ABC fired its programming chief for green-lighting Lost. Howard Schultz shrugged off the Starbucks worker who first pitched a blended-coffee drink. For most businesspeople, realizing any creative vision—while addressing concerns about scale, tradition, and profitability—is a Herculean task. Here, 10 bold thinkers tell us how they pulled it off (or tried to), and the lessons they learned along the way.
1. the mindful messengerMaryam Banikarim
SVP and CMO, Gannett
Trust your gut.
"When I was a marketing SVP at NBC Universal, I helped organize a thing called Day One, which was supposed to celebrate the merger with Comcast. [My bosses] were like, 'We need a gift for employees. We can make 30,000 folders with notepads in them.' But I didn't want to give a meaningless tchotchke. So I came up with a purpose line—that NBC Universal is in the idea business—and a new gift to match it. All 30,000 employees got Moleskine notebooks that had sketches of great ideas: the back of a napkin note that became SNL, the cable transponder that became Comcast's business. The letter attached said, 'All great ideas were created by somebody,' and encouraged employees to submit their own. People told me the project wouldn't get approved, that it was way too esoteric. But it was a huge hit."
2. the people pleaserTony Salvador
Ethnographic Researcher, Intel
Creativity can survive compromise.
"In India, [my team and I] visited a series of schools. We talked to the whole network involved— administrators, principals, teachers, kids, parents. We took photos. We took notes. We listened. And we came up with this idea for a tablet computer specifically for education, specifically for India, called the Classmate PC. We thought it was pretty cool. Our boss said it needed to have a keyboard. We said that would defeat the purpose; scripts in India don't use keyboards very easily. He said it needed to look like the other things we make. So we looked at each other and said, 'Well, if it's not going to sell in India, let's sell it to the rest of the world.' And we did. The Classmate PC was not exactly what we wanted it to be, but it still had value."
3. the ÜBER CONSULTANTJoichi Ito
Director, MIT Media Lab
Fight for flexibility.
"The Japanese government once asked me to be on a committee about taxes and information technology. The first thing I said was, 'Let's figure out a way to use resources more efficiently to lower taxes.' And they said, 'No, no, no—this committee is about using computers to collect more tax.' So I asked, 'How do we reduce costs?' And they said, 'Oh, there's no committee for that.' [Laughs] That's the problem with large organizations. They create roles and constraints, and sometimes people forget why they're there."
4. the freethinkerJames Dyson
Founder and CEO, Dyson
"I love this idea of wrong thinking—of encouraging people who have ideas to go see if they work and not dismissing them just because they sound like the wrong solution. No one has the right answer at the beginning. I made 5,127 prototypes of the bagless vacuum before I got it right."
5. the BRAND REFRESHERWendy Clark
Marketing SVP, The Coca-Cola Co.
Respect tradition—but give it a twist.
"Spencerian script. Red, white, dynamic colors. Those are things [about Coke's image] that have not changed and will not change. So how do my team and I make a brand that's looked the same for 100-plus years seem relevant to the new generations of global teens? By building authentic, meaningful campaigns around their passion points. That's exactly what we did last year, when the FIFA World Cup was in South Africa. By using the song 'Wavin' Flag,' from Somali rapper K'naan, [our ads] conveyed this idea of finding your own African rhythm."
6. the SOULFUL SPORTSMANDhani Jones
Be willing to play against type.
"One of my friends once said that in order to be somebody, you had to rock a bow tie. Ridiculous, right? Then he got cancer, and I started to wear one in support of him. I was the first active player to be reporting from the sidelines, and I always wore a bow tie on camera. The pushback was intense: 'Who are you, Pee-wee Herman? Nation of Islam? What are you trying to prove?' Through the experience, I found out that changing the perception of myself and the NFL, and reestablishing the notion of being a gentleman was important to me. [My not-for-profit Bow Tie Cause] now uses the four corners of the bow tie to exemplify these things—self-representation, service, collaboration, and critical thought."
7. the ECO-ARTISTMonique Pean
Court A-list allies.
"When I started my jewelry line, the concept of having an eco-friendly product was not synonymous with luxury goods at all. Retailers and magazines were much more interested in the aesthetic than the sustainable aspects [such as using only recycled gold and conflict-free diamonds]. Then in 2009, I received a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award. And one day the next year, I woke up to 10 or so emails telling me that Michelle Obama had been photographed in my jewelry on Air Force One. I felt like I was dreaming. Now we're expanding the brand to include a bridal line, and it's gotten to a point where our customers really do care about where their products come from."
8. the STARTUP KIDDavid Karp
Founder and CEO, Tumblr
Pitch the right crowd first.
"Before Tumblr, there were 'tumblelogs': experimental, interesting HTML pages where you didn't have well-structured posts. You could just throw a link up, or a moving GIF, or a photo, or anything you'd find, and you'd collect those things on one long page. So when we released our platform, we took it straight to the tumblelogging community and said, 'Hey, look, we built a real tool to make all the neat stuff you guys are doing available to more people.' They were thrilled. And because they really understood what Tumblr was about, they set a great example for new users. That helped us get a lot of early traction."
9. the challengerdavid droga
Creative Chairman, Droga5
Defend your beliefs—and prepare for the consequences.
"About 10 years ago, I was at Saatchi London working on a campaign for the British Army. They brought in what they called a 'civilian' as the new marketing director. And he completely changed our work from something gritty, respectful, and challenging—which is what the army was—to something like a tourism campaign. A 'Join the army, you get to see the world!' kind of thing. I respectfully tried to convince him he was wrong, that he would be killing something that was strong and working for something that was disrespectful to the brand. I was asked off the business."
10. the MUSIC MANTroy Carter
Founder and CEO, Coalition Media Group
Blaze new trails.
"Lady Gaga was the first artist in my new management group. When we tried to get her on the radio, every pop station in the country told us no. No exaggeration. They said, 'This music isn't top 40, it's dance.' So we went around radio. We built relationships with major blogs, like Perez Hilton and Popjustice, and we turned to social-media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. When Gaga finally broke through [in early 2009], she had a huge fanbase—and a really interesting, intimate digital presence. Now, I don't want any of my acts to be discovered on the radio. And it seems like the music industry as a whole is replicating that model."
Photos By Mizuka (Ito); Dpa/Zuma Press (Dyson). Hair And Makeup: Kristen Hilton For The Wall Group (Banikarim). Sonia Moskowitz (Jones); Martha Camarillo (Pean); Charley Gallay/Getty Images (Karp); Paul Mcgeiver (Droga)
A version of this article appeared in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.