Monday, October 27, 2008

Revisiting the Creativity & Innovation of The Beatles

I just returned from spending a couple days in Liverpool, the city of The Beatles. I stayed at the new Hard Days Night Hotel, sleeping below a huge air-brushed portrait of George Harrison. I’ll write more about the hotel, it was, to use a 60’s phrase, a trip. In the meantime, I have a lot of things to say about The Beatles, and their relationship to creativity and innovation. I spent an afternoon at The Beatles Story museum at Albert Dock, which had a great audio tour and memorabilia.

The anecdote that struck me was one told by their producer, George Martin. He recounted hearing the first tape of The Beatles and thinking it was awful. Brian Epstein, their manager, was insistent and George finally said, well, come down to London and let me evaluate them in person. He booked an hour of studio time but had low expectations. They arrived, were pleasant, polite, funny, and played with a lot of verve and energy. After they left Martin remarked to himself how charming and nice the boys had been, how much fun they had playing, and their “wit”. He noticed that after they were gone that he felt “diminished” by their absence. He noted to himself that if he felt this way, what might young people feel? That was the feeling he went with when he signed The Beatles. He remarked that he didn’t know at the time that The Beatles had been turned down by every record label in London, and if he had known, he wouldn’t have signed them.

There are several things about this anecdote that strike me for those seeking to innovate.

1.) Notice how you feel. Martin was self-aware enough to notice that he felt “diminished” by their absence. That was his clue to understanding how they affected their audiences. It takes real thoughtfulness to notice a subtle feeling like “diminished” doesn’t it? How many of us slow down often enough to notice what we are feeling about people and things? He was also impressed by their wit — their sense of fun was part of the reason he thought they had promise. Intuition

2.) New and different almost always seems wrong at first. The Beatles had a new take on pop and at first nobody, that is the experts, got it (one famous comment about The Beatles “guitar groups are on the way out”). They were ruled out by nearly all the experts. Martin was open enough to simply give them a chance and consider what was good about them. Positive evaluation allows for more possibility. Most disruptive innovations lack sophistication in some dimensions; they haven’t been all polished up and featured out. The raw chords of American R&B hadn’t been filtered and refined, it didn’t sound like “good” music to those used to something else.

3.) Persistence matters. Brian Epstein kept making his presentation, he believed in what he had and stayed after it. Most of us would have quit after the first two or three rejections.

4. Consumers know best. The fan base in Liverpool at the Cavern Club and the Casbah knew The Beatles were great two years before the experts did. They were ready for something new, ready for something fun, ready for something to lift their Liverpudlian blues. It’s old news really but it’s a lesson we often forget, consumers know best. If you want to innovate, see what people are doing, particularly those with noting to lose. Notice what those people enjoy, and you’ll find the best clues to market acceptance of virtually any product.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Fox “News” Getting Creative to Support John McCain

Sarah Palin took pains recently to point out, once again, that Barack Obama has a passing acquaintance with 60’s radical William Ayers. Apparently she does read the newspaper after all – she’s quoting the recent New York Times article. Actually, she says he “palling around with terrorists.” Fox “News”, in an effort to whip up something new and interesting to try to turn around the current polling trends, is paying non-stop homage to the attack. I’ve been watching Fox for about three hours and they are repeatedly bringing up the video of Sarah, posing questions to their audience, running the ticker under the screen, and bringing in experts from both sides (to be “fair and balanced”) to comment. It’s absolutely non-stop.

What’s not “fair and balanced” is covering this as if it were news. I thought news was, well, like something new. I have to give Fox credit for creativity. By making this the big news of the hour/day/next week, they reframe the election as a referendum on Barak Obama’s character (and neighbors!). It’s a very creative move — if the challenge at hand is too daunting, change the challenge.

The Ayers connection is an old chesnut. Sean Hannity has been playing it up (read sensationalizing) for months, maybe even over a year. Even Hannity with his radio and TV bully pulpits hasn’t really been able to make this guilt-by-association charge stick. Interested readers should read the Times article and learn that while Ayers and Obama have crossed paths, serving on charity boards together, they are not close (if you live in Hyde Park Chicago it’s hard not to cross paths with Ayers, he’s very involved). Nor does Obama support or believe in anything even close to the old radical Weather Underground philosophy. Obama has always chosen a different path – a community organizer is the opposite of a Weatherman radical; one tried to destroy the other creates. Obama’s record as a public servant is a long one. If character is really an issue let’s look at how he chose to not take a big paying downtown job to help people.

If we’re concerned with who a person pals around with, what about McCain and Charlie Keating? For those who don’t recall McCain was very involved in supporting and protecting the man who precipitated the late 80’s Savings and Loan crisis. 21,000 people lost their life savings when Lincoln Savings failed. He took some big contributions from Keating; they were “pals” in a way Ayers and Obama aren’t even close to being. I can’t think of a better example of bad judgment. Uh oh, I went swimming once at Keating’s house in Cincinnati! I guess that makes me a pal of a felon!

It’s a desperate move on the part of the McCain campaign to try to make Ayers and character an issue. Fox is doing their creative best to help, whipping froth constantly. John McCain doesn’t need Swift Boaters, he’s got Fox! And people still say that the media has a liberal bias…have they watched Fox? Or listened to almost any AM radio channel? Between Hannity and Rush Limbaugh we have two constant streams of right wing bias that go beyond Fox.

What I’m fascinated with is just how unceasingly Fox is flogging this non-story. It’s the most shocking example of real life wag-the-dog-spin I’ve ever seen.

I hope the American people are smart enough to know when they are being played like a raging bull. This red cape that Fox is flashing is a creative, but I hope transparent, attempt to turn around McCain’s flagging campaign.

How anyone could possibly think that there is anything fair and balanced about Fox is beyond me. This isn’t really news either is it? Anyone who gets news from several sources knows this. Still, since it’s the top rated news channel in the USA it’s highly influential, so it bears saying again: While Fox is highly creative, even entertaining, it’s not serious news, and it is not even close to fair and balanced. They are consistently bending the facts and reframing its coverage to benefit John McCain.

America, please do pay attention to the man behind the curtain, and don’t be too dazzled by the glittering rubies of all the Fox creative spin. Read the papers, read some books, look at all the facts, and make a fair and balanced choice this election.