Modern Creative Ideas: Designing for Scale
September 12th | 2017

Back in 2004, Maria McHugh and I gave a talk at the 4A’s account planning conference, Stratfest, about the changing nature of communications.

Much of our thinking had been inspired by Jonah Peretti’s infamous Nike Sweatshop email thread. The principles that Peretti, then a graduate student at MIT, outlined therein later became the foundation of two successful businesses –  first the Huffington Post and then at Buzzfeed.

By looking at blogs and analyzing the patterns via which his email rippled out into the world, Peretti discovered two accidental characteristics of that email that led to its viral spread:

1. The inclusion of a variety of cultural themes. 

From Nike lovers to Nike haters, from culture jammers to worker’s rights advocates, from lovers of comedy to lovers of freedom and self-expression – the fact that it had specific appeal to lots of different kinds of people rather than a single thread of either broad or focused appeal meant that it could move more quickly and effectively through our increasingly fragmented and splintered society.

2. The variety of interaction levels enabled. 

From elements that could appear in micro media (1 to 1 communications like email or chat), to “middle media” elements that could be discussed on forums or blogs, to mass media – the email thread contained several different handles and levels of engagement which meant it could also traverse our increasingly fragmented media landscape.

For me, it was an eye-opening discovery.

The picture that emerged was one of multi-dimensional and multi-faceted ideas capable of gaining broad appeal: post-modern ideas made for a post-modern culture. The reason it felt like such a huge insight at the time was because it was a huge insight. 

It was perhaps the most compelling condemnation of the traditional comms-based theory that messages should be simple and that we should spread them broadly via mass media. It’s no exaggeration to say that the reshaping of the comms industry, the emergence of content platforms, content strategy, influencer marketing and the disruption of agencies were birthed by this set of insights. And, for my partners and me, this was one of the seeds that led to the idea of modern-multi-dimensional brands – and the creation of Zeus Jones.


But Peretti’s discovery was even more important than he realized – because while these characteristics were developed to apply only to content and communications, it turns out that they also apply to modern creative ideas of all kinds.

Take a look at music, for example. What started as random and interesting collaborations between musicians from different genres has developed into a trend that SNL skewered recently. Albums have become platforms for collaboration. Indeed, the same set of artists often appears simultaneously on multiple albums. Creatively the results can be more interesting and layered than otherwise, but, commercially, it’s clear that these platforms are also designed to draw in the audiences of individual artists who may not have been exposed to the work of the others. Collectively, this enables these albums to reach out to more groups and to cross cultural barriers more effectively.   

Fashion is another place where we find these principles are at work. Brands like Supreme and retailers like Kith have collaborated with a dizzying array of other brands and artists. The best collaborations also include a wide variety of different pieces, ranging in price from $100 to over $50,000 (for a Supreme x Rolex collab). This range of output adds another layer of specific appeal to lots of different groups.

Supreme x North Face collab via Highsnobiety

We see these same characteristics leading to ideas that scale across all areas of culture: ideas that cross social and cultural barriers and navigate a chaotic, layered and equally fragmented media and communications landscape are the ones that capture broad attention and adoption.

Inherent in all of this is the basic truth that scale is not based on how far you can afford to push your idea; instead, it’s based on how many people you invite to pull your idea. And what started as a way for content and communications to spread has morphed into a way for products, services and experiences to spread.

This presents a compelling alternative to the build-then-scale dogma that pervades most thinking. Rather than developing communications to help products, services and experiences scale, can we instead design scale into them?

Indeed, products, services and experiences are, as multi-dimensional objects, actually far better suited for housing multi-faceted, multi-dimensional ideas. They are better platforms for modern creative ideas than either content or communications.

Designing products, services and experiences as creative objects increases their relevance to a broader set of people. It builds in an emotional connection as well as a functional one, and should lead to objects that are more effective at changing behavior than purely utilitarian ones.

And, by treating them as creative ideas, they could scale better than content or communications, making investments in products, service or experience even more efficient than investments in marketing communications.

Thank you to Maria for the original collaboration.