You’re at your second-grade desk. There’s a box of crayons, a coloring book page with a blank frog, and 20 other students nearby with the same task. You’re no dummy—you consider the green crayon—but there’s something exciting about the red.
After all, you’ve seen plenty of green frogs. But never a red one.
The frog dilemma is analogous to advertising today. It’s a pivotal time for creatives because, as digital platforms diversify, many old methods of storytelling feel, well, familiar, while the pressure to stay relevant feels heightened.
Ideating with zeal and abandoning the fear of failure are crucial, and it’s something HZ teaches its creatives. Interactive Creative Director Quan Hoang is at the forefront of encouraging “idea-first thinking” at HZ.
In Hoang’s creative concepting class, he teaches HZ’s creatives about his three-part approach to fearless invention.
“My three concepts are meant to give creatives room to innovative this disruptive thinking while giving them guardrails so that they don’t go too far to where none of their ideas can deliver results for the client,” Quan says.
Find Your Blood Frog
That crayon scenario? That wasn’t strictly hypothetical—it was the story of how a young Quan Hoang learned to approach creativity differently at a young age.
He grabbed the red crayon and, rather than filling in the black outlined shapes, he began tracing contour lines. In red. A very blood-colored red. His teacher may have given him an odd look, but years later, Hoang still defends his bloody frog.
“I encourage creatives to—when they get an assignment—pretend they’re in a classroom of 20 others just like them. Then what color are you going to color that frog? In a room of 20, how many people will come up with your idea? The closer it is to one, the better.”
One of Hoang’s favorite one-in-21 ideas is the Tap Project, which the creative agency Droga5 developed for UNICEF in 2007. The project asked New York diners at participating restaurants to pay $1 for their otherwise-free tap water to fundraise for clean drinking water in developing nations. Since the project’s inception, other agencies have adapted their own versions and Droga5 has grown it into a social media fundraising campaign for UNICEF.
“David Droga wants to make work that lasts beyond the runtime. The idea of creating something scalable, and not hoarding it, but giving it away so that others can do something philanthropic? I was like, ‘Damn.’”
Reverse the Mullet
It’s time to revisit “business in the front, party in the back.” The old-school approach to marketing was hard sell first, value for the user second—but that messaging doesn’t resonate in the contemporary marketing ecosystem.
“It was, ‘If you buy these Nikes, then you’ll be able to slam dunk.’ These days, people are more values oriented. They want a brand to share their values and to be a part of the brand’s story.”
That’s why Quan argues for “reversing the mullet,” or leading with a values-focused message and de-emphasizing the sell.
“You can’t meet people by just trying to sell a product. That’s why I say, ‘Put the party in the front, put the sell in the back.’ Try to meet people where they’re at and engage them. If they’re on their phone, if they’re thinking a certain way, meet them there with an exciting idea and pull them to you.”
Lead with Love, Not Fear
The hardest thing Quan does as a creative is develop ideas he’s passionate about. It’s also why he hears sirens when his work becomes easy.
“It’s so easy to not really try—to use punch words, like ‘integrated’ or ‘millennials’ and stuff like that. It’s much harder to be honest with your clients.”
When creatives decide to produce “safe” work for their own ease or to protect their egos, projects suffer. Quan encourages creatives to take on the role of the private investigator—first rooting out the client’s problem, then solving it with the idea they fall hardest for as creatives.
Google’s Parisian Love spot is an example of leading with love. The goal for the project (produced by Google Creative Lab 5 students) was to share what Google employees earnestly loved about the search engine and to introduce outsiders to its lesser-known features. The resulting spot, which aired during the Super Bowl, is subtly affecting. It’s brave because it didn’t adhere to the loud and often wacky precedents for game time ads.
“People these days seem to be making decisions based on fear, but I think the braver decisions are the ones based on love—a vision of where things could go, rather than a vision of where things could get f***ed over.”
Ideas into Action
Although Quan doesn’t have a secret formula for creativity, his three concepts are checks on self-doubt, egotism, and stagnant thinking—three things that strangle great ideas. Like-minded peers, who aren’t afraid to say when an idea stinks, also help.
“As an integrated shop, we always have to grow and evolve. The more we can insert ideas and strategy into the things we do, the more opportunity we have to serve our clients. I think if you’re like that then you’ll get the right kind of people to come with you.”