Let’s Make The “Rules of Improv” Rules In Advertising

Tina Fey

An idea can be as powerful as a hammer, but usually begins as a delicate seed of an incomplete thought. It needs to be incubated and protected while it develops and gets better. Some creative practices do better jobs than others at this. But all too often, the majority of time in meetings is spent poking holes and finding weak spots in ideas instead of nurturing them.

Tina Fey’s Bossypants struck a chord with me, not only for her brilliant writing throughout the book, but for her section titled “The Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life And Reduce Belly Fat.” Here she outlines the basic principles of improv acting:

“The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created… Start with a YES and see where that takes you… The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own.”

Eric Schmidt learns the Rules of Improv during Tina Fey’s Authors@Google session.

Tina captures a simple yet profound insight on the creative process – one that encourages everyone to be open-minded and respond to ideas with positive energy. Most people would say that is exactly how they themselves or their agencies operate, but in reality, it’s something more often preached than practiced.

Everyone wants to be a problem solver. Typically, that begins by trying to point out all the problems in initial ideas – from not quite solving the original brief perfectly to not potentially delivering on measurable X – there are always shortcomings somehow or somewhere. The truth is that the shortcomings are usually pretty obvious. But it’s easy to be a problem pointer. It’s much better to be a problem builder.

Problem builders are the improv artists of our industry and extremely valuable assets to any core team. They say ‘Yes’ first and then contribute to make the idea smarter, more interesting and more engaging. The best creatives I’ve worked with are the ones on the scaffold helping to build skyscrapers, not the ones who standby watching and release wrecking balls on ideas.

If we all work to become problem builders, we can help raise each idea as high as possible. Then, the whole team can evaluate which one stands the tallest, not be left with the one left standing.

Here’s a link to Bossypants if you haven’t read it yet.

Article Info
Posted by: Steve Peck
Thinking About: Advertising / Collaboration / Creativity
Location: New York City
Website: http://stevepeck.net
Twitter: @stevenpeck
  1. Calle Sjoenell


  2. jeff greenspan

    Hell yes (and). I wrote a similar piece for Creativity. Well done. Have you been doing improv as well?

    • Steve Peck

      Hey Jeff, good to hear from you! Yeah, I just read your article in Creativity. Really nicely done. I haven’t been taking improv classes myself, but I feel like I should. That particular section in Tina Fey’s book struck a chord and it makes so much sense for how we work in advertising.

  3. Tim Geoghegan

    Nice. Yes, if we don’t just build on more ideas and produce, we’ll never know. Making more means failing more. But it also means succeeding more. Internal organizations can be there own worst enemy to getting work made.

    Also, as creatives/producers, we can even be our own worst enemies and kill our own ideas before they have a chance to breathe. But it’s more important than ever to get them out there. Because if you don’t – someone else (or another creative/agency/producer/industry), will.

    • Steve Peck

      Thanks Tim, I agree. At worst, an idea is typically just ignored. Unless it’s crude or offensive, people aren’t going to actually stop buying a brand because the ads are forgettable. At best though, an idea can help influence massive change. So overall as an industry, we could be less precious with our ads, produce more stuff, and then water the flowers instead of pulling weeds.

  4. Tim Geoghegan

    True. There’s a point you reach, where you are always playing in the right space. When strategically and creatively, you are in the right space. That needs to be explored more and faster. People are all different and they may respond to different nuances of the same thought.

    Campaigns would be better off resembling a box of Legos. All different pieces. They can be put together to match exactly what’s on the box. Or they can be assembled by each individual to create their own meaning, in their own way. Both are valid.

    But the message is still the same.

  5. Ciaran McCarthy

    Very true Steve. Nothing kills the seed of an idea quicker than meetings – especially ones run on an agenda. Just as you’re about to get somewhere, and you can feel the edge of an idea, you’re moved on to item 2. The best creatives and CD’s I’ve ever worked with have built on my initial thoughts, and together we changed something okay in to something great.

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  7. smartwriters.org/blo

    But all too often, the majority of time in meetings is spent poking holes and finding weak spots in ideas instead of nurturing them.

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