Music on My Mind: Finding the Right Tunes for Your Creativity

Even with all of the buzz surrounding the Rio Olympics over the past week, one moment held the internet’s collective attention — Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps prepping for his semifinal race in the 200-meter butterfly– hoodie up and Beats headphones on (many speculate it’s Eminem blasting in them) — scrunches up his face, giving a deadly glare to no one in particular. Meanwhile, South African opponent Chad le Clos, earbuds in, shadowboxed and danced in front of him. A meme-worthy scene to be sure, but what’s really striking is the universality of the two men using music, albeit probably very different genres and with different reactions, to get themselves in the right frame of mind.

It’s no secret that athletes can get a boost from the right choice of tunes, but what if the same can be said for creatives? After all, even President Obama had admitted to also playing some Eminem before a big speech, so why not before your next big presentation? Or, even to get yourself in the right frame of mind for a particular project or to just relax your mind?

Many creatives are multi-talented across disciplines, including being musicians themselves, but even for those of us who are closer to tone deaf than the Deftones, we can still harness the power of music for our own creativity. While science has shown that music can relax, energize, inspire and even increase creativity, it’s all about knowing the patterns that will influence your work positively.

Here are five tips on when to hit play and when to pause.

Play: You’re looking to brainstorm or get lost in the style frames of your project. Just as we storyboard our design inspiration, we can also get our mood references from audio. Netflix’s Spielbergian tribute Stranger Things is a perfect example of a soundtrack that puts not just the viewers, but the show’s creators, in the ‘80s suspense mindset.

Pause: Learning new tasks. While learning an instrument can actually improve our cognitive skills and studying music has been linked to academic achievement, when it’s time to learn a new task, music can actually hinder your brain’s ability to process new information, especially if you’re reading or the music you’re listening to has lyrics.

Play: Repetitive tasks combined with a loud office environment create the perfect storm of distraction. Music can actually help in this scenario because it can block out the excessive data input that your brain is trying to process from the background noise, as well as triggering a release of feel-good neurotransmitters to help you feel relaxed and more focused.

Pause: When listening to something new, studies have shown that it’s best to listen to old favorites rather than explore something different. This is because your brain will be more easily distracted by something it’s not already familiar with.

So, when you’re preparing your summer work playlist, be sure to curate plenty of old favorites, a few lyric-free tunes, and some mood-setting options. And, if you need a good pump up, there’s always Eminem.


Thriving in the Balance Between Career and Life

Summer is in full swing, and the warm weather has us thinking about taking a vacation. And whenever we plan time off, it makes us face the important question of if we can really afford to be out of the office for even a few days. With Americans working more hours than any other industrialized nation, and with research making it clear that all of our overworking isn’t getting us ahead, it’s time to take a look at our work/life balance.

As we’ve explored before, creative brains lose focus when they don’t get enough sleep and can greatly benefit from disconnecting. But in an industry where there’s a seemingly never-ending line of projects to finish and deadlines to meet, sometimes, things fall a little off balance. A recent study found that 87% of knowledge workers admit to working more than a typical 40-hour workweek, and 23.4% put in more than 50 hours a week. And 71% of responders admitted that they were unhappy about putting in the extra time. The corporate, and even creative, work cultures have unwittingly created an environment that is literally wearing us down.

As a leader of a creative company, I see the importance of maintaining work/life balance not only for myself and my own well-being, but for our employees, too. If we’re not setting a good example at the top, it’s likely the rest of the team won’t feel they have the freedom to take care of themselves as well. With that in mind, we put together a list of ways that we maintain work/life balance for ourselves and encourage our employees to follow:

Put Health First
From mental health to physical ailments and even sick family members, when our well-being is on the line, we must take the time to take care of ourselves (or our loved ones). From exercising and eating right to taking a sick day when we need to, in order to bring balance back to our lives, we need to put our health — and that of our employees — first.

Encourage Passion Projects
We are firm believers that passion projects drive innovation, and encouraging those passion projects for ourselves and our team members allows us all some much needed creative freedom and the ability to take a sanctioned break from our day-to-day. The result, hopefully, is that we’ll all feel re-inspired and reinvigorated.

