June 15

Allen Gannett, CEO, TrackMaven, Creativity Is A Science


ALLEN GANNETT is the founder and CEO of TrackMaven, a marketing analytics platform whose clients have included Microsoft, Marriott, Saks Fifth Avenue, Home Depot, Aetna, Honda, and GE. He has been on the “30 Under 30” lists for both Inc. and Forbes. He is a contributor for FastCompany.com and has an upcoming book The Creative Curve, on how anyone can achieve moments of creative genius, coming out in June 2018 from Currency, a division of Penguin Random House. He was also once a very pitiful runner-up on Wheel of Fortune.

Podcast Highlights:

  • Consumption - you need to immerse yourself in the subject
  • Imitation - copy the talented people before you to get a better feel for the subject
  • Creative Community - surround yourself with smart creative people to develop truly creative ideas

Contact Allen:

[Podcast Transcript Using Artificial Intelligence]

Umar Hameed 0:06
Are you ready to become awesomer? Hello everyone, this is Umar Hameed, your host and welcome to the no limit selling Podcast, where industry leaders share their tips, strategies and advice on how to make you better, stronger, faster, get ready for another episode.

Umar Hameed 0:35
Today I'm privileged to have Alan Gannett, the CEO of track Maven, on the show, Alan, welcome to the program.

Allen Gannett 0:42
Thanks for having me, man.

Umar Hameed 0:43
Alan, in 90 seconds, tell us who you are and what you do. Sure. So

Allen Gannett 0:49
my, my main, my main gig is I run track Maven. It's a marketing insights company based in wonderful Washington DC, it's about five and a half years old. We work with brands like you've worked with NBA, GE, Cisco, Siemens, I mean a lot of really amazing companies and helping them get the answers from their data. And then I have my first book coming out June 12, from Penguin Random House, and it's a book all about how creativity is actually a skill, it's something you can learn something you can enhance something and get better at, it's called the creative curve.

Umar Hameed 1:24
And I fully embrace that. My second idea putian, and it was all about, you know, how do you generate kick ass ideas, and get your team to take a bullet for it. So this is gonna be a really great conversation. Love it. So to get a better idea of who you are, who's your favorite superhero? And what's the attribute that speaks to you?

Allen Gannett 1:47
Oh, my God, um, I think my favorite superhero is probably Whoo, I would say Superman. I mean, I think you know, the idea that, you know, he can go in and out of sort of the real world and helping people, I think it's really is really important. I think, generally, as a society, we, we tend to, like not do a great job of recognizing that all people have a lot of potential. And all people have the ability to do really amazing things. And that's something he does, he has, he's a regular guy with an amazing side. So

Umar Hameed 2:24
that's for sure I, what's interesting is there was a guy called Jerry Siegel. And his dad was coming home from work. And he went into a convenience store and there was a gunman there, that was robbing the place, and the gunman ended up shooting him dead. Creating a man of steel that bullets would bounce off him kind of seems like the natural extension, right? Totally. And what intrigues me is that human psyche, and one of the things that we have a lot of hang ups around society is that Oh, those people are the creative people. And I'm not creative. So tell me about that. That kind of thought process, that creativity is a God given given gift as opposed to a science.

Allen Gannett 3:06
Yeah. So this is the part that I get sort of worked up about. So basically, for the book, what I did is I interviewed about 25, living creative geniuses. So these are literally billionaires Oscar winners, Emmy Award winners, Tony Award winners. And and I also interviewed all the leading academics who study creativity, like all the big names like AI. And here, here's the thing, which is crazy. Creativity is one of the most well studied phenomenons, like there's tons and tons of research on it, we actually know a lot about how creativity works. And part of how it works is that a lot of creative processing happens in the right hemisphere of our brain, it's kind of cliche to talk about right brain, left brain, it's actually really important. And so a right hemisphere is where we do more metaphorical processing, where we connect more distant ideas together. And here's the thing, our right hemisphere does most of its work, subconsciously, it only comes to your level of awareness and consciousness, when it actually has a fully formed idea. Oftentimes, your left hemisphere has to be a little less active to actually sort of quote unquote, hear what's going on in our right hemisphere, which is why we get a lot of ideas in the shower, computer, all these sorts of things. But this is not magical. It's simply biology. It's simply that this type of processing happens to happen subconsciously. And so I think where I get frustrated is like, people sort of ascribe this sort of like magical or divine interpretation to this. And the issue is that that A is sort of discouraging, because people go well, I don't have those moments. I guess I'm just no good. And too, it's just untrue because it actually since it's biology, there's actually a lot of science on how we can actually have more of these aha moments.

