Helen Edwards on Branding: A blast from the past

Marketers aiming to run 'breakthrough' workshops should look to the industrial age for inspiration.

If I say 'workshop', what images come to mind? No, not that kind of workshop - the manufacturing kind, from the great industrial age, when Britain was 'the workshop of the world'.

These were hard places that produced hard outputs. Wheels whirred, lathes rattled, hammers thumped and sparks flew. Behind the heat and noise, there was method and purpose. Along the workbenches, skills were specialised and wages were low. Efficiency was greatly increased by what Adam Smith famously termed the division of labour - as much the driving force of the industrial revolution, and the wealth of the modern world, as mechanisation itself.

Given this provenance, today's 'marketing workshop' must be one of the great misnomers of all time. These are soft sessions with soft outputs, conducted in bland, air-conditioned rooms. The sounds are those of the scratching marker on the flipchart, the surreptitious buzzing of BlackBerry devices and, now and then, the fervour of a break-out team presenting back to the group.

Everyone is pretty well paid, some spectacularly so, but not for any specialised skill they are performing in the workshop itself. There is no division of labour - everyone is deemed to be as creative or as insightful as the next person.

So there is no efficiency, either.

Any leader wishing to emerge from a marketing workshop with the nuts and bolts of a new brand identity, the springs of a new creative idea or the levers of commercial advantage is likely to be disappointed. In the cold light of day, the rewards will be the typed-up hieroglyphics on the flipcharts, with their long, convoluted phrases as the team got more desperate for consensus after tea. There will be no breakthrough thinking on that pad. A good workshop moderator might just about encourage industry, but never revolution.

Why are marketing leaders so enamoured of workshops? Usually because they want everyone on the team to 'buy in' to the brand's new future, and figure that involving them in its creation is a way to achieve this. If this is the principal objective, then the methodology is sound, as long as it is seen as part of a much broader process, with most of the intellectual heavy lifting accomplished before and after the workshop session.

Marketers determined to achieve breakthrough brand thinking in the workshop itself, however, will have to confront a change of format. It is virtually heresy to say it, but the big change must be to jettison the convention that prevents criticism of ideas as they come up. Right now, you are meant to 'build' rather than challenge - but you can't build on mush.

Instead, consider breaking up the group into those from creative disciplines, and those with more analytical skills. Use the creative group to generate ideas and the analytical one to tear them to shreds. The real creative breakthroughs will come in these interactive sessions, as ideas are stretched and reshaped by the fire of confrontation.

It won't feel like any workshop you've ever been to. There will be more heat and noise, and it will be uncomfortable - more like the real thing, in fact. In which case, you might as well go one step further and take the session out of the office or hotel environment, and hold it in a disused industrial premises, sitting along workbenches, where the outputs were once always hard, precise and usable. For the symbolism alone, it will be worth it.

- Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers.

30 SECONDS ON ... The origins of brainstorming

- The brainstorm is the progenitor of the modern workshop. Its principles were first set down by Alex Faickney Osborn (the 'O' in BBDO, the agency that he created in 1928) in his classic book, Applied Imagination, which was first published in 1953.

- Osborn devised the brainstorm technique as part of his advertising work, but later adapted it to help the US Navy innovate better systems.

- Its cardinal rule was to separate creation from judgement: 'Criticism is ruled out; adverse judgement of ideas must come later.'

- He wrote that 'free-wheeling is welcomed; the wilder the idea, the better' - and prized quantity above quality in brainstorm sessions.

- Osborn was realistic and claimed that sessions would provide 'final answers' only if the problem was simple enough - such as new-product name generation, for example.

- Applied Imagination has been reprinted 22 times and sold more than 200,000 copies.


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