Respect Personal Time
When Wieden+Kennedy’s London offices recently announced their initiative to ban emailing during night hours and encourage employees to reclaim time spent working on weekends, we were struck by how simple, yet important it had become for our industry. Certainly, there are times where work cannot wait, but by making it clear that they valued their employees’ personal time, they’ve set a good example for all of us in this industry to make sure we’re not losing sight of our or our team’s humanity.

Promote Vacation Time
Maybe we can’t all offer unlimited vacation time, and there’s some controversy on whether or not it actually discourages employees from taking time off, but we can make it clear that vacation time is meant to be taken. From working with employees who never seem to use their two weeks, to touting the benefits of travel directly and taking our own vacations, we need to ensure that taking time off is seen as a worthy path to nurturing the creative soul.

That’s just a small list of how we can begin to incorporate better work/life balance into our days. How do you or your company encourage better living through less?


By The Numbers: How Data Should Drive Our Storytelling

Data-driven storytelling is a buzzy phrase right now, but what does it mean? In broad strokes, the phrase suggests a new era of demographic-tailored brand messaging. Brands are experiencing a new wave of creative freedom, where they can finally leave behind market research and strategies that began in the 1920s.

Data allows the dynamic of storytelling to meaningfully engage with consumers and audiences. Because companies have access to technology and new data-capture techniques, it’s now possible to collect, store and decode billions of information bytes about customer likes, dislikes and behaviors, allowing us to predict what people are doing, what they might want or consume in the future. It’s a formidable leap for brands, which as we know, are in the business of storytelling. And storytelling is deceptively simple. It’s using messaging and the brand’s attributes to make people’s lives better. Adding data to that equation can inform brands in developing content and media or champion ideas that people will want, and that matter.

Let’s be clear, data contains dazzling potential, but it’s still pieces of information, numbers, and part of a social context. While we can use data from social media tracking, for example, to build models, predict tastes and wants, it’s still difficult for data and science to reveal all. Whether culled from samples, surveys, research or charts, data works when paired with the dynamics of everyday life. Along with data, our worlds are “thick,” as cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz described it, with codes and meanings.

As Director of Strategy and Research at Oishii Creative, providing context for this data for our clients and using it to shape our approach is a key part of my role. It’s important to combine raw numbers with culture and culture dynamics and the applicable disciplines of studying how we humans invent and form ideas, values and behaviors, opinions and experiences in everyday life.

For example, we recently partnered with 24-hour preschool network Sprout on a series of brand spots as part of a rebrand. As a network for kids and parents, we knew we had to reflect and tell the story of modern families, and the family mindset. For the campaigns, not only did we look at the raw numbers of what makes up a family today, such as birth, marriage and divorce rates, but we also looked at sentiment, feelings and values people have around their families. We found that even with relatively high divorce rates, people believe in love and the institution of marriage. Most research points to a new era of marriage and family, whereby people don’t just blend, but they create their own version of the marriage ideal, one that works for them. That’s the power of culture. It’s the remaking of tradition in the new context. Commitment to family in its core form remains strong; it’s taking shape in new ways. Culture and data together help us understand this.

So, when you’re strategizing your next campaign, it’s important to run the numbers. Market research samples can be small and biased, so sometimes, in order to get a real idea of what your audience is looking for, it helps to merge a broader cultural picture with a more rigorous scientific view. And to do that, you’ve got to go to the source. After all, numbers don’t lie.


What’s Next? We Look to the Future for PromaxBDA

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We were thrilled to once again partner with our longtime friends at PromaxBDA to develop a branding package for The Conference 2016, the international organization’s annual event for those of us working in media, marketing and design for the entertainment industry. Having

Promax_Conf_Final PROMAX LOGOS _6_09_16.00_00_28_19.Still012 previously created the Conference and Awards opens and branding for PromaxBDA in 2014, it was especially exciting for us to have the opportunity to work on their 60th anniversary!

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This year, we were tasked with exploring how our industry constantly reinvents itself, with new forms of content and distribution

Promax_Conf_Final PROMAX LOGOS _6_09_16.00_02_02_04.Still009changing the media landscape. As veterans of this industry, it’s something we deal with everyday.

Drawing heavily from PromaxBDA’s Promax_Awards_Ceremony_Final.00_01_06_08.Still024 tagline, “Create What’s Next,” we wanted to create a symbolic journey through the different stages of creativity. So, in our fully-CG opener, we embraced the new modes of Promax_Awards_Ceremony_Final.00_00_42_04.Still011 communication and technology, such as social media and virtual reality, while giving a nod to the old plastic arts as seen in architectural and sculptural forms.