Umar Hameed 4:52
Brilliant, what's going on in the background. Certainly, in the creative sense, we have those epiphanies but also problem solving. Is it the same mechanism that we use for creativity that gets used for coming up with answers those inspirations?

Allen Gannett 5:07
Yeah. So basically, with the type of processing we have, so our left hemisphere is where we do various for direct processing. So think about, you know, logical processing, like working through a math problem. Your step by step, you know, figuring something out. That's all very aware. It's very conscious. It's very straightforward. The processing that we're doing to connect new ideas together, those sudden inspiration ideas as things were comes to us, that's all happening in our right hemisphere. And that's where, for example, if you're watching a stand up comedian, you would sort of get the joke, the wordplay, the metaphors, the puns, your right hemisphere is helping you figure those out, you're not going there. And maybe unless it's like Adam Sandler, you're not going there and thinking like, why is this funny? You just get why it's funny. And so what's interesting about this, is that there's certain types of problems that we can solve in either way, either the logical processing our left brain, or in sudden insight on our right brain. And so scientists, how they study aha moments, is they use puzzles that can be solved in either way. So for example, a crossword puzzle. Sometimes you're looking at a crossword puzzle, and you work out like letter by letter, what the word is. And sometimes you look at a crossword puzzle, you go up the answers greedy. Yeah, you just know. And what's interesting is those little moments, those little flashes are actually from a biological perspective, this same thing, as the big flashes of genius we talk about in creativity, it's a scientist actually can use those, use those word puzzles, use those different mechanisms that instigate sudden insight to really understand what is happening when we experience creativity.

Umar Hameed 6:58
So I've seen studies with fMRI is where they actually put people in contractions and actually have them solve those puzzles, and figure out what lights up when they get that sudden inspiration as opposed to the logical part.

Allen Gannett 7:11
Exactly. And that's what happens is basically our right hemisphere just goes crazy. And so that's the thing is that for us, like, since we know it's our right hemisphere, we also know there's things we can do to enhance them. So for example, you know, I talked a lot to Dr. Boden, who is a researcher who studies sun insight, he works a lot with Northwestern creative brain lab, he's done a bunch of really interesting studies on sudden insight. And one of the points he made to me that I think is so important, it's so simple yet overlooked, is you can have sudden insight about things you don't know anything about. You can have this amazing quote on weed, but you can't have sudden insight about you're not going to flash your genes if you don't have the knowledge. And so, you know, we talked about you know, Paul McCartney, for example, you know, waking up with a melody for yesterday, or JK Rowling, you know, being struck on a train with the idea for Harry Potter. And we go, Well, isn't that magical? But here's the truth. You know, Paul McCartney grew up all around musicians his entire life, he constantly was listening to music, he literally played in a cover band for years, he was constantly consuming music. JK Rowling, you know, to get away from the stress out relationship between our mother and our father, she would literally lock herself in her bedroom, just read books, and books and books and books. You know, she talks about in her official biography on our website, how she took so many books out of college that she never returned, that she actually had this massive library fine or massive, at least for her and her means. And so, you know, over and over again, you see when you actually look at these stories, is that there's a huge amount of consumption that went on. And so yeah, you don't have you know, random epiphanies, about music or about, you know, ideas or stories, but you also probably didn't consume as much about those topics as they did. And so consumptions actually really important, right, you need the electricity, to have a light bulb moment, you need those raw ingredients for your right hemisphere to tinker with, to combine to bring together and so in the book, I talk about four things that you can do to enhance your creativity. And I use the stories from my interviews mixed with the science to explain what they are and why they work. And one of them, it turns out is actually consumption. It's actually spending less time creating more time consuming.

Umar Hameed 9:39
Make sense, it gives you the fertile ground to make those connections. What's the second thing?

