Yes, And: Using Improv to Enhance Marketing Creativity

In early February, a few members of the IDG Enterprise marketing team signed up for a marketing creativity bootcamp. It was pitched as a bootcamp to strengthen your creative muscle using exercises drawn from the world of improv, led by Andy Aylesworth, Associate Professor, Marketing at Bentley University. Curious as to what was to come, we traveled into Boston’s leather district and made our way to the workshop held in a very cool (and very popular settings as of late), collaborative workspace. Aylesworth opened the floor by acknowledging that everyone is born creative. We are curious and explore the world as children with open eyes and creative minds. But, he said, as time goes on and we grow into adults that creative muscle atrophies. Why does it atrophy? The premise he suggested lies in the way our educational structure is set up – encouraging convergent thinking so that we are always narrowing down our focus in order to get to that one correct answer. Whereas often in the marketing world, we are asked to put on our creative hats, use our imagination, and come up a lot of different ideas – divergent thinking. Maybe it comes in the form of a client you’ve been working with that is now asking you to come up with options for a new approach to achieve their goals. Maybe it’s a project you are working on to get your company or brand in front of a new audience and you have to brainstorm strategy options. Whatever it may be, we marketers have to shake off what we grew up doing and start flexing our creative muscle.

So, where does improv fit in to all of this, you might be asking? As Aylesworth put it, being good at divergent thinking (i.e. creativity) is often about getting rid of that voice of judgement. The little voice in the back of your head that might be saying, “what if that isn’t the right approach” or “that’s not a good idea” so you end up not voicing anything at all. Fast thinking helps eliminate that voice of judgement hence improv. To help get ourselves warmed up, we started with an improv technique where Aylesworth asked people random questions and the person had to say the first thing that came to them. The fun part: every answer is the right answer. Then, we learned the uber principle of improv, the “yes, and” principle. This principle is about being open to whatever comes your way, acknowledging it, and building on it. Based on the “yes, and” principle, we did an activity where person A would make an offer such as “let’s go to lunch,” then person B would reply with a “yes, and,” such as “yes, and then let’s spend the day roaming around town,” and then person A would have to conclude with another “yes, and” statement. It’s a simple activity that puts you in the mindset of being open, accepting, and building. Think about how that might work or expand thinking in an office setting. There are times when someone throws out an idea on a project and instead of offering a “yes, and” others are quick to shoot down the idea and thus quashing the creativity that may have followed.

Tying improv to marketing makes a lot of sense. It’s about being fun and playful to not only boost creativity, but also to stay present and in the moment. Ultimately, as Aylesworth told us, it’s kind of like a brick and cathedral analogy. Don’t go into your job thinking that you alone need to know everything or have the ultimate solution. It’s about starting with one brick, laying the foundation, and then letting everyone help build on it.


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