back up what I’m about to say but I will tell you that since we started pointing the compass of the agency around this whole idea od built to serve, and we also do a lot of not-for-profit work, and we’ve spent a lot of time through that reductionist process that I outlined really looking for the purpose of what our clients are and what they represent, and it’s key. It’s not inventing a new purpose; it’s really, more often than not, simply revealing its true self on its best day. I think it has really energized our people, BBDO-ers, and I think it is not a coincidence that our success of the last three, four, five years coincides perfectly with that sort of philosophy. People are fired up, they want to make a difference, they want to build a legacy, they want to improve the lives of others. I don’t know when business became sort of the evil word, but business is good, especially when business is good, business puts people to work it puts roofs over their heads it helps them feed their children. Business can help society, it can help humanity and a lot of the companies we do business with, whether it’s Lowe’s Home Improvement, which is really life improvement, or whether it’s FedEx which might just contain like a college acceptance letter for some kid that needs to get it, or whatever it may be we are able to find the good, or the purpose behind the brands that we represent. So as you can tell, I’m pretty fired up about it.

    MH: Yeah, I like it. Kind of finding that why, you know.

    JO: Yeah.

    MH: So this is something we started talking about this just a couple hours ago, we’ve been kicking this around a lot, so I thought well hey, I’ve got this opportunity so I’m going to ask you.

    JO: Fire away!

    MH: I don’t know if it will make it into the podcast but I’m really curious about this, I think we all are as a team. I am really interested in your opinion about, we spend a lot of time I guess trying to anticipate the unanticipated consequences right, the unintended consequences and I think this concept of a small number of influencers really being able to effect the reputation of a company is somewhat new, you know it’s advanced, technology has helped advance that for sure and I know our team, and I’m sure we are not alone, tries to think through all of the possible unintended consequences you know every word, every photograph, every video angle, you know people that we talk to, the words that they are saying. How are people going to take issue with that you know, how are they going to reinterpret that you know, that instant access to media, the multiple channels, that ability to kind of anonymously influence public opinion. Sometimes we find that can be inhibiting for a creative team, and I’m wondering if that’s something that you have experienced, you know or if that’s something that you, cause you really want to balance that you know, taking seriously what people’s concerns are without shutting down a team that really wants to think out, you know through all of these different ideas and take them all out to sometimes some of their really you know, which could be kind of a wacky end result.

    JO: Yeah

    MH: Yeah, so have you experienced that?

    JO: We have and I think it goes back to a shift in the way that communications has evolved, and I think that not that long ago, everything was about more command and control, we are controlling the message and we have a game plan and we’re going to do do-diligence on understanding the consumer and then we are going to build these strategies and then we are going to build these idea platforms and then we are going to execute and then we are going to monitor them and then we are going to optimize as we go forward. That’s sort of the way it was done. Today, it is uncomfortable, but we’ve learned how to let go a little bit more and because we recognize and we respect that our consumers or customers have a voice in the latter as well. What’s driven that and hit the nail on the head is technology and the shift from one-way to two-way communication. All I will say is, you have to respect that and you have to do some kind of contingency planning, and war gaming and spit balling or whatever you want to call it, but the fact of the matter is that things will happen which is why it’s more important than ever that everybody has a firm understanding of what the value structure is and what the non-negotiable are so that when something does happen, you can make the best of that situation or correct for it if something is to break down and believe me, something will break down whether you like it or not, but that’s just the world we live in.

    MH: Yeah and it seems to me, absolutely the value structure but maybe also just an understanding of you know of your personality, your company’s personality, your firm, your organization, making sure you, no matter how you have to respond can do that in a way that stays true to the, who you are I guess.

    JO: That’s exactly right.

    MH: So I’m going to switch gears a little bit and talk with you about diversity, because we are almost out of time. It’s been really, I’ve really enjoyed having this conversation with you. I know this is an area that is important for you, I know it’s an area you’ve been awarded for, and so I’m interested in how increasing diversity at BBDO has made a difference in your organization.

    JO: Increasing diversity is one of our top priorities in the company, not because politically it is the right thing to do, not because there are vocal critics of the advertising industry for being predominately white male driven. We push diversity because it is good for our business. Our audiences and our customers and our consumers that we market to are incredibly diverse and I know the statistics as well as anybody and it’s easy to look them up. The demographic of the United States of America is constantly evolving and so building on what I was saying earlier, we have to make sure we have the right people within the agency to be able to craft those messages. We have to be reaching out and attracting more people to want to get into this industry, which is one of the reasons I am honored to be here with you today and tomorrow because we are trying to attract the best and brightest and get an unfair share of those people to join us. But you know, the whole idea of brainstorming, and I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, brainstorming ideas actually originated from Alex Osborn, he is no relation, it hasn’t hurt my career but he is no relation of this John Osborn who is talking here right now. He invented this word brainstorming and his idea was you get a bunch of like-minded people around a table and you come up collectively with ideas. The reality is, and the Harvard Business School paper, white paper on this a couple of years ago really shed a light on it, is the best way to get the best ideas is to get a group of non-like-minded minds around the table with different experiences, different backgrounds, different ways of thinking, that leads to the best ideas, and it leads to the fastest development of those ideas. So for us, it’s something that we have to do if we’re really, you know we are our own biggest critics. We are trying very hard to continue to stir the cement to make sure it never hardens. We are a large agency, we try each and everyday and it takes a lot of work to act small but what is a common theme, regardless of anything else is diversity is really, really important for what we need to do to bring the ideas to the table.

    MH: Yeah, certainly in higher ed, that’s an important issue facing Appalachian as well. Frankly we’ve got a lot to figure out on our campus, and we are working hard to become more inclusive here but we are a predominately white campus, and we’ve had a lot of discussions about that, particularly in the last couple of semesters on our campus, and they haven’t all been easy discussions. So I guess my last question is just, I wonder what lessons you think are really important to learn for a university or any organization that has a commitment to make systemic change, to have a more diverse make-up.

    JO: I just want to make sure I understand your question directly; you’re trying to get into what the best ideas are for that?

    MH: Yeah or just, one of the things that I think we are learning is that we are going to screw up and, kind of back to what you were talking about, just for your organization, pick yourself up and dust yourself off and bounce back as quickly as you can, but we are in a period of change, change for our university trying to figure out what that means for us. I wonder if having been there fairly recently with your organization there are lessons that you might have learned that you can share with us in terms of going through that change and what that means

    JO: We have gone through a large shift, we have gone through massive change not only in our agency but our industry has done through a big change and I think the thing that I would challenge everybody with is to never settle, never settle, never assume that good is good enough, just constantly be stirring that batter to make sure that it doesn’t get crusty and hard and the world is moving at such a fast pace that if you don’t do that, you might find yourself far out of the race in the long run, just be relentlessly, like a dog on a pant leg, never settle. That would be my recommendation.

    MH: Yeah, thanks I appreciate it. Well John Osborn thank you so much for your time today. I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you. I know our students are just going to have a really great time interacting with you and listening to you tomorrow.

    JO: Thanks.

    MH: I’m going to enjoy listening to your talk as well, so I appreciate your time today with us and welcome to Boone.

    JO: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure.

    MH: Thank you.