Fast Talk: Creative to the Core

What's it like when your job depends on generating new ideas, inspiring others to do the same, and figuring out how to use the result? Creativity is the essence of business—and the elixir of these five leaders.

Doo-Ri Chung

Designer
Doo.Ri
New York, New York

Chung, 32, got her start in the basement of her parents' dry-cleaning store. Critics have loved her clothes—New York magazine says she "achieves sultriness with the most minimal detail."

"Most people believe that designers sit there and sketch through divine inspiration. A lot of people do, but I'm very old school and that's from my training with Geoffrey Beene. I sit in front of a mannequin and experiment with the fabric. Not many people work that way. But it also distinguishes me. I have to offer my audience something new that they can't get from Donna Karan or Calvin Klein. I work with a fabric called jersey, which falls around the body, and you can't predict what it's going to do unless you're really hands-on. That's pretty much how the ideas come. Most of the time, I just sit there and stare at the mannequin, and nothing comes up. And then there will be a week where it's just idea upon idea.

I also learned from Mr. Beene that there's discipline required—knowing that there is this monotony of business that interferes with the creative process, and you need to establish a routine to tackle those things before they take away from your creative process. After the shows, after the selling season, after market, after production, you've got this one moment of time when you actually get to be creative. And it's that 8% of everything you do that inspires you, what drives you. That's a pretty hard thing, to constantly be inspired by that.

I've seen so many creative people become caught up in the mundane parts of the business until everything else sort of dissolved around them. You get trapped in the fashion-show aspect of it and lose track of everything else, creativity as well. If you start worrying more about which celebrity is wearing your clothes, you lose focus on what got you there in the first place."

Joe Quesada

Editor-in-chief, chief creative officer
Marvel Enterprises
New York, New York

Born in Queens, New York, not far from Peter Parker's neighborhood, mild-mannered Quesada, 43, oversees the Marvel publishing universe by day and sleeps at night. We think.

"My dad introduced me to comics in the late '60s, when I was about 8 years old. Stan Lee [Marvel's founder] had just done a couple of issues of Spider-Man that dealt with drug addiction, and my dad thought it was a cool way to talk to me about the evils of drug abuse. What he didn't realize, of course, was that it started a whole other addiction. I never did drugs, but I did a lot of comics.

The past five years have seen a huge resurgence in comics, not just in people being interested in them but also in the quality of comics and the higher quality of talent that's creating them. What's helped, particularly for me, has been that we aren't too reverent anymore. In the mid to late '80s, comics were in a very bad state, almost extinct, because the stories became very insular and lost their edge. People started writing comic-book stories about comic-book stories, valentines to Stan Lee, and at the end of the day, fans were reading stories that had no relevance to their world whatsoever.

When I came here, I didn't know the characters that well. And that was good. I've seen creators say their lifelong dream was to write, say, Thor. If you let them, they'll do their worst work. They can't be creative with it. You have to play with the characters and break them, and then put them back together. Stan will be the first to tell you that. He has less reverence than anybody, and he created them. You have to be able to take that character and push him to the wall, and sometimes through it, if need be."

Judy John

Chief creative officer
Leo Burnett
Toronto, Ontario

John, 38, has helped Tony the Tiger earn his stripes and recharged Visa's ad campaign since taking the reins at Leo Burnett's Toronto office in 1999.

"My peers at other agencies are always looking at advertising and reading award-show books for their inspiration. I think that's how you end up with advertising that's very much like other advertising. Every creative person consumes a lot of magazines, music, art, and design, but the really good ones are observant and watch how people interact with brands. It's so telling to watch body language or eavesdrop and overhear conversations. That's how you find out things you can never learn by asking questions directly.

I spend a lot of time trying to encourage my team to do that—to stretch their minds. One way is through a program called Inspire Me Day. A creative team has to take the rest of the department out to do something inspiring unrelated to advertising. While it doesn't always show up literally on the page, it might lead to something later on, like an art-direction style, or a different way of thinking about a problem. One team took us to a Mexican wrestling match and they showed up in costumes and masks, like some of the more ardent fans. One idea that came out of that was a new slogan for a sports network called the Score: 'The Score, Home for the Hardcore.' It's doing the unusual things that sparks an idea.

In the ad industry, new agency models are emerging, leading some to wonder if there's still a reason to have a chief creative officer. Today's creative officer has to work on the brands directly, ensure the quality of the work, nurture the agency culture, and train and develop the creative staff. It's no longer a figurehead out playing golf."

Denny Marie Post

Chief concept officer
Burger King
Miami, florida

Post, 48, worked at KFC before joining Burger King in 2004. She has overseen the creation and launch of such arterial assaults as Chicken Fries and the Angus 'Shroom & Swiss Steak Burger.

"Coming up with new ideas is relatively easy. It's figuring out which of those ideas we should pursue that's tough. Before you spend a lot of resources, you've got to winnow them down. For example, you have to think not only how a sandwich is going to look and taste, but if 17-year-olds in 11,000 restaurants around the world will be able to manufacture it many times a day.

One of the first things I put in place when I started was a concept screening process, and it has made a huge difference in making sure we're working on the right ideas. Every week, we ask a group of our most loyal fans—Whopperheads—to rate ideas from just a description and a photograph. We've screened more than 500 ideas in the past year down to roughly 120.

We have to keep winnowing, though. We had an idea for a sandwich called the Stack, a pepper-jack breakfast biscuit that was one of our favorite boardroom meals. But during further testing, our customers said, 'At breakfast, I'm not sure I want to take the risk on pepper-jack-biscuit anything.'

The true winners, like the Enormous Omelet Sandwich, will get popped way to the top. We had just switched the shape of our egg mold to a rectangle, and were standing around the kitchen looking at it. I said, 'What if we put something between it and made it like an omelet? Like bacon.' Somebody else said that we could use a bun from lunch and dinner, and before you know it, about three or four of us had built it. Somebody said, 'Geez, that's enormous.' One board member said, 'You're going to name that something else, aren't you?' But the name stuck. Before we fell in love with it, though, we had to see if the consumer liked it. I've seen big organizations stumble because they went on somebody's gut. None of us are that good."

Dondeena Bradley

Director, strategic marketing
McNeil Nutritionals
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania

Bradley, 41, has a PhD in food science. At McNeil, she's charged with finding innovative ways to sell a roster of products that includes Splenda, Viactiv, Lactaid, and Benecol.

"Our products are not some magic bullet but part of a holistic approach to good health. And my job is to keep our products current for customers' needs today and tomorrow by making sure our scientists, marketers, and operations team are all focused on the problems for the people who use them. If I don't get everyone talking early enough, we're always backing up trying to correct something.

We have to get everyone speaking the language of the consumer. So we created these learning labs where we pick a theme, problem, or insight we need to solve, and experience that with actual consumers. For Splenda, we went to the International Diabetes Center and lived with individuals with diabetes, and, like them, monitored our glucose levels, took simulated insulin shots, and saw what happens during the day when they have a low-sugar moment. By seeing what issues they have personally, it has helped us better think about where Splenda fits into their lives and how to address these problems.

I have to make sure I speak that language, too. A few years ago, I started running in Central Park and met a woman there who's 67 and on her 13th marathon. I'm on my third marathon, but here was this woman who had severe osteoporosis, who was out there every day, rain or shine. I've sparked up a conversation with her, and she helps me live in her world, which wouldn't otherwise be accessible. It really inspires me to go back and push our own thinking about the relevance of our products. If we're focused on just trying to find a home for some science, we're going to fail."

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