How Funworks injects improv, sketch comedy and legit fun into creativity

Steve Martin famously said that “comedy is not pretty.” When humor produces winning campaigns, however, it can be highly effective. Geico. Bud Light’s “Real Men of Genius”. Apple’s “I’m a Mac”. Classics from back in the day like Wendy’s “Where’ the Beef” and FedEx’s fast-talking John Moschitta, Jr.

And the list goes on and on.

San Francisco indie Funworks adds plenty of comedy to the creative process, which is highly necessary in a marketing landscape that often sucks the fun right out of it by being too serious. And the agency is showing success with campaigns for brands like HP and Hipchat. New work for Ubisoft is breaking next week, SodaStream got the Funworks treatment in a new campaign. Additionally, the company saw great success with Pandora, which hired the company to come up with its “That’s My S*#%!” campaign for its new Thumbprint Radio feature.

Make no mistake, however, that the Funworks group is serious about its success, even if the process might have a few more guffaws and smiles along the way, with the company looking to science for its model.

The agency’s website puts it right out there: “Research increasingly indicates that positive emotional states (joy, humor, laughter) are associated with higher creative output. Advances in neuroimaging, cognitive psychology, and creativity studies provide us an understanding of what types of environments and brain states will most likely elicit novel insights. Our Funworkshops incorporate the latest research so that together we can unlock better ideas faster.”

It’s a difference that is so far bringing attention to big brands like Clorox, Fox Studios and the aforementioned Pandora and HP. Founders Paul Charney, CEO, Craig Mangan, CCO, and Kenny White, head of creative collaboration, are veterans of the ad industry, having worked for Goodby Silverstein & Partners and BBDO, among other agencies, and they saw the traditional way of doing brainstorming wasn’t working as well as they thought it could, so they decided to call in the big, funny guns — comedians and sketch comedy performers to lead their “Funworkshops.” The process is proving to be a winner.

A difference in the process

Even though parts of it are loose, the Funworks process is detailed, rigorous and set up in five stages. During stage one, they get to know the company they’re working with, talking with the entire team and clients.

Part two is the Funworkshop, where the group of clients meets the gaggle of improv comedians. They strategize creatively, go through some creative exercises and churn out ideas fast, cutting through perhaps weeks of theoretical conversations by making sure everyone is on the same page.

Stage three is curation, where the agency and clients go through the ideas and figure out which ones are viable before they decide on a direction. From there, it’s time to craft and execute the idea — and stage five is when they release the finished campaign to the world.

A basis in sketch comedy

Aside from being an agency executive, Charney is also a sketch comedy veteran, which is how the idea for the Funworkshop was formed in the first place. He founded a sketch comedy troupe in San Francisco called Killing My Lobster, which is where he was able to pull some talent, including a consistent collaborator, comedian Jen Sullivan.

“She was doing work for Killing My Lobster, and that's one of the sources where we were initially recruiting these sketch and improv people from. She was awesome and we said, ‘We have got to keep inviting Jen to these.’ She's just so smart and quick. The clients clearly listen to the comedians more than us,” said Charney.

Sullivan’s smarts come from her time at Harvard, where she created the Harvard Ladies' Improv Team – a female-only improv team, countering the Harvard Lampoon, which didn’t have any female writers. When she graduated, she moved to Los Angeles and started working with the famed troupe Upright Citizens Brigade. Sullivan, who is also a screenwriter, then moved to the Bay Area and started working with Killing My Lobster.

After Charney brought her in, she became a regular in the Funworkshops. With her and a group of comedians involved, the process isn’t like your usual boardroom meeting, though there is still a goal of developing a successful idea at the end.

“It's all about like finding insights. That's really what the process breeds quickly,” said Charney.

Part of what brings success is the unconventional nature. The general levity of having a troupe of comics in a room can set people at ease.

“The comedians come in and we're eating pizza and drinking beers, and it's like, ‘Your only goal here is to be as funny as possible. You make the room laugh.’ There's some kind of veil that's pulled back with that,” said Sullivan.