Allen Gannett 9:43
The second one ties into that? So you know, consumption is really important. But you know, some people do consume a lot already. Like they watch a lot TV but they're not creating great screenplays. And so how you consume is also actually really important. So this Second, the second law of the creative curd is imitation. So what you find when you look at these stories of creative genius, is that counter intuitively, all these people actually went through a phase where they were very heavy on imitating. And so you know, Kurt Vonnegut, for example, his doctoral thesis that he worked on, but never actually published, he never finished. And he actually talked about how this was his favorite piece of work. Is he mapped out the story arc of famous stories, and actually would figure out he found that there's recurring patterns, right? How stories actually unfold? You know, Ben Franklin learned how to be a great writer, but he would actually outline articles from the spectator, which was a famous newspaper of the day, it's kind of like the economist of the day, and he would outline

Umar Hameed 10:52
Yeah, 30 intro, if I understand correctly, what you're really saying is, it's so one, consume a lot of raw information. And then to the imitation part really gives you the ability to get a meta perspective on it. So you get some mastery around that area, that you're leveraging other people's mastery, but learning how to do it.

Allen Gannett 11:12
Exactly. So one of the things that you talk about creativity, a lot of it's about timing, it's about developing a type of the right idea at the right time. And one of the things I talk about in the book is that scientists actually feel really confident that one of the reasons that people like something is when it's the right balance of familiarity and novelty, it has the right blend of those two things. And so since you need things that are both novel, but not too novel, and familiar, but not too familiar, imitation actually lets you learn the baseline, let you learn that sort of structure, so that you can create that familiarity and then just focus on that adding that novel twist. So you, for example, Star Wars was a Western in space, right? It was fancier, but a novel. You know, great chefs go to culinary school and learn the basics, right? They learn how do you make a great omelet? Because you can't make an experimental omelet if you don't know what most people's expectation of an omelet is. And so imitation allows you to learn that baseline.

Umar Hameed 12:18
Okay. And what's the third thing? So

Allen Gannett 12:24
the third thing I'm, by the way, these are like, wildly shortening B's, because there's a lot more nuance in that. But thank you. 25 minutes. Yeah, the third thing, there's a whole book on it. The third thing is creative community. So, you know, we think about, we think about creative genius is very independence or solo activity, right? We've seen the Fast Company covers, we've seen the ink magazine covers, and there's your Steve Jobs, and there's Elon Musk, and so it's very individual activity. But like that is obviously not actually true. like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Elon Musk has literally like 1000s of scientists who work for him. And so when you look at stories of creative genius, often there's one person who is front and center, but there's actually a whole creative community around them. It's not just collaborators. But I talked about in the book, there's different people you need to your creative community. One of them, for example, is a promoter. So since timing is a really big element, that means you have to be recognized. So in order to be recognized, you need someone to lend you credibility. And so you see us a lot, for example, in the music industry, in the music industry, you know, bigger acts will often have openers for their tours. So Rascal Flatts, back in the 2000s had a young woman open for them. You probably know her name is Taylor Swift. She went on to become incredibly famous. She then started having you know, Shawn Mendez, open for her doesn't 15, who now has gone on to be cut calm, incredibly famous, you know, chefs, for example, grow up, they start, as you know, for example, a sous chef, and they work their way up in the kitchen that gives him credibility and a resume so that people then give them more chances. And so anyway, I explained there's four different people who mean your creative community. But basically, there's this sort of short version of that is that it's not an independent activity. And it's actually creativity is very dependent on other people.

Umar Hameed 14:26
So what are your thoughts about just before you go to the fourth, what are your thoughts about I've got a friend of mine, his name's Joel Harrison, he's an artist, a musician. And every once in a while, he applies to come to this facility where they have almost like, monk like cells, where painters, sculptors, musicians, composers all come, they get locked in their little rooms throughout the day to kind of create, but in the evening, they have a communal meal together with his music and laughter and sharing of ideas. So it's Almost like work on your craft during the day, and you have your meals there, but in the evening, you get the sense of community to kind of create this two or three week resort respite, that allows you to focus on your craft, and also build community kind of your thoughts on that process.

