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Advertising Creative Agency Long Reads

What is Dim Sum Club? Behind the thinking of the new creative process


By Kyle O'Brien | Creative Works Editor

July 25, 2017 | 9 min read

When the founders of New York agency That were thinking of new ways to improve the creative process, their minds wandered to dumplings. Those little pockets of tasty goodness led to an inclusive way to tackle the age-old brainstorming process, one that’s accepting of all ideas, both great and ridiculously stupid.

David Boxser, Nathan Phillips and Dave Kalvert

David Boxser (l), Nathan Phillips, Dave Kalvert of That

It all grew from the formation of their new agency, which founding members Nathan Phillips, David Boxser and Dave Kalvert started last year after each left their respective agency gigs for a new direction. Phillips was the former chief creative officer of Narrative, plus he worked for Google Creative Lab and was the co-founder of the Oratory Laboratory. In addition, he is also the author of The Unorthodox Haggadah. Boxser was formerly managing director of Alldayeveryday and president of Wednesday (BBDO). Kalvert was previously head of content production at R/GA and before that head of branded entertainment at Vevo. Even with those impressive resumes, however, they knew there could be a better way, so they jumped.

“We left our big boy ad jobs. We were approaching a cliff,” said Phillips, who noted that the traditional top-down approach utilized by most agencies wasn’t working – it was getting “beat by the internet”. Phillips, Boxser and Kalvert knew each other both professionally and as dads from the same circle of folks, and they noticed that they were having the same conversation about how agencies were run. The three decided to approach things from a different angle – a bottom-up model that worked more like the front page of Reddit or other sites where many voices have a say – essentially an agency that runs like the internet.

Forming a new non-traditional agency

“We wanted to start an agency with super-reliable production with creative made like the internet – embrace the chaos,” said Phillips. The three decided to call their agency Technology, Humans and Taste – That. They bill it as the “first agency built like the internet."

They use that phrase because they believe that the internet is “the most collaborative, innovative and reliably creative organization in human history." Their strategy is that they run efficient production and client services, but from the creative end, it works like the internet.

They originally needed to develop ways to work that were appropriate for digital ideas but not exclusive to them. They realized that people always talk about how fast technology goes, but they forget to take into account how slow humans move.

“We’re the slowest common denominator,” said Phillips.

That developed “new ways of working that channel the creative chaos of the digital space into effective strategic creative campaigns for clients," according to its website.

“We want to be able to collaborate with anybody,” said Phillips. Therefore, they had to have a teachable methodology, one that took the idea of a neural network and led to the evolution of the brainstorming process. What they came up with, according to Phillips, was something that is “part improv, part science experiment and part hackathon."

Unlike the “waterfall process” of traditional brainstorming, THAT’s founders didn’t want to work from the top down approach. They saw that creativity can be a messy and imperfect process, and they wanted to celebrate that, giving everyone involved an opportunity to have their voices heard. The process would create high volumes of ideas, which would eventually lead to a workable idea for the client.

That became Creative Dim Sum.

The Creative Dim Sum process

The process is meant to work like a dim sum menu – big, but with lots of small, digestible choices – though the methodology is based in science.

First, the That team builds a creative team of real-world experts to partner with the internal team, allowing for the bottom-up network thinking, like the internet. Then it’s time for the network to activate.

A proprietary workshop process allows That’s internal teams to collaborate as partners with clients and outside experts to uncover real insights, hunches and raw creative materials to come up with concepts for the team to use.

The dim sum workshop usually takes place Friday afternoon, when the participants are loose and can think freely. Those involved can range from traditional creative agency types to those in industries from the arts (musicians, dancers, etc) to the sciences. It depends on what client they are working with and what problem they ultimately want to solve, so each session is different in its makeup. Occasionally there is no client in mind, just a session of creativity to build a backlog of ideas. It’s that diversity of people that allows for ideas of all types to mesh and meld and form solutions.

“The process allows us to have a conversation with our network. Dim sum is a technology, just executed differently,” said Boxser.

Dim Sum Club Card

Thinkers work with doers in a three-step process – improvise, organize and synthesize. It all leads to advertising, but it’s a different way to get there. That sees it as a more inclusive and agile model that gets people in and has fun with them.

The workshops treat everybody at the same level, and none come in with pre-thought ideas. They sit around a table, sometimes at the New York agency, sometimes at, yes, a dim sum restaurant. Snacks, and sometimes beer, are offered for time and ideas spent. The participants are handed a sheet of paper with instructions. The gist is, you come up with a problem – any problem. It could be that there is a chair where it shouldn’t be to major problems of the world and anything in-between. Then you look for a solution. Why is the chair there? What can be done to move it? The sheets are handed in, then one of the That staff calls names and has people present their problem/solutions, and feedback is given by the group.

Being at the table for a Creative Dim Sum session can seem a bit daunting at first. Here you are with agency heads, creative types and a wide diversity of smart folks and you’re pegged to come up with an idea and present it. Not all ideas will be great, of course, but that’s the point. Some of the weirdest, craziest and, according to Phillips, “shittiest” ideas have yielded thoughts and actions that have led to good client campaigns.

“There are three types of ideas: shitty, good and impossible. The good ideas are hard, because most of them have been thought of, which leaves shitty and impossible ideas…if you can fail at making something that’s impossible, you’ve made something,” said Phillips. “We’re empowering people by saying their ideas are shitty…people actually stand up and get excited (about the process).”

Ideas at a recent session over dumplings at New York’s Jue Lan Club included trying to bring back civil discourse to creating a device that can detect cat urine on things you pick up from the street, and just about everything in between. That wants people to play to their strengths when ideating, so if you’re a dancer, use your artistic senses, and if you’re a technologist, think about your problem from a scientific standpoint.

When all the ideas come in, the makers and technologists – the agency folks – go to work turning them into workable tactics and campaigns. The client then gets 25 ideas they could do and evolves them in a collaborative two-week creative exercise.

The catch for participants is that all the ideas that are given during the dim sum process are then cataloged. All ideas are also submitted to our growing open source library of creative concepts accessible to any Dim Sum Club participants.

“Everything we make is for sharing. We have a ‘That-alog with hundreds of ideas,” said Phillips, who added that he hopes that one day they can have an open source app where anyone can access the ideas from Dim Sum Club and add to the catalog.

The results are good for clients

That wouldn’t utilize the dim sum process if it didn’t result in clients being happy with the outcome. The agency has already done successful campaigns for W Magazine with Jillian Hervey, Casper Mattresses with actor Michael Rapaport, Bud Light, designer Michael Kors and travel website Kayak.

"Working with That through the Dim Sum process helped us step out of our comfort zone and arrive at an idea that was both strategic and a new approach for our brand," said David Solomito, vice president, marketing, North America for Kayak.

"The entire exercise was an experience in new thinking for us. Everything from taking an idea we felt was not very relevant to us, but then through unpacking these ideas and trying to defend them we found new ways into them and ultimately came to a strong concept. So much ideation and creation happens with teams reaching for their expertise, their comfort zone. I definitely find it important to force ourselves out of it in the hopes of making something new and unseen," added Jun Harada, digital beauty innovation and strategy lead, Condé Nast Co/Lab.

The Dim Sum process is helping get That noticed, and Phillips and company have grown beyond the agency’s original space and have now moved into a new office in, of course, Chinatown.

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