Promax_Awards_Ceremony_Final.00_00_28_06.Still007 Promax_Awards_Ceremony_Final.00_00_10_24.Still003And while there’s a lot of uncertainty in our industry, we wanted our piece to celebrate the optimism of the future. We realized that, ultimately, our success in “what’s next” will be dependent on our ability to find new ways to communicate and connect with others.


Your busy, chatty brain needs some quiet

One of the fundamental principles of Buddhism is that the world is constantly in flux, and therefore, each of us is in flux, experiencing constant change. According to Buddhism, by not embracing change and trying to hold on to life around you too tightly, be it the negative or the positive, we bind ourselves to suffering. To accept change is to accept ourselves and those around us as constantly changing creatures, who are not bound to our past failures or successes.

While initially frightening, whether or not you follow Buddhist teachings, once you embrace the idea that nothing is permanent, it can be very freeing. You aren’t who you were yesterday when you lost that pitch or even who you were this morning when you felt the stress of a budget meeting. You are only who you are in this moment, and that allows you to let go of your expectations, fears and doubts about yourself and take on new challenges, views and states of mind.

And it’s in that new mindstate that’s the key to embracing change. By adopting mindfulness — the practice of watching one’s breath and noticing thoughts and sensations — during your work hours, it can help you reflect upon the evolution of self, embrace it and even thrive from it. But don’t take our word for it. Companies, and even business schools, have embraced the adaptation of mindfulness for success: Google’s created a course on it, while eBay and Twitter both offer meditation areas for its employees.

And especially creatives can benefit from mindfulness. Creative work requires a quiet mind, your brain’s neurons quietly humming on autopilot. Tapping into quiet shuts down the chatty parts of your brain, the areas that plan, plot and worry. Whether it’s a walk around the office or an early morning sit down in your living room before anyone gets up, quiet and stillness makes room for ideas, connections and creativity.

So, how can we incorporate mindfulness into our already busy schedules? The good news is only a few minutes a day can make an enormous difference. When you’re feeling stressed, whether it’s because of long commutes to and from work, conflict with a coworker or just generally feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath, relax your body and let go of your thoughts. It sounds deceptively simple, but studies have shown that mindfulness makes us happier, less stressed, more empathetic and more cognitively mobile, increasing memory and helping us think more clearly. And, with 47% of us admitting to spending our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing, a little mindfulness can go a long way.

Of course, if you need a little more help, there’s an app for that.


Want a Strong Company Culture? Define It

A company culture is typically defined as an organizational set of shared ideas, values, beliefs and behaviors within an organization. A work culture influences people in both big and small ways — everything from clothing choices to meeting styles to the systems for getting work done.

While this definition seems fairly straightforward, it’s recently taken on more complex understandings and practicalities in work spaces. Now, offices must consider all aspects of human thinking and creative needs, designing and building out spaces and offering benefits best suited for churning out innovative ideas and behaviors.

This new perception of work culture now factors into how we see a company’s success (no matter how much money you’re making your investors, if you’re employees are miserable, it’s just bad business) and its outside appeal. Some companies like Zappos, Google and REI draw new recruits in just based off of their famed cultures. And studies have shown that flexible work cultures and ones that value further development of their employees’ talents are especially appealing to Millennials. But while we’re all familiar with free lunches, in-office yoga and “unlimited” vacation time, what’s really at the base of a company culture that will make it strong?

Turns out, for a company culture to have the most chance of success, it doesn’t really matter what perks you’re offering. What really determines whether a culture will thrive is how well it’s defined. If everyone feels they’re operating under different, or even competing goals, it can cause conflict and distort expectations. In fact, having a strong company culture is so important, that according to Fast Company, even having a negative company culture can be better than having no company culture at all; at the very least, it provides employees with a structure, and set of values and expectations from which to operate. We’re certainly not advocating for a toxic work culture for anyone, but the fact is, even knowing what you’re working against can help you make something better.