Allen Gannett 15:17
Yeah, love it. I mean, I think one of the things that's important is to separate the literal act of creating something with creativity. Because if I created an exact replica of the Mona Lisa, like, I'm a really talented, fine artist, and I create an exact replica of the Mona Lisa, it would not be creativity, it'd be skillful. But it would not be creativity. So creativity is actually something much more complex. And so one of the things that's really important to think about creativity is that's not just the act. So Andy Warhol, for example, we would definitely say is creative. But he didn't create most of his own art by his own hand, he maybe directed it, he had assistants who did some of it was just screen printed, he literally their stories, he would call the factory and say, Hey, take a print of this thing and do these colors, right. But a big part of creativity is also the communal aspects, also getting other people to be excited about it, to get people talking about it to be a self promoter to be a marketer to be a salesperson. And so yeah, that's why I think, you know, I like that I like the fact that they have both of those things, because I think those are actually distinct phases of the process. And the actual creation in of itself isn't the whole story.

Umar Hameed 16:32
Brilliant. So what's the fourth element?

Allen Gannett 16:35
So the fourth element is iterations, and particularly data driven iteration. So you know, we think about creatives, as you know, if I'm a screenwriter, I'm going to go off into my writing, you know, cabin, or my little office or whatever, and I'm going to lock myself I'm going to write write, write, write, write, and just spend all this energy on it. And then I'm going to come out with the finished product. It's just like, the truth is so far from this, I mean, you know, I obviously having a little bit of a net experience with writing a book, and you write a book you have, you get feedback from people you have reading it, you have feedback from your agent, your editor copywriter goes through through it, maybe you have a fact checker. I mean, there's just all these people that are going through and iterating you think about with movies, for example, you know, not only is there a lot of iteration on the script phase, but even on the movie phase, you know, the movie, for example, fatal attraction, which went on to win all these Academy Awards, hundreds of millions of dollars in the box office, it did all these test screenings, and they found out that everyone hated the end day. And so they reshot the ending. So the ending that we think about a sort of defining fatal attraction, the sort of psychotic ending was actually not the original creative product. It was the result of the process. And so that is really important.

Umar Hameed 17:57
The same thing for the Godfather, I could the the ultimate scene where they have all these murders happening during the christening, was an afterthought, because the end didn't work. And it was hated. And the producer basically worked to re edit the ending, which made it like the iconic ending.

Allen Gannett 18:20
I love that. That's amazing. I didn't know that. But yes, it's creativity is about developing the right idea at the right time. You have to really create some of your audience is going to want and like and appreciate. And so you can you know, yourself as the creator thinking ideas as good as you want it to be. But creativity is a social construct, people have to agree that something is creative in order for it to be because otherwise, it's totally subjective. And so for instance, that's the case, like, iterations are really, really important.

Umar Hameed 18:51
You interviewed a lot of people tell me about one of those interviews are one of those moments during the interviews where it's like, I got this epiphany, that was really useful. So who was the person?

Allen Gannett 19:01
Yeah, so it's something a little bit sillier than an individual person, I spent a day with the Ben and Jerry's flavor development team, which is like a phenomenally fun experience. If you ever have the chance to go to the main headquarters and like see it or even just smell it like it smells like French fresh ice cream. It's amazing. And it was really interesting experience because there's this really silly thing that happened. That actually made a really big impact on me. So yeah, I was talking to they call them flavor gurus. It's what they call their r&d team. I was talking to them, and we were sort of like, you know, shooting the breeze. And one of them goes, Hey, do you want to try something? And I was like, try what? And they had this, like, mischievious grin on their face. And they're like, do you want to try dill pickle sorbet? And I was like, Uh, what? And they were like, yeah, it's amazing. And I was like, Huh, I'm highly skeptical. They're like, No, you have to try it so they take some out of the fridge. They scooped me some dill pickle sorbet like, it sounds terrible. Yes. Oh

Unknown Speaker 20:05
my god, it was so delicious. Like it was so good.

Allen Gannett 20:11
I'm like, this is probably one of my favorite ice cream experiences ever. I guess sorbets on ice cream, but we'll go with it. And so what was interesting to me, we talked about it afterwards was that like, the point they made to me is like, This is delicious. But no, it would never sell like it would never be a successful product. And so that was a big moment for me of sort of recognizing and realizing that the actual sort of like, quote, unquote, quality of a creation, and the sort of societal viability of it are actually different. So it's a very silly little example of this, but those two things are actually very different. And so this is why you see some artists who you might say, well, like, I don't think they're very talented. But everyone else seems to think so. And they get a lot of recognition. And so there's a huge aspect around timing, and viability, that's a huge untold piece of the creativity story.