“It's play. It's structured so that we're trying to direct the conversation and the insights to get where the client needs to get to. We really work with the client and carefully design these workshops so that we're doing the exercises we think the people in the room can do together that will lead to answers and insight we need to build on. A lot of work goes into designing them. It's supposed to feel effortless when you're in the room. It’s supposed to feel fun,” added Charney.

Sullivan said that the sessions are like jokes being bandied about in a television writer’s room, which is highly different from a boardroom brainstorm, especially with 8 to 10 executives and 8 to 10 comedians in the room.

“We use a graphic recorder so you can see all these ideas. The graphic recorders have never been in a situation like this with the comedians and the clients who are then sort of rapid firing, thinking of a lot of ideas. They're trying to keep up. We've get some good ones, and they sort of draw the ideas as well as write them down, so that you can remember them later,” said Charney, adding that the clients then help pick the ideas they like and go with the momentum built in the session.

Sullivan noted that it often works well with the executives because they are often the ones who are the most creative in their fields.

“They got into this because they were the good storytellers in high school and college. They're the funny ones in their group. They come into these rooms and these people that are just trying to be funny at them, then they just want to riff with that. Their ideas are awesome. It gives them that base, like you're studying with a big group of friends, just to try and one up each other and pile on each other's jokes. They jump right in,” she said, noting that sometimes the riffing can get a bit bawdy or downright dirty, but that’s often the fun of the process.

Sullivan added that having people in a room viscerally responding in a positive way to the ideas helps move a project forward so much easier than polling people or panel testing.

“They have a room of 20 people that are young, funny, cool and smart grabbing their stomachs laughing their asses off or getting up and just pointing at each other, ‘Yes, that's exactly it. Oh my God, you just nailed it.’ That's the moment. They were in the room so they feel more confident moving forward with it, because they felt that emotion,” she said.

“What Jen described is what brands wants their consumers to feel. That's the whole funny part of this – they want their consumers to be emotionally connected with them, yet they don't take in ideas emotionally. The way they take in creative presentation, they're so methodical and so stoic, that I think they forget that if something hits your nerve, no doubt it's going to hit the nerve of your consumer. It's emotion. You've increased the odds of someone remembering your message. The worst thing is to be bland and in the middle and have no response,” Charney added.

The Pandora Thumbprint session seems to have gone well for the team.

Pandora goes all thumbs with new feature

Pandora has been getting plenty of press lately, first for its new paid streaming service, Pandora Plus, and again for its rebranding and redesign. It’s latest new feature is Thumbnail Radio, which is a unique station for each listener built on the songs users have thumbed, thus making sure every song is a favorite.

The campaign to promote the new feature is the brainchild of a Funworkshop that asked “What do you do when your favorite song comes on?” Pandora brass worked with the improv group to uncover the visceral moment that happens when that song hits your ears. The result is the “That’s My S*#%!” campaign, which shows various people jamming out, dancing and grooving to their favorite tunes – a visceral, emotional response.

“To be honest, our biggest concern was sitting down in a room full of comedians. Would we end up only exploring comedic paths?” asked Becca Lawson, senior director of marketing, Pandora. “Paul and I discussed that at length going into it, and he reassured me that the comedians and improv folks in the room are really used to making sure that the conversation goes well and put people at ease, and also that comedy stems from being able to uncover insights. That's absolutely what that team did for us. It wasn't all about the joke. There was a broad range. I really think the team did exactly what Paul promised they would do. We really enjoyed the workshop.”

Lawson and the Pandora team were impressed that the Funworks team was able to squeeze the strategy, creative development and sell into a short period of time.

“We have a large in-house agency, and that produces a lot of campaign elements for us. They were also sitting at the table, so it was almost as if some baseline production conversations were even happening as part of that workshop. It really streamlined the entire process. What would've taken us four months with our AOR I think took four weeks from beginning [to end]. That was great,” she said.

Charney is proud of the work the collaboration produced, and it shows in the numbers.

“The metrics have been great. In the first six weeks, it became the second most listened to station on Pandora. Brand awareness went up. Not to boast about it, but yeah, it was one of their most successful brands campaigns in a long time,” said Charney, boasting only a little.

Additional reporting by Doug Zanger.

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