Madison Avenue is populated by ad firms with names that remind one of alphabet soup: DDB. JWT. BBDO. Y&R. Now these agencies are about to be joined by a three-letter organization that evokes quite a different reaction: UCB.
Since 1990, the improv troupe known as Upright Citizens Brigade has primarily been in the business of making people laugh. Original members, after all, include people like Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh and Horatio Sanz. But the organization has also developed a specialty in helping people unlock creativity on the quick – and hopes to bring some of that talent to the advertising industry.
“We have a lot in common with ad agencies,” says Deidre Sullivan, director of brand strategy at UCB, in an interview. “We are both making creative product and dealing with creative people.”
Under the terms of a new partnership, The 4As, a trade organization that represents the nation’s advertising and marketing agencies, will begin offering its members access to a new portfolio of workshops developed and led by UCB. The topics range from better storytelling to how to jump-start ideas in a room full of creative executives to “improv basics” that help participants get comfortable in front of crowds, in meetings and on calls.
“We are keenly aware of increased pressure on agencies to get to ideas efficiently, to get to better ideas in a compressed time period,” says Margie Parker-Lamparillo, executive vice president of learning, development and partnerships at the 4A’s, in an interview. “We are looking for training that enables the creative process under the new realities of today.”
In a different era, ad-agency staffers had more time to devise ideas, storyboards and slogans. With social-media outreach becoming more important to advertisers, however, they often have just minutes instead of days.
Consider the Super Bowl, where one of the most recent stand-out pieces of work isn’t one of the event’s costly 30-second TV ads, but a simple Twitter outreach from Oreo. In 2013, an agency working for the popular cookie seized the moment as the power went out at the Superdome in the middle of a CBS broadcast of Super Bowl XLVII. “Power out? No problem,” came a post from the Oreo Twitter feed. “You can still dunk in the dark.”
Or think about the scandalous “Access Hollywood” tape that surfaced in October of 2o16, in which then-candidate Donald Trump acknowledged harassing women. Trump mentioned eating Tic-Tacs in advance of meeting attractive females. “Tic Tac respects all women,” Tic Tac USA posted on Twitter within a day or so of the story breaking. “We find the recent statements and behavior completely inappropriate and unacceptable.”
Communication has only accelerated since those moments – placing ad executives under a never-dimming spotlight.
“We all are living in real-time marketing conditions. News breaks and businesses need to respond, and agencies are a primary partner to those businesses,” says Parker-Lamparillo. “Ad agencies have to be more agile, more nimble and to be able to produce compelling ideas and communication on a real-time basis.”
The workshops might be new for ad agencies, but UCB has been offering similar ones for quite some time, says Sullivan. Past classes have taught people how to be better team members and how to think more quickly in a particular moment. “One pharmaceutical company found teams were always on conference calls – and getting really bad at them,” she recalls. “We offered ways to us the techniques of improv to listen better and to open and close a call better.” If you start to notice funnier, more timely commercials in a few months’ time, perhaps UCB had something to do with it.
(Above, pictured: A UCB improv workshop)