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When Mahlab met Tim Washer

Cisco's marketing extraordinaire Tim Washer shows how to incorporate improvisation into the marketing.

We sat down with Webby-nominated producer, comedian and Cisco’s marketing extraordinaire Tim Washer to discuss humour, connection, creativity, and how to incorporate the principles of improvisation into the marketing mix.

Mahlab Tim – could you tell us a little about your career history?

Tim Washer I’ve had a very checkered past. I studied marketing and began my career in sales. I quickly returned to business school, graduating for a second time with an MBA in marketing and technology. I then worked as a consultant with Accenture, left that role and moved to New York City to work as an analyst. There was marketing research in there somewhere too.

In 1998 there was a moment when I realised that I had an obligation to pursue comedy; that it wasn’t a choice anymore, I had to do it. I never wanted to do it and was terrified for a couple of different reasons.

M And what were those reasons?

TW One was fear. Just being afraid of not being funny. It had always been easy for me to make people laugh. If something funny came into my mind and it was socially acceptable to share it I would and people would laugh. But in a situation like that there were no expectations, it was so wonderful. I knew that once I said ‘I’m a comedian’ there would be that expectation; that unspoken understanding that I had to be funny. The second reason stemmed from a sense of deep discomfort: to describe myself as a comedian felt arrogant. I would be declaring immodestly that I’m hilarious and that made me feel very, very uncomfortable.

So I began taking classes with the Upright Citizens Brigade and had an absolute blast. It was the strangest thing – doors just started opening. I began freelance writing for some of the late night shows in the US: Conan O’Brien, David Letterman and then Saturday Night Live.

M How did you make the connection between comedy, content creation and marketing?

TW It just happened. It wasn’t like I ever sat down and thought about it. I never sit down and think. In fact, I rarely think, period. If I do, it’s about cartoons. So I was working as a speechwriter at IBM, meeting with executives and trying to understand their business objectives and top priorities for the coming year so that I could advise how, exactly, to communicate these things to IBM’s clients and prospects.

One of their top priorities was shifting the behaviour of some of the company’s sales representatives – they weren’t listening. They needed to do a much better job at listening to IBM’s customers and they especially needed to quit talking about IBM so much. There was one other point but I wasn’t listening in that meeting. The first thing that came to mind when I was hearing these problems was ‘Let’s do a comedy video.’ That’s my answer to pretty much anything:

Concerned citizen: ‘The building is on fire!

Me: ‘You know what we need? A comedy video and then we’ll get out of here.

So I suggested a comedy video and, as you can imagine, everybody looked at me strangely. They had that look about them: ‘This is IBM, we don’t do that.’ As I remember it, about seven senior executives told me no. I’d recently landed the job and my daughter had just been born – I didn’t want to get fired, obviously, so I stayed quiet. But my silence was brief. I wrote the script and pitched the idea again. It was bizarre, everybody started saying yes; they were willing to try it out.

M Why do you think you had such a contrasting reception to the idea the second time round?

TW I think it was something bigger than myself. There was something else at play that changed people’s minds. Part of the spirit of improvisation; one of its principles is that where there’s chaos, order is never far away. It’s the idea that there is a force at work bringing everything together so that things will ultimately work out. I think the team were open to trying something new to attempt to fix some deeply ingrained, long-standing business problems. These problems represented the chaos of the situation and the project presented an opportunity to bring some order into the equation.

M Do you have a tried and tested approach to content creation? Or does it, much like the story above, just happen?

TW I do. It’s like this:

Somebody: ‘Hey, we need this – we have a launch coming up and we want a video.

Me: ‘Oh hi. Sure, what about this?

Somebody: ‘Great, do it!

And for the next two weeks I adopt a very disciplined approach in which I hate myself and do absolutely nothing. I was told by someone recently that when we’re in these kinds of states we’re not doing nothing – we’re thinking. You’re always working and the creative process is always going on, but when you’re not at a desk it can be difficult to convince yourself that you’re being productive.