Umar Hameed 21:11
So this may not be part of the creativity story. But I think to be someone that's building something of note, to pay attention to three things, one of them is to be relevant, yes, to your audience. And that speaks to that. The second one is integrity to really know who you are. And the criteria you use to make sure you stay on the path. The third one is focus. And it sounds like these creative folks, that iteration process ensures that they are relevant to their audience.

Allen Gannett 21:42
Yeah, 100. No, you nailed it. I mean, that's exactly what it is. It's right, it's about you need to spend as a creative, a huge amount of time learning what your art your audience has already consumed. So that you know what's familiar, you have to learn about the baselines and the structures so that you can create things that are a little bit novel, and you have to develop a process for like testing and seeing like, Okay, I think this is what my audience is going to be relevant to them. But am I right? And that's where iterations are so so important. So yes, I think I totally agree with those three. I love the integrity one, that's really that's really good.

Umar Hameed 22:19
And I think on that one, just asking people, you know, what are your values? A lot of times people know them, theoretically, but not specifically. And that's only half of the issue. The other half is, so let me ask you, Elon, you know, in building your company, what's important to you, in building your company, like what has to be there, in order for you to know you're doing a good job, like, what's one of the things that needs to be there,

Allen Gannett 22:45
it's easy, for me, it's a big one, it's having a positive impact on other people. And so like, for me, what I feel super fulfilled on is like, when employees get promoted, when they their life quality changes, because of doing your job at, you know, company, I, you know, started like, that's feels super fulfilling. And same when customers when you see like, one of our customers who like learn something, or he was able to use us to help show and demonstrate how effective they are, and they get promoted over it like, those things are very gratifying.

Umar Hameed 23:14
What you did there just naturally, is something a lot of people don't do. And that was you identified the value. But you also shared with us the criteria you use to know that you're actually fulfilling that value. And there was evidence coming back from your employees and your customers. And I think they were the two things we need to do, or be aware of, because if we could build companies around those and teach our employees, and then let it filter out to our community, so our customers know the same values and criteria. That's how you build something that's significant.

Allen Gannett 23:47
I love that. Yeah, you killed it.

Umar Hameed 23:49
So last question for you. What inspired you to write this book because writing a book is a incredibly hard, and probably the most humbling experience ever is once you create it, and you give it to a publisher, and they go, yeah, it's unclear what you're doing and change this and change that. And it's like, oh, my God, that's the worst experience in the world.

Allen Gannett 24:14
So for me, it was I was giving a talk, focus on marketers. This may four years ago now, that was about how marketers tell themselves a story around creativity, how they're not creative enough. And it was a very sort of like surface level talk, where I was just bringing out some facts from some of the stories of creative geniuses that people often forget about how hard and how intentional it actually was. And so I was giving that talk. And just to be I mean, just to be honest, is like, I saw like, it was like people are really excited about it. Like it was a really motivational message. And I had actually done it more out of frustration. I was like, guys, like, come on. Let's get over this. And so I think seeing people get really excited. About the message was just for me as someone who really likes having a positive impact is a very rewarding experience and realizing like oh, this is like a message that people need to hear more of and they they're willing to hear more of. And so the book slowly sort of morphed from a sort of marketing centric book that was more surface level into a wait this is this is a true thing for all aspiring creatives. And actually Oh wow, there's a ton of science about this. And so the project became as I sort of got into it became much bigger than it was originally originally had planned because there's a lot more there there's a much bigger sort of population that I realized I could affect. And yeah, and that's just super motivated, super fun. It's even been fun with you. People have read some of the early copies of the book and like, just seeing people get excited about it and motivated by it is really, really emotionally fulfilling.

Umar Hameed 25:53
Brilliant, Alan, thanks so much for sitting down with me. It was a great conversation.

Allen Gannett 25:57
Thanks, I had a lot of fun Bye.

Umar Hameed 26:03
If you enjoyed this episode, please go to iTunes and leave a five star rating. And if you're looking for more tools, go to my website at No Limits, selling calm. I've got a free mind training course there that's going to teach you some insights from the world of neuro linguistic programming and that is the fastest way to get better results.


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