Fast Company

OfficeMax’s CMO on Creating Innovative Marketing Cultures

In this Brand Innovator Spotlight, Bob Thacker shares how knocking down department walls, including all stakeholders and celebrating creativity breeds world class marketing organizations.

<a href="//www.fastcompany.com/person/bob-thacker" class="profile">Bob Thacker</a>Bob Thacker is SVP Marketing & Advertising at OfficeMax. Some of Bob’s successes include campaigns such as 'Save Money on Ink' tattoo creative, 'ElfYourself,’ a viral marketing phenomenon, 'Schooled,’ a reality back-to-school television show and 'The World's Largest Rubberband Ball’ national media event.

Brandon Gutman: How do you create cultures that are generators of marketing?

Bob Thacker: I think it begins with the belief that ideas don’t just live in the marketing department. If you find ways to include other minds in the process you show how marketing is, in fact, a distillation of great thinking from a diverse group. In other words, don’t put up walls, open the gates!

How did you create the brand essence at OfficeMax?

A brand essence isn’t something that’s imposed on a company. It’s a definition of what the company already inherently is and continually aspires to be. We brought key stakeholders together and spent the better part of three days sharing thoughts, drawing analogies, describing attributes of brands we most admire and then brainstorming. It was exhausting and there were many opinions. In the end, the attributes Passionate, Innovative and Fun prevailed. There are days where one of us will point at one of the words and ask “Is this fun?” or “Is our passion becoming a little too intense?” We all laugh and take a breath. They describe how we like to act, think and behave.

What validated that people need to embrace creativity?

We are in an extremely undifferentiated category. The three big players are constantly confused. We’re number three. Our competition annually outspends us by two and three times. We’re an under-dog. Using famous words, I always say “If you don’t have big budgets, you need big ideas.” That’s what we continually strive for. We recognize people who have creative solutions. We celebrate success. It didn’t take long for others to see that we don’t do little things. We break through. We shake things up. And that’s made a difference. We’ve gotten huge returns on small investments.

Can you please give an example of huge return on small investment?

When we first launched ‘ElfYourself’ we had a very small budget - less than it would cost to produce one TV commercial. Our agency recommended that we put all in viral. Keep in mind that this was four years ago: YouTube was new, Facebook was only on college campuses and tweeting was only for the birds. We invested everything into 20 websites. One site was ElfYourself.com which went to the moon. We generated revenue from the site by selling downloads and products. The money it made paid for the entire initiative and even provided a profit. A tiny budget with a big idea led to money. Almost 200 million elves later, we have become the holiday viral equivalent of Frosty and Rudolph. It is a tradition that lives on.

How can classic brainstorming bring different kinds of people together?

Classic brainstorming is dependent upon diverse thinking and experience. I’m a huge believer in the classic approach to brainstorming. That is, a process where people with different perspectives are encouraged to be big thinkers. It’s one time where nobody has bad ideas, everybody contributes and people want to play. It’s led to some of the most breakthrough ideas in my long career. Some think they can shortcut the process by just bringing together a few like-minded folks from the department in order to keep negativity outside the room. Then people toss up ideas to see them shot down like clay pigeons. That’s not brainstorming. That’s just another name for a frustrating meeting. People leave without new ideas, dispirited and demoralized. Classic brainstorming requires more work and preparation; it makes people work harder but it also works. I like to include people from our stores, merchants, architects, musicians, agency people and of course marketing in the mix. That’s just part of the possible list. I like experts and people who have no experience whatever with the topic. The dynamic can be magical.

What proved to you that you created a world class marketing organization?

First, I don’t know that we are, completely. It’s an objective that has a constantly changing destination. There are a few mileposts however. We’ve been blessed to be recognized with some nice awards and honors. Unlike some other marketing heads, I love awards. I want our agencies to win awards. I want our own people to win as well. Awards aren’t always about results. They are peer recognition. I want our peers to respect and admire us. We’ve also gotten a fair amount of press. I say “Don’t make ads, make news.” It’s actually how we think. We are often invited to keynote conferences and conventions all over the world. I love being a champion for our brand. I love meeting peers everywhere. There is a world outside Naperville, Illinois and we need to be part of it. If we strive to be a world class marketing organization, then people will want to join us. That’s the end result. I’m able to keep hiring people who are smarter than me!

How do you build teams who are creative and results oriented?

The dynamic relationship between creative people and marketing managers in our group is critical to its success. I often use a “kites and strings” analogy. Great creative people are like kites…always soaring, dipping and turning. But without a string, they often wind up caught in trees. The string is critical. Strings are strong and purposeful. But a string without a kite never gets off the ground. Together the kite and the string can accomplish much more than either could alone. That’s the nature of a great marketing group. We have strategic leaders and we have brilliant tacticians. I’m blessed to have the best creative and marketing people surrounding me. We get results because we set high expectations and we have very demanding senior management.

How do you nurture a creative culture?

That one’s easy. You always hire people who are better and smarter than you! Then you get out of their way. I believe you need to clear obstacles in their paths. They call me Weedwacker Thacker. I can’t tolerate politics. I don’t have time for petty people. I hire risk-takers. I hire people who have a sense of wonder. I hire people who are curious. I hire people who care about other people. And not least important, I hire people who laugh and let go. I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to find the best of those people.

What is your secret to remaining innovative?

Innovation for me is like eating or breathing. I can’t imagine life without it! Innovation isn’t about having the answers; it’s more about asking the questions. I think hubris is one of the most poisonous and dangerous qualities a person or a company can have. Dogma is deadly. And don’t get me going on politics and bureaucracy! That’s what I love about Apple and Google and other companies who make innovation their DNA. Somebody once said “It’s hard to get ideas that live out of people who don’t.” I’m seldom content and I’ve made a promise to myself to never act my age.

Brandon Gutman is a founder of FOCi Group, a Digital Management Consultancy building and optimizing digital practices for the Fortune 500 community. Brandon and FOCi Group are helping brand innovators utilize emerging technology and new media in order to achieve ultimate performance. Follow Brandon on Twitter at http://twitter.com/brandongutman.

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