M The workplace is teeming with day-to-day hurdles – deadlines, due dates, back-to-back meetings, weekly reports – capable of swiftly stifling creativity. What’s your advice to marketers looking to create and implement a creative routine or process?

TW The first and most important thing is a point that John Cleese shares on creativity. He believes that every person is creative. We’ve got to shake the idea that creativity is a characteristic of the few rather than the many – it’s a characteristic of a specific state of mind. Cleese says every person possesses both an open and closed state of mind. The open state is the time when you’re having fun and enjoying what you’re doing. Creative brilliance is brought out exclusively during these times of play – play is so important! And particularly in the corporate world. We talk about ideas and innovation and moving forward at an ever-increasing speed, but these things are only achievable in an open state of mind. You’ve got to allow people to play because otherwise they’re not going to get into the open, creative state.

On the other hand, the closed state of mind is when you’re focused on a deadline, everything seems urgent, you’re worried, or you’re thinking about the specific details of an upcoming project. Creativity is not a characteristic of this state. So what Cleese is saying is connect with what gets you open. Think back; ask your people to think back to times when they have felt most creative. Where do you feel most inspired? At what point of the day do you feel at your peak of creativity? Once you’ve got that figured out, schedule a time. If you can’t do it daily, start with one day a week and after a couple of weeks; a couple of months, reassess whether you can devote more time to the task. It’s important to start slow – don’t put yourself under even more pressure!

By the same token, identify the things that tend to close you up so as to know when and where to avoid them.

M How can marketers leverage the principles of improvisation in their day-to-day responsibilities?

TW One thing that I have a hard time with is when we in the corporate world say we are collaborating – I don’t even use that word anymore, except in interviews – but we’re actually doing quite the opposite. We attend committee meetings and act as though we’re all getting along because we have to be polite. At the same time we’re worried and fearful: we’re worried about our jobs, we’re worried about getting ahead of that guy so we can get the next bonus. Unfortunately this fear is overridingly powerful and suffocates collaboration. I like to share the principles of improvisation with marketers in the hope that they can overcome this fear. For example, the most crucial of these principles is trust – you are unremitting in your support of your partner in everything that you do. You never let them down. If marketers behaved in the way that an improvisation troupe behave, just think of the brilliance they could be creating. Entire businesses would benefit from that. In the corporate world we have a habit of sending brilliant ideas through committees. And sometimes – not always, but sometimes – committees are all about reducing risk, taking credit or placing blame and once that happens; once one person in a committee brings fear into the equation, it’s done. Finished. Everyone turns to buzz words and statements of breathtaking vapidity like, ‘Our chairperson has said that innovation is important so we must develop sound strategies with which to leverage…’ – you get the picture.

M You’ve said, ‘The committee can be the death to ideas.’ What’s been your experience with committee-led content creation? Have you found that any good has ever come from it?

TW Can you turn off the tape recorder please? First of all, as a comedian, it’s an occupational qualification to be bitter and cynical, so please keep that in mind when you hear these words: it makes me so inconsolably sad when I see wonderful, fine ideas with such beaming potential sent through a committee to become, well, vapid. I believe too often we hurt an idea in a corporate committee, particularly in large corporations. Having said that, I have experienced moments where I’ve thought, ‘Oh, wow! You can actually have a collaboration and it go well.’ Again, when people genuinely trust each other creativity thrives.

I’m in a situation right now where I’m working with a small team of people with a similar, obnoxious sense of humour. The three of us came up with a video called Fast innovation and the slow waiter and that was a collaborative process that felt just wonderful because there was a strong sense of trust between us all. The key is to keep the team small – the bigger the team the greater the chance of fear creeping into the creative process.

M So what’s your advice to marketers who work in really stifled environments? Environments in which their work has to be passed through multiple departments and committees before it’s published? How can they overcome that?

