More Companies Send Staffs on Retreats
To Spur Creativity and Jolt Thinking
By Joan E. Rigdon
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1991, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)
MOHICAN STATE PARK, Ohio -- Tadpoles slither around Jim
Groman's ankles as he sits on a lawn chair in a shallow stream, exploring
his latest fantasy: "Could a sandwich become a tent?"
He genuinely hopes for an answer. But instead, his five companions, who
are likewise lounging with their toes underwater, begin babbling about
villainous plants and rabbits with bat wings.
Mr. Groman, 31 years old, and his associates work for American
Greetings Co.'s licensing unit, Those Characters From Cleveland, which
created Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears. They have retreated to a
campsite in the woods -- away from the eyes of management -- to invent
more characters that can be used in toys, movies and comic books.
Before the weekend is over, the group will have swum, explored a
graveyard, solved logic puzzles, played Pictionary and stood on the spot
where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall got hitched. They also will
have brainstormed, taken notes and drawn sketches around a campfire,
on a boat and in a cabin surrounded by geese. The payoff: 55 ideas for
new characters, three of which may go to market.
That's a big change from a decade ago, when company artists worked on
one or two ideas a year within the confines of their cubicles at corporate
headquarters in Cleveland. Back then, the ideas almost always came from
their bosses, not them. But now bosses alone can't sate the toy industry's
growing appetite for ideas. So "we're letting artists do their own thing for
the first time in years," says the licensing unit's co-president, Ralph
An increasing number of companies are using retreats to wring new ideas
from the ranks or jolt executives out of routine ways of thinking. The
nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., reports
leading 65 such retreats this year, up from 47 two years ago.
Among the companies that have used the approach are Exxon Corp.'s
U.S.A. division, which sent managers off to think of new ways to market
and improve efficiency; Hoechst A.G.'s Hoechst Celanese unit, which has
used retreats to come up with new applications for acetate fibers; and
Marion Merrell Dow Inc., which sent executives to a lake in the woods
to think up a new strategy for its philanthropic arm.
At their retreat, executives of NewCity Communications Inc. of
Bridgewater, N.J., came up with a new way for the employee-owned
radio concern to sell ads: encourage companies to underwrite local civic
or charity events and then sell the companies air time to promote the
events. Last year, NewCity's radio station in Syracuse, N.Y.,
orchestrated about 10 such events, and this year they've done 15.
Quaker Oats Co. executives in Britain go pigeon-shooting or horseback
riding when they need fresh approaches to budget and marketing
problems. "You'd expect a group of managers to sit around a conference
table," says Clare Chapman, Quaker's human resource development
manager. But, she says, working outdoors "gives us a whack on the side
of the head in the way we think."
Sometimes the whack is literal. Those Characters' successful Madballs --
balls with monster faces -- were born when artists on retreat wadded up
drawings of monsters and threw them at each other.
Mr. Shaffer of Those Characters sends his staff of 25 "creatives" --
writers and artists -- on about half a dozen retreats a year, ranging from
solo wilderness outings to weeklong cultural binges in Manhattan. He
started the retreats six years ago. A few staff members couldn't handle
the increased responsibility of developing their own ideas and left the
company, Mr. Shaffer says. But those who have stayed say they
appreciate being treated like adults. "When you treat people like
teenagers, they tend to act that way," says Dave Polter, who invents story
lines for characters.
The trips cost tens of thousands of dollars a year, Mr. Shaffer says, but
they are worth it because of the changing demands of the market. In the
early 1980s, toy companies were willing to invest heavily in a few ideas
and hope for the best. But following a wave of industry consolidation in
the mid-1980s, toy companies turned to moderate investments in many
ideas. As David Maurer, president of Mattel Inc.'s U.S.A. division, puts
it, "I'm not willing to bet the ranch on one concept."
Now, Those Characters sends its toy company clients more than a dozen
ideas a year, up from just a handful a year a decade ago. And the faster
pace apparently hasn't hurt quality. "They've been able to keep an
extremely high level of creativity that few in the industry have been able to
match," says Bruce Stein, president of Hasbro Inc.'s Kenner Products
So far, the retreats haven't produced any concepts to rival Those
Characters' billion-dollar sellers Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears.
But they have yielded a few hits. The doll Lady LovelyLocks has raked in
$109.1 million in sales since 1986, and Madballs sales have reached
The artists approach creativity with discipline, even when they're on
retreat. At Mohican State Park, for instance, they brainstorm six hours a
day, sketchpads in hand, while Mr. Polter, the group leader, takes notes
and gently prods them to think about whether their ideas can be marketed
to parents as well as fickle children.
Sitting in a stream away from ringing phones and bosses, the group can
spend hours mulling ideas. Company artists come up with proposals like
plant monsters, clouds with moods and stuffed vines that children can
drape around couches.
Hearing the crickets, someone suggests a belt equipped with sound effect
chips that can imitate cicadas and other nature sounds. The idea quickly
mutates: Maybe it could be a jungle belt with wild animal sounds, or a city
belt featuring urban noise. Playing on the idea of a belt as an environment,
the artists go one step further: How about a belt that carries toy planes
and doubles as an airstrip when laid flat?
On the second night, while propping up the mess tent's roof against
thundershowers, the artists take turns characterizing each other as types
of cars. The intellectual Mr. Polter, who often expounds on lofty subjects
like the meaning of the universe, emerges as a Lincoln town car; Mr.
Groman, the fun-loving boy-next-door, is named a '57 Chevy. The
efficient Diane Lankford emerges as a sporty Karmann Ghia.
Games like these get the group's creative juices flowing. If they can marry
up cars with personalities, why not merge bats and bunnies into bat
bunnies? (Indeed, the bat bunny becomes a candidate for a cute, scary
After the retreat, the artists reconvene in Cleveland to mine the gold from
the garbage. No managers are allowed to look on during the two to three
weeks it takes for the artists to prepare their retreat ideas for presentation
to their company's review committee. During one visit to Those
Characters' offices, a reporter observed several artists yell "Retreat!"
before slamming the door on Mr. Shaffer, who accidentally walked into
their retreat discussion.
In the end, more than 90% of the ideas were rejected. Of the 55 ideas
that came out of the retreat, 13 were presented to management and four
were selected for development. But one idea -- for a boy's character
whose backpack can change into an airplane or ship -- was discarded
after Mr. Shaffer learned that a similar concept developed by a
competitor had never made it to market.
Mr. Shaffer insures that the retreats don't turn into free-for-alls by
stressing the profit motive. He starts by inviting artists to presentations at
toy companies. And he recently drove the point home with a memo
entitled "The Prince of Concept Death." The Prince -- a toy company
president with devil's horns -- challenges lowly artists to defend their
ideas: Is it original enough to be patented? Is it broad enough for an entire
line of characters instead of just one item? How can you write a television
ad about the idea?
Answer the questions wrong, Mr. Shaffer warns, "and you end up in Toy
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