And while there is proof that positive work cultures make people more productive, what employees really want is a sense of consistency and the ability to be part of a work community, where they can contribute to ideas and solutions. In fact, a little push can be just what a business needs. A little candor on everyone’s part, and even some healthy conflict, can start a conversation, get people actively thinking, talking and ruminating on ideas.

So, if your culture isn’t clearly defined, maybe it’s time to sit down and recap your essential principles and define it. Or better yet, invite your team to contribute. By including their input, you may be taking the first step to fostering the strong, community-oriented culture that draws people in and keeps them engaged.


Don’t Fear Conflict. Work Through It!

Your workday was going fine. The pitch went well, you just delivered your latest project (and on time!), and then suddenly, a coworker wants to “have a word” about a grievance. Suddenly, your day has been upended, and with just a few words, your heart is racing and your stomach is turning. You’ve just been faced with conflict in the workplace.

Negatively processing and reacting to conflict is bad for us. Aside from the immediate “fight or flight” response your body experiences, ongoing conflict elicits large amounts of stress in our bodies and can have a lasting impact on our memory, mood and even lifespans. Studies have shown the toll of the stress from conflict on our bodies can even lead to increased work-related injuries.

So, what can we do to minimize the negative impacts of workplace conflict on ourselves and those we’re interacting with? According to the Harvard Business Review, choosing your words carefully is the best start. When emotions are high, we often don’t take time to carefully consider what we’re saying to the other person, or how we’re coming across, which can further escalate the situation. Another issue is that in our rush to get our point across and convince the other party why we’re in the right, we fail to actively listen to them, thereby shutting ourselves off from a potential resolution and further aggravating the situation. Here are six more do’s and don’ts for dealing with workplace conflict.

Don’t rush. Take a breath. Take a walk. Take your time to respond to that email. Even if you have to excuse yourself for a few minutes, do not push yourself into a response before you’re fully calm. When things are tense, the wrong response could make them worse.

Do listen without interrupting. This could be difficult, especially when you feel you’re the wronged party, but it’s imperative to moving forward that both sides feel they’ve had a proper chance to express themselves.

Don’t focus on a winner. It’s a win-or-lose mentality that gets people into conflict in the first place. By letting go of the need to be the victor, and instead focusing on a resolution, you can shift the focus to healing the matter together.

Do accept responsibility. Also in Harvard Business Review, leadership author and Harvard Business professor Linda Hill, advises not to act like there’s only one point of view. “You need to own your perception. Start sentences with ‘I’ not ‘you,’” she explains.

Don’t fear conflict. It’s inevitable in any workplace, or in life. And if you’re in a leadership position, it’s just part of your job. By ignoring the situation, you’ll only make it worse. So, take a deep breath, relax your muscles and try to focus on a solution.

No one says it’ll be fun or easy, but properly dealing with conflict is mental strength training for all of us.


The Science of Sleep

Are you yawning as you settle down to read this? Or perhaps you’ve just refilled your coffee cup for the third time in an effort to “stay focused.” We are loathe to admit it in a work environment that prizes being “on” at all hours, but, as a whole, we are not getting enough rest. Recent studies have confirmed that Americans do not get enough sleep, with more than a third of adults getting less than seven hours a night, which may be just as bad at not sleeping at all. So, we may very literally be working ourselves to death.

Even Arianna Huffington, the queen of productivity, has gotten onboard. Her latest book, “The Sleep Revolution,” touts the benefits of getting more shut eye in order to be more creative, productive, and even happier. In her 2010 TED Talk, where she advised attendees to “sleep their way to the top,” Huffington tackled the culture of “sleep deprivation one-upmanship” that has led people to brag about how little rest they’re getting and how much they’re doing.

We’ve adopted a culture where we struggle to recognize or justify our own value unless we’re in a constant state of being in-demand. When we’re too busy, have too many conflicting deadlines and back-to-back meetings, it’s easy to trick ourselves into believing that just compromising on a few hours of sleep is the best answer. But ongoing sleep deprivation, even losing just a few hours a night, can lead to health risks, lowered creativity, trouble concentrating or even an inability to function through the workday. And, according to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep is something that can’t be caught up on later.  

What can we do? Powering down all electronics, at least one hour before bed may be our biggest goal. By signaling to your brain that it’s time to relax, it can start the necessary process to prepare for sleep. Having a nightly ritual, like meditation, reading or putting on some extra comfy pajamas, can help ease your mind to make the transition from the busy workday to the world of Morpheus.

