Legendary adman Harry McCann once said “advertising is truth well-told.” Many would say the same goes for comedy. Perhaps the two belong together?
Funworks founder and CEO Paul Charney is working hard to put the fun back into marketing and along the way may have developed a process for enhancing corporate creativity and innovation beyond the walls of marketing.
“The idea for Funworks came about from myself and my partners who had been working in traditional advertising, most recently at Goodby Silverstein and Partners and BBDO. We just didn’t feel like things were working in terms of moving as quickly as clients wanted us to move. When you had a good idea, it wasn’t the right strategy. When you have the right strategy, it’s not breeding good ideas. I think it was frustrating to be within that slow machine and it wasn’t as much fun anymore. I think that sort of process was really the symptom of not having a lot of fun,” says Charney.
Charney was an ad guy by day and a sketch comedian by night. He had founded a sketch comedy troupe in San Francisco called “Killing My Lobster”. “I would do that at night with friends. We would come up with a lot of ideas and through this writer’s room process of getting a lot of funny people in the room and everyone trying to figure out how to make a joke really good,” says Charney
He noticed that this process of getting these sketch and improv comedians, even for a couple hours after their day jobs, came up with so many ideas faster than the traditional process in advertising of two people in a room awkwardly staring at each for two weeks. Charney thought that group scenario and energy got you to ideas quicker.
Charney left Goodby Silverstein and Partners, and along with Craig Mangan, who was Creative Director at BBDO at the time, started his own ad agency. He knew he didn’t have a lot of resources. He didn’t have an account staff to service the clients. It would just be himself and Craig to develop the ideas, manage the business and create the advertising. And out of necessity and lack of resources, he decided to bring his comedy troupe members into the writer’s room with their first client.
“I brought the client into a writer’s room of sketch and improv comedians. My partner Kenny White and I did the advertising brief. We still had the skill set, the advertising, marketing and branding skills to break down a brief and see what deliverables were needed and in two and a half hours we had an approved idea by the client to move forward. Then we did it again for a couple of other clients and found that actually bringing in an entire Marketing team to interact with the comedy improv group worked even better. Things moved even faster because there was even that much more information in the room,” says Charney.
That led Charney and his partners to forgo the traditional agency route and to focus exclusively on the idea of using their skills in both advertising and improv comedy to produce marketing executions for clients who want to bring comedy and well, fun, into their messaging. Today, Funworks has eight staffers and a list of blue-chip clients that include the likes of HP, Virgin America, Clorox, Fox Studios, Pandora, Apple’s Nest brand and even staid financial services like Charles Schwab. Charney and team have organized their comedy improv team interaction into a repeatable idea generation process that led to the name, FunWorks.
As it turns out, there is a host of academic work in group dynamics, behavioral science and neuroscience that helps explain why the Funworks process works. And in fact, Charney and team have brought on a full-time expert in the field, Erica Fortescue, as a “Creativity Architect” to add scientific rigor to the process.
“Paul has been wildly successful as a creative director. I worked primarily in education and management, and more recently, I spent the past four years launching a research center that’s focused on understanding how creative thinking develops. When we laugh it’s like a neuro-chemical cocktail that is getting released that creates a sense of euphoria, or what our research grads at UCSF term ‘curiosity relief.’ It’s this idea of when you’re curious about something and then you figure it out. I think there are parallels here to the idea that laughing is a mode of reconciliation. Then you get this boost of different neurotransmitters, like dopamine,” says Fortescue.
“With Funworks, we’ve got a skilled group of improv comedians that know how to make everybody laugh, and suddenly, it’s this fun mood. If you look at it from a brain level, everybody’s brains are suddenly positioned to come up with more unusual solutions.”
Charney grew up in Manhattan, New York. And while he always liked making his parents and friends laugh and used his comedic talent to overcome his adolescent insecurities, he never really thought of making a living from it until much later in life.
He went to Brown University and became interested in doing theater but always loved comedy. He connected with a group of people who were doing improv and then he and a few friends produced a stand-up comedy night at college. “It was scary. But we did it as a group. We would all work together and bring in our routines and then critique it. Then that same group of friends put on a sketch comedy show and created a group that’s still there called ‘Out of Bounds’,” says Charney
He graduated college and was in New York for a year trying to figure out what do with his life. He didn’t know if he loved improv, but he liked writing and coming up with ideas. So he moved to San Francisco to figure some of that out. He went with some friends from Brown and they started a sketch comedy troupe just so that he could explore and practice. He didn’t know exactly what he was going to build or do with it. And then he got a day job as an intern at an ad agency.
“I got so lucky. I was at a place called Black Rocket that was just starting out that valued comedy and did all of the first round of Yahoo ads,” says Charney. He turned out to be a talented writer and creative director and was there for almost six years. But he left Black Rocket to freelance so that he could spend more time on comedy.
“I did that for two years. Then I was just burnt. I was just really exhausted of doing both things. So in 2005 I made a decision to find out just how good I was at this advertising thing. What happens if I go all in?” says Charney.
He then made the jump to the “big leagues” of advertising by going to Goodby Silverstein & Partners, which had a reputation for being one of the most creative ad shops in the world. “That was an amazing experience and that was a really great time of my life. I worked with so many talented people and there were so many creative people in the building and in my department. But I didn’t really get to work with them directly. I was, in many ways, competing against them for work,” says Charney. After eight years at Goodby, Charney decided to go on his own again.
“We offer a distinctly different process that gets you to creative output faster in a highly collaborative environment. We also work on a project basis which allows us to be more nimble. Everyone has these ideas and everyone knows things. I think everyone (clients) wants to participate in the process. They just don’t have the platforms,” says Charney.
Now they do.
This article was written by Bruce Rogers from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.