TedxUOregon Offers Advanced Theories And Practices In Advertising And Journalism

This is a guest post from AdPulp Contributor, Charlie Quirk.
PORTLAND–A mixed bag of ad industry professionals, educators and students eager to glean nuggets of wisdom from an equally eclectic bag of presenters gathered last Friday for TedxUOregon, held at the University’s Turnbull Center in Portland’s Old Town district.
With his luminous silver mane glistening under the spotlight, Edward Boches, Mullen’s Chief Innovation Officer, kicked off proceedings by asking the audience a rhetorical question, “What are you going to do with the power?” The power, Boches explained, is the sum total of technology and social networks now accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. The power of connectivity and access, once only afforded to the David Ogilvys and Walter Kronkites of the world, is now ubiquitous.
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Boches recounted an unpleasant experience he recently had staying at a Marriott hotel on a business trip. Awakened during the middle of the night by a leaky ceiling dripping onto his pillow, staff at the front desk were unable to find him a new room because the hotel was filled to capacity. Boches took pictures and video of the ceiling in question, published them on his blog and Twitter, and before long, Marriott was being resoundingly condemned on the Twittersphere for shoddy customer service. This culminated in a written apology from the hotel manager and an offer for a free room and reward points.
It bears mentioning that most consumers confronted with Boches’ situation are unlikely to document the event so fastidiously and expose it to a waiting readership online. However, his point is well taken; companies better practice what they preach, because your brand, once tightly guarded, is now being observed and critiqued around the clock by potential customers waiting for you to slip up. The point of the Marriott story, and other similar examples given, is that social influence is now available to anyone who seeks it out.
Social influence has become much more than a forum for customer complaints. Boches drew our attention to Twestival, a series of events that raise awareness and funding for local non profits; Lemonade, a film that depicts people who have lost their job, but found a new career calling, and Ankanksha, the non-profit that educates underprivileged children in India. Boches finished by challenging the audience to go forth and do good: “What shall we do with this new found power? Become pirates, punks and hackers and change the system for the better.”
The next speaker was Warren Berger, award-winning author, most recently of CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People. In his speech Berger outlined the method he uses to codify the steps in the design process. From measuring cups to prosthetic limbs, Berger made a compelling case that in order to optimize a design solution, several steps in his “Catalyst’s Dance,” must be completed. He suggests that designers Question, Care, Combine and Commit.
Question: For much of our lives, asking stupid questions is frowned upon, whether it is in the classroom or the boardroom, it slows things down. However, often these seemingly silly questions can unveil a brilliant idea.
Care: Through empathy and understanding, caring deeply about a design solution increases the chances of it being solved.
Combine: Often seen as the crucible of the creative process, combinatory thought processes are often the precursor to innovative breakthroughs. Berger used the example of Van Phillips, the inventor of “cheetah” prosthetic limb that combines the explosiveness of a cheetah’s leg, with the mechanics of a diving board and a C-shaped Chinese sword.
Commit: Failure is a critical part of the process for any significant breakthrough. The most revered designers and innovators throughout history have become comfortable with failures, seeing them not as setbacks, but rather as one step closer to finding the solution. Perhaps the most well known example of this was Thomas Edison’s determination to invent the light bulb. When asked if his goal was unreachable because of several failures, he responded: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Following Berger was UO journalism professor Mark Blaine. Blaine won my vote as best speaker of the night, mainly because his perspective and view on what needs to take place in the news industry was both insightful and, in my opinion, truly unique (Full disclosure, Blaine was an instructor of mine back in 2003 at the UO). In equal parts pragmatic and optimistic, Blaine outlined the skills and mindset necessary for journalism to flourish in the twentieth century, even though major print publications continue to drop like flies.
The last twenty years has seen a sea change in the way we consume news, yet the construct of news reporting has remained static. Blaine believes this worldview is insufficient for the transparent, accessible, multi-media news environment of today. Society’s new interconnectedness has made once latent networks visible, highlighting the need for a new depth and rigor to the storytelling process.
Blaine observed that in the past journalists could simply write their piece and let it run, but reporters today need to think laterally to give weight to their stories. No silo of expertise is off limits, sometimes the most valuable information can come from the most obscure place. As an example of this, Blaine used the case of how a seemingly unrelated biomimicry study of ant behavior was used by a PhD in electrical engineering to model the networks of, and catch, roadside bombers in Afghanistan.
Blaine finished by calling for a greater literacy in skill sets for news reporters going forward. Journalists must become fluent in new media, become open to collaboration, become advocates of open data, and inject personal curiosity in telling stories in innovative new ways.
Next cab off the rank was a friend of mine, Dave Allen, Director of Digital Insights at North. Dave’s brain is a Pez dispenser of insightful gems – the guy thinks deeply about what he discusses and offers a refreshing perspective outside of the echo chamber that constitutes much of blogosphere.
Dave began by informing us that, “digital breaks things.” In essence, businesses operate within the confines of a system, until public opinion deems the system is broken, at which point corrective measures are made. Digital changes the speed at which information is consumed and shared, causing changes in public opinion more quickly and easily than in the glacial pace of the analog world. McDonald’s, for example, became the poster child of American capitalism at its most efficient — quick, cheap and profitable. Experts declared the golden arches to be the perfectly run business; until it wasn’t. The obesity epidemic has challenged the paradigm through which we view its success, as a result McDonald’s has changed its business model accordingly.
In the digital realm a similar evolution has affected many media empires, the problem with the rise of digital and its multitude of platforms, however, is that brands seek to profit without solving any problems. What media conglomerates must realize, Dave argues, is that in the domain of news consumption, the consumer has more choice than they could ever need. By that rationale, creating a new app, elegant or otherwise, is a thinly veiled grab at a new revenue stream rather than designed to primarily benefit the consumer. He used the recent Huffington Post acquisition by AOL as an example, suggesting that shuffling the ownership chairs among media titans is not much of an answer at solving the world’s most pressing problems.
Dave closed with a clarion call for us to broaden our view as to what is at stake here. The web, for better or worse, has an insular American, and even Californian slant to it. If this view could be expanded, then it would help us gain a sense of perspective, bringing with it a wherewithal to enact meaningful change. Being preoccupied with the how much the Huff Po sold for seems trivial in comparison to committing resources and innovation to fostering real change in the developing world.
Deb Morrison, the Chambers Distinguished professor of Advertising at UO, wrapped up the evening by giving us a run through of how her book The Creative Process Illustrated was developed. As Morrison reminded us, analyzing process is a hot topic right now as it’s one of the few aspects of the creative services industry that’s not being strongly influenced by digital. Morrison and co-author Glen Griffin, set out to determine how advertising’s most nimble minds visualize the creative process. The authors targeted close to 400 industry professionals, arming them with a black sharpie and a sheet of blank paper, then gave them carte blanche to depict their own method for developing ideas.
As you can imagine, the results were a hodgepodge of shapes, symbols, words and sketches. The authors received close to 90 responses, not a bad yield considering the respondent list reads like a list of creativity’s who’s who; Alex Bogusky (CP+B), David Kennedy (WK), Chris Adams (TBWA/CHIAT/DAY), Simon Mainwaring (Mainwaring Creative), Andy Azula (The Martin Agency), Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin (Ogilvy), Kevin Roddy (BBH New York) and Danny Gregory (mcgarrybowen); as well as a host of others. I’m looking forwarding to picking up a copy of the book to see the whole collection.
On the whole, a great night was had by all. It was an intimate environment to hear about some of the forces that are shaping the future of the industry.

About Charlie Quirk

An Aussie based in Seattle, Charlie is Associate Director of Planning & Strategy at POSSIBLE.