Five summer reads for agency innovators
Everyone in advertising is trying to come up with “more leading ideas, faster.” That’s how McKinney Chief Innovation Officer Jim Russell defines innovation, and he thinks reading these books could help you do it better. His picks aren’t the usual creativity how-tos brimming with references to philosophy and psychology. Some you could even take to the beach. It is summer, after all.
“Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart
One of the reasons Jim liked this novel was its reliance on imagined technology to drive the plot and develop the characters. Goodreads describes it as a “dark tale of America’s dysfunctional coming years — and the timeless and tender feelings that just might bring us back from the brink.”
A 39-year-old protagonist works in sales for an immortality provider and is in love with a 24-year-old recent college grad who minored in Assertiveness. Their America is in a credit crisis, tanks are on street corners to control the daily riots, and everyone has something called an apparat. You can call and text on it, shoot videos and stream music, but it also shows you the “hotness” and “sustainability” scores of those near you. At least that’s optional: Your credit score is always projected on store walls.
“Shteyngart didn’t have to be right about the technology,” says Jim, “but he had to be consistent. And he’s very consistent about what data the apparat feeds to the corporation that controls everything and how it operates in people’s lives, so that when the sad schmuck [protagonist] goes into the bar and sees his low desirability index and his friends’ higher scores, well, it’s just fantastic.” Jim goes on to say that there was much about the apparat he didn’t understand — for example, if it was a wearable or more like a smartphone. But it didn’t matter. “If there are executional holes in the vision, that’s OK. It’s fiction so your mind can fill in the details.”
WHY AGENCY INNOVATORS SHOULD READ THIS BOOK: “Sometimes fiction makes you think about technology and society better than nonfiction can. And this book, in addition to being touching and funny, has a layer of how technology may be experienced in the future.”
“Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson
On his website, Steven Johnson says his book “tries to grapple with the question of why certain environments seem to be disproportionately skilled at generating and sharing good ideas.” He debunks the myth of the lone inventor by revealing the circumstances necessary to create an organic space of creativity. Jim explains, “He lists everything he thinks is an innovation, starting in the 1400s, and looks at the rules that made these things happen — from parachutes and portable watches to electric batteries and suspension bridges.”
Invention, Johnson concludes, is possible only with a network of people and slow hunches. It’s no surprise, then, that larger cities consistently deliver more invention and innovation. “Much like we see tons of species in complex ecosystems like jungles and coral reefs,” says Jim, “we see tons of stuff come out places where people with all different points of view rub up against each other every day.”
WHY AGENCY INNOVATORS SHOULD READ THIS BOOK: “It will blow up or negate deeply held principles for how you think invention happens,” said Jim. “At the very least you’ll know the way forward using the principles in it.”
“The 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School” by Matthew Frederick
“Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” by Scott McCloud
“Which Lie did I tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade” by William Goldman
Innovation leads to either usable or entertaining conclusions, and books about how other industries and disciplines get there can both inspire and inform. Take the first one on the list. In advertising, we’re tasked with creatively solving our clients’ problems, either by creating stuff that hasn’t been created before or by using existing stuff in a new way. Architects do the same thing, sort of. With buildings. Half text, half illustration, “The 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School” was written by an architect and instructor to provide “valuable guideposts for navigating the design studio and other classes in the architecture curriculum,” according to the publisher.
The second decodes comics using a comic book format. The third, Goldman’s sequel to his 1983 tell-all book on filmmaking, “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” deconstructs great movies scenes. Any time you take something apart to see how it works, you learn. You may even start to see the pieces that make up the whole of your something, and how they could be put together differently. Innovation, anyone?
WHY AGENCY INNOVATORS SHOULD READ THESE BOOKS: “A lot of great ideas come from outside our industry,” explains Jim. “And I think the lessons in design, drawing, the creative process and storytelling in these books encourage lateral thinking, which is often key.”