TW Don’t. Simply don’t work in that kind of an environment. But how can you overcome it? You find a champion. You find the person in your organisation who has two things: one, political capital to make decisions and push an idea through without having to get buy-in from everybody. Two, an individual who appreciates the new idea; who really wants to try and push the envelope and, forgive me for using this term, disrupt. I mean really disrupt – it’s become such a nonsense word – in the way that the word intended two years ago before it became the new marketing buzz word. Build trust with that person – don’t run up to them and say, ‘Hey, champ, I want to make a YouTube video!’ No, no, find a way that you’re actually helping them. Understand what they do, understand what makes them successful, what their top priorities are and figure out a way to say ‘I think I’ve got an idea that might help you reach your goals – here it is.’ That will help you to get out of the committee nonsense in as painless a way possible.

Another route is through internal channels. Create a piece of content and test it on your company’s intranet. Better yet, first test it in a small internal meeting. If it works, put it up on the intranet, get some good feedback and with that post it to YouTube and see what happens. Again, avoiding the committee in whatever way possible is always an excellent way to protect your best creative ideas.

M You call yourself a corporate storyteller and work with Cisco to create comedy videos and documentaries. It seems to be quite a disconnect – comedy and computing. Do you agree?

TW It is a disconnect. It’s a huge disconnect and that’s why it works. One of the challenges for marketers is overcoming our history; overcoming our heritage and a mentality that’s so inherently focused on notions of self. The marketing budget has always been used to talk about how awesome the business is – that just doesn’t cut it in the content marketing era. But what does cut it is entertainment, emotional connection and value. Comedy provides all of these things, so why would marketers turn down the chance to use it?

For Cisco, comedy has proved itself to be a fantastic means through which to connect; to remind audiences that these CIOs and hugely successful executives are people. It’s an approach that has helped the company build an authentic and, more importantly, human image in the marketplace.

M Could you tell us a little about The Network Effect.

TW We wanted to show how connectivity can change people’s lives but we wanted to do it in an authentic way. The best way we could think of to do that was through stories. We went down to Costa Rica and got into contact with a guy who was selling bananas on the side of the road to feed his family, became part of the network – the internet – and as a result has become a vendor to one of the largest retailers in the world. That’s a beautiful thing. If we would have included an interview with one of our executives, our logo, or if we mentioned just one of our products in the documentary people wouldn’t have connected with the content; they wouldn’t have found us to be authentic. Mark Schaefer points out that by 2020, 50 per cent of a company’s employees will be millennials – the most important thing to millennials is authenticity, so if you’re not already communicating in that way you better get on it, quickly! And that’s another thing: you’re just not going to get that emotional connection if you start pushing products.

The success of the documentary really proves my point. We put it on YouTube and a friend of mine who runs Shorts TV, the television network that distributes Oscar-nominated short films, saw it on my Facebook page and reached out to me. We put together a special edit for him – a 30-minute piece that they ended up running 31 times. Even better, it won a Webby! That was a huge deal and proved that it worked, that it resonated. What content has Cisco ever produced that’s a Webby honoree? And if we’d put a logo on it or tried to push our products; if we’d used the documentary to force messaging on to our audience it wouldn’t have happened.

M ‘Comedy comes from pain. Understand your customers’ pain points and you will create fantastic content’ – could you elaborate.

TW If you’re interested in incorporating comedy into your marketing mix, a great place to start is to identify the pain that your product cures. What’s the problem that you’re solving for your customers? The answer will help you stay focused not on your product but on your customer’s needs. Pain is a wonderful place to start with comedy because it is emotional and has the potential for such beautiful irony; such outstanding hilarity. If you are showing that you not only understand the pain, but you have empathy; an understanding of the impact that that inconvenience has on your customers then you have instantly created rapport. That’s why I advise marketers to start with pain, not only because it’s perfect comedy material, but because it offers you a powerful way to create connection. To make someone laugh is one of the most intimate connections you can make, certainly in a business context because it allows you to show that you understand. To show understanding is to quell that corporate fear we spoke of earlier.

It just boggles my mind that more companies aren’t using comedy. Why is it not a top priority in people’s content marketing strategies? It’s a truly baffling predicament.

Tim Washer is a Webby-nominated producer, comedy writer, conference speaker and Cisco’s senior marketing manager of social media. You can get in touch with Tim on Twitter or through his website.

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