Golin CEO Fred Cook on Improvisation and Finding the Next Great Idea

October 16, 2014

Fred Cook
Fred Cook

While preparing for this issue on creativity and ideas, I started reading “Improvise — Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO,” the new book from Golin’s Fred Cook.

The Chicago-based agency’s CEO took a long and varied path before starting a 25-plus year career at Golin. He barely graduated from college, he admits, held a variety of jobs, including limo driver, hotel doorman and pool hustler.

As he says, the ability to improvise is a critical survival skill that sets professionals apart as they advance in their careers. And it certainly worked. PRSA presented Cook with the Gold Anvil, the Society’s highest individual award, during the International Conference in Washington, D.C., on Oct.13.

I called Cook to discuss improvisation and how it relates to brands and creativity. Here’s what he had to say:

What mistakes do you generally see when brands try to reach consumers?

For a long time, everyone in our profession talked about trust being the most important element of a brand with a consumer. But we’ve seen, over the last decade, that a lot of trusted brands have fallen by the wayside, and it wasn’t because they lost their trust — it’s because they lost their relevance. Look at Kodak or Blockbuster, which people still think very highly of.

Today, brands that want to be successful have to be tuned in to what the consumers are thinking about and talking about and what they want in order to be accepted as part of their life, and part of their lifestyle.

How does improvisation play into reaching consumers?

Because things are happening so fast in all parts of our lives, we don’t have time to research and do focus groups and message testing on every single thing that a company says or does. You have to be much more improvisational in how you operate. You have to play it by ear, and be willing to say and do things when you don’t have all of the information at your fingertips.

So, it’s a much more instinctual kind of communication, and you have to be able to move quickly in order to be relevant to the conversation. The research that we’ve done shows that a company has about four hours to participate in a conversation and still be relevant. Once the topic has been out there for four hours and then you respond to it, it’s probably too late to be part of that conversation.

You do have to improvise in that scenario because in that short period of time, you don’t get all of the information you need to respond in a way that you’re sure it’s going to be effective. And then, you have to course correct. If you make a mistake, then you have to quickly respond.

Your book provides many thoughtful musings on improvising in your career. How can this apply to finding a great idea for a client or your own organization?

I use the example of actors in a movie. They rehearse their lines. They do take after take to get it exactly right. Then you look at improvisational comedians, and they’re playing off the cues from the audience and other performers and making up stuff as they go along that has to tell a story — it has to be relevant, funny and entertaining.
It’s a different mindset than being able to rehearse and do multiple takes on something until perfect. That analogy applies to the way we communicate in business. We’re having to figure these things out in real time, and we don’t get to rehearse and practice.

Do you believe in the old-fashioned brainstorming session where everyone is brought into a conference room to generate ideas?

The PR profession has to invest more time and energy in ideas than we have in the past. The notion you’re describing is a 45-minute meeting in a conference room where you throw a few ideas up on an easel, and then work those into a plan. You can’t be successful doing that anymore. We have to follow the lead of ad agencies in creativity and hire people who are extremely creative and bright, and then invest time and energy — sometimes days of working together — to find one single great idea.

The more that we do that as a profession, the more we will be leading the conversation with our clients. They’re looking for ideas and they don’t care where they come from, which means it’s a big opportunity for PR people. PR people are so accustomed to being politically correct in censoring themselves every step of the way. That censorship doesn’t allow for the level of creativity that we need. We have to be more courageous with our ideas and willing to try new things. And that’s when it begins to work.

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



Jenny Lynn Anderson says:

I just finished this book yesterday….what an inspiration! And amen to Fred's last paragraph in the article above! We, as PR practitioners, have awesome, great, over-the-top ideas that blow clients away but we are too "buttoned-up" as a profession. Jenny Lynn Anderson, APR

Nov. 2, 2014

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