There's a different kind of lightning in Seattle

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How to bring the city's culture of creativity and innovation into everything you do

There’s very little thunder or lightning in Seattle, a weird fact considering rain falls almost daily. But even with out those big flashes of light in the sky, a different kind of lightning happens here all the time that rivals the creativity and innovation of any city in the world.

Consider that this is the home of Jimi Hendrix. Of grunge. Of Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Howard Schultz. Where looking out your window on any vista in the city, you can see a skyline full of cranes building new office towers, research facilities, apartments and retail space. We even play sports differently, going for the big plays, the crazy moves. Things other teams wouldn’t dare.

As the CEO of a relatively small independent agency, I am inspired daily by what can only be described as the "Seattle Way." Everywhere you look, there are new ideas and different ways of thinking that literally change the world. A computer on every desktop (Microsoft). Overnight delivery (and now same day delivery) of virtually anything you might want to buy (Amazon). The gold standard of customer service (Nordstrom). The highest minimum wage in the country.

For those of us in a creatively driven profession, being surrounded by risk takers and rebels has a strong influence on our work, bringing the unexpected and often un-asked for solutions to market. As a marketer in Seattle, I’ve learned a lot by looking outside my window. Here are a few ways to bring a little Seattle to your marketing ideas:

Creativity is a team sport
At the recent 4A’s conference, many speakers talked about creating more collaboration in their agencies. They could learn a lot by taking a look at the Chihuly museum in Seattle. A local artist, Dale Chihuly has become a world-renowned glass sculptor and entrepreneur, a moniker not normally assigned to an artist. He is the creative force that envisions large-scale glass installations, but he relies on a team to craft the glass into shapes he designs. His "team" approach is counter to the solitary approach by most conventional glass artists. Collaboration is essential to good advertising as well. While we might not be building masterpieces out of glass, we are building content that more than ever before thrives on consumer engagement and requires expertise from multiple disciplinary teams.

Change the model — constantly
You can’t talk about Seattle without a reference to Starbucks. There’s one on every corner. About a mile from the original storefront, up Pike Street is the newest incarnation of Starbucks, the Starbucks Roastery. It is a destination for coffee connoisseurs — and entrepreneurs — who drink in the magic that pours from every nook and cranny. The Roastery is just the newest in Starbucks history of reinvention. The brand looks at every touch point as a place to innovate. This extends to where it sources its coffee, how the coffee is served (the new Siphon method is superb) to sustainability and employee benefits.

Refreshing your business model has become the rallying cry for the advertising industry as well. Today we compete with other agencies and even with consumers who generate such high value content that it airs on the Super Bowl. We’re even competing with the likes of IBM and its super computer Watson. Yet upstart agencies that understand the value of ideas and how to impact business thrive.  

Learn from your mistakes
Not every long pass thrown by Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is going to be caught. Those that do are spectacular. Those that don’t, sometimes lose the game. Even the winners sometimes have duds. While Amazon today is the largest retailer of clothing in the world, not everything Jeff Bezos touches turns to gold. Consider the Segway. Perhaps an idea way ahead of its time. Certainly with automated cars on the horizon, it could come back. But Bezos puts innovation ahead of profit. Ideas spur other ideas. That’s why we embrace project work. It gives us a chance to get a foot in the door and do interesting work that we might not ordinarily get to do.

We are trying new things, succeeding and failing faster to get to ideas that break through. The influence of Seattle culture on business and creativity is undeniable—even if your window doesn’t share my view. There’s something in Seattle that you can’t find in those other big cities—brands that aspire to be exceptional can drink it in and catch lightning.

Alan Brown is CEO of Seattle-based agency DNA.


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