So, next time you’re getting lost in your work at 2 am and feeling that charge that comes from knowing your ideas are flowing and you’re bringing value to the table, just remember how much you’ll suffer for missing those extra zzz’s tomorrow. Or as Huffington says, “I urge you to shut your eyes and discover the great ideas that lie inside us, to shut your engines and discover the power of sleep.”


Lost and Found on the Creative Path

Everyday is a new creative adventure, whether you’re working on a passion project or trying to come up with the next big idea for your client. We should try to strive to let ourselves embrace, explore and be inspired by our own personal creative paths.

But sometimes, we wander off the path and get lost on the way. The journey may still feel enjoyable, but we’ve stepped away from the process in an unplanned or unhelpful way that takes you too far from actually achieving your goals. And in those instances, no matter how pleasurable the experience, sometimes, if you go off-course, you’ve got to find your way back. Here are three tips to getting yourself back on track.

  1. Find a guide. If you’re truly lost, perhaps you need a little guidance to find your way? Maybe it’s revisiting the original creative brief to see if you’ve strayed too far from the original concept. Maybe it’s asking your colleagues, team or boss for advice when you’re facing a mental challenge that has you sidelined. Or, if your struggle is a bigger challenge of feeling adrift in your job, a mentor or even a career coach may be the answer. As creative consultant Jeffrey Davis said of feeling sidelined, “I’ve seen talented minds go to waste out of sheer stubbornness, pride, and shame in not asking for directions from others… Every thriving enterpriser I know, interviewed, and have studied has a mentor and a group of trusted allies.” Don’t be afraid to admit how you’re feeling and to ask for help.
  1. Focus. This is the tough one because struggling with focusing could be what caused you to feel lost in the first place, but sometimes, the only answer to getting back on track is to buckle down and do it. While we always need to allow ourselves a balance of creative freedom, having the concentration and discipline to see ourselves through challenging projects, situations and even time periods is essential to seeing things through. So, next time you feel yourself drift off your path, work on training your mind to focus, just like you would any muscle.
  1. Give Yourself Time to Get Lost. We’ve explored before how important a little time off to daydream and wander is for the creative brain. Perhaps you’re getting lost due to creative fatigue. In a digital era where we’re always connected and an industry where we can technically do our work from anywhere with a wifi signal, it’s easy to understand how fast we can get to a state of burnout. Wieden + Kennedy London even recently went so far as to institute email-free hours and limited meeting times to help combat the “always-on” expectations. If you’re feeling disconnected in your creative work, maybe it’s time to schedule some time to be actually disconnected.

Sometimes, the best way to find your way back is to embrace the journey for a bit. After all, as Tolkien said, “Not all who wander are lost.”


How Passion Projects Drive Innovation

From books and how-tos to best practices and research, the inspiration and tools for innovation are seemingly everywhere, making creative disruption achievable if we just give it room and time to thrive… or so the thinking goes. The truth is that innovation isn’t just new thinking, it’s actually putting those new ideas into practice. Or, as John Maynard Keynes said, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”

And allowing our teams the freedom to escape those old ideas and innovate new ones is a large part of the thinking behind encouraging employee passion projects goes.

Google may have made the concept famous with their (defunct in name only) 20% time rule, where employees could spend 20% of their time experimenting with their own ideas. But the concept is a lot wider than just the search giant. Many startups have utilized the idea, and of course, 3M is possibly the original pioneer of the idea that giving employees more freedom and time to pursue what they love will result in happier, more productive employees.

As creative professionals, this concept should come naturally to us, but it’s often hard to justify the luxury of a passion project. However, when you feel a certain sense of creative freedom or opportunity to pursue a project just for the sake of enjoyment, you’re more likely to be inspired, refreshed and reconnected with your work. As we’ve said before, sometimes we are judged by our amount of structured creative output, rather than our quality, which can hinder us from taking real creative risks and innovating our processes, our work and ourselves.

So don’t discount those doodles, scribbles and side projects your employees may be doing in their downtime. You never know what will spark their next successful idea, and giving them the space, encouragement and freedom to explore their creativity will foster a more supportive, rewarding environment. After all, if they feel they can be open about their experimental projects, who knows what they will share with you — and how those ideas will be actualized in the real world.

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