The Creative Odyssey

How idea companies get their ideas.

Stacey Cost, 39, director of marketing at BellSouth Cellular Corp., selected clunky, retro-style Mary Janes. Margaret Urquhart, 50, the president of Lowes Foods, a chain of grocery stores in North Carolina and Virginia, opted for chartreuse sandals with four-inch heels. Did the Sex Pistols abduct these otherwise-respectable executives? Not exactly. But as participants in the Creative Odyssey, they definitely weren't feeling like themselves.

The Creative Odyssey is the brainchild of Long Haymes Carr (LHC), an advertising agency based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Each odyssey takes agency staffers, along with executives from client companies, to New York City for a four-day whirlwind of cutting-edge art exhibits, groundbreaking theater, hip clubs -- and very weird shoes.

"Where do idea companies get their ideas?" asks Stephen Zades, 42, chairman and CEO of LHC. "How do they tap into something that's on its way in, rather than already passed?"

To answer those questions, Zades initiated the Creative Odyssey in 1996. The odyssey -- a survey of pop culture at its newest and rawest -- was originally intended for LHC employees and was part of Zades's larger effort to reawaken what he describes as "your basic solid, sleepy southern shop." Zades had come to LHC from its parent company, global ad giant Ammirati Puris Lintas, with the mandate of pushing this venerable but stagnant subsidiary into the '90s.

But as creativity at LHC soared, an unexpected problem arose: "We came back from New York, and our clients looked at us as if to say, 'What have you been smoking?' " Zades recalls. "We had seen some incredible things -- up in Harlem, down in the Bowery, on the subways, and in the streets. But we realized that we were further away from our clients than before. We were trying to sell them a new generation of work that they weren't ready to buy. Since then, we've tried to do everything with our clients."

Which is how Margaret Urquhart found herself decked out in four-inch heels. In fact, the first stop on the odyssey is at Knockin' Boots, a shoe store on the Upper East Side, where punk rock blares and where corporate types rarely make an appearance. There, members of the group (from 60 to 75 people) are encouraged to purchase -- and then to wear that night -- the most outrageous shoes that they can find.

Among the other activities are visits to the Whitney Museum and to PS 1, a public school - turned - art gallery. Columbia grad students lead a walking tour of Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Lower East Side -- the area dubbed "Assho" in the musical Rent (which the odyssey group has seen the night before).

The odyssey is fun. But behind the fun are challenging questions: What constitutes a compelling experience? Which trends go from the fringes to the mainstream -- and why? Answering those questions means confronting some new ideas.

At PS 1, an installation titled "Ahoi de Angst," by artist Jonathan Messe, featured two floors filled with graffiti, litter, and violent or obscene photographs. "The exhibit was in some ways incomprehensible and disturbing," Zades says. "But contemporary art is full of stories and ideas; it provokes reactions and dialogue. It's not as pasteurized as everything else that's coming at us."

To enhance the odyssey experience, the participants regularly talk about what they've seen and heard. "Without forced discussion and application, it would be a boondoggle," says Mike Fox, 38, senior vice president and codirector of account management at LHC.

Margaret Urquhart brought home a bunch of lessons from her odyssey. At one point, she even got onstage at Harlem's Cotton Club to sing "This Little Light of Mine." The various forms of artistry she observed -- and participated in -- reaffirmed for her the need for personal expression. "Tapping into the passions of each person in your organization helps you differentiate yourself from the competition," she says.

Steve Zades agrees: "You need to do things that you would never do otherwise," he says. "Unless you keep challenging yourself, you're not going to grow.

Curtis Sittenfeld is a former Fast Company staff writer. You can visit Long Haymes Carr on the Web (www.lhcadv.com).

Sidebar: The Art of Business

"Contemporary art," says Steve Zades, "is the R&D lab of the future." Zades should know. Despite his business credentials -- including an MBA from Columbia and a stint at Procter & Gamble -- art is in his blood. Born in New York City, Zades grew up playing guitar and cello. His mother wept when he turned down the chance to attend Juilliard. But Zades, chairman and CEO of LHC, hasn't forgotten his roots. "I see the intersection of business and art as the new frontier."

That's why Zades makes it a point to expose both his employees and his clients to what's new at museums, in the theater, and on the street. One of his favorite stories from Creative Odyssey -- the agency's cutting-edge cultural tour of New York City -- involves the then-chairman of a large retail company, who went on an odyssey in the fall of 1996.

"We went to the Soho Guggenheim to see an exhibit that mimicked the brain," Zades says. "There was a wall with 1,000 televisions on it, all linked to computers. A big thought would take up 700 TVs, and there were also constant thoughts, such as sex, that were always pulsing. The client said to me, 'What the hell are we doing here? Let's go have a drink.'

"Then we went to NikeTown. The first thing you see is this big wall of 50 screens, playing ads and images. There we were, at the leading edge of retail. And the display could not hold a candle to the Guggenheim exhibit -- which was 10 years old! Then the lightbulb went on for this client. He said, 'You know, I really get it now.' "

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