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Do workshops really work?

Workshops that tap communal wisdom can help to evaluate activity but their merit in idea generation is less certain

Workshops are all the rage at the moment, increasingly relied on by marketers to unlock every problem from brand extension strategy to total brand identity. Who hasn’t found themselves sitting in an airless room, flip charts to right and left, among colleagues both liked and mistrusted, wondering which breakout group you’re going to be assigned to, and what time the coffee break is?

Workshops come in plain vanilla form – a moderated awayday of sensibly defined objectives to be tackled as a group – and the exotic varieties, like spending three days working out which ‘Greek God’ the brand is most like. There is a growing band of specialist facilitators out there making serious money out of getting people to solve their own problems.

Workshops can be fun, they can be challenging, they can be illuminating, and of course they can be social – the only time in the year, outside of the annual party, when members of cross-disciplinary teams get to see one another’s faces. The big question is, do they work? Do the brand triangles, brand onions, innovation initiatives and activation ideas that emerge from these sessions stand up to the cold glare of scrutiny after the enthusiasm of day? Come to that, can big groups ever produce anything original, inspiring and apt? Or are workshops just a way of getting buy-in to what others, somewhere up the line, have tacitly agreed on already?

Tips for success: marketing workshop do’s and don’ts


Define clear objectives and circulate them before the day

Open with a relevant, but low-stakes, session, with the aim of getting everyone to speak early on

Use two moderators for larger groups, and give them clearly different roles, e.g. synthesiser/motivator

Choose one internal ‘owner’ of the process, who is responsible for its success


Be seduced by silly creative techniques; getting the group to make things out of Plasticine will lead to sticky fingers – not open minds

Make everyone stay inside all day. Insist on at least a 10-minute stroll around the block, and have umbrellas ready if it’s wet

Think of the workshop as the solution in isolation; it’s part of a process that starts well before the event and continues well after

Leave the workshop without a clear map of who does what next, by when, and how

Phil Chapman, Director of Marketing at T-Mobile, is in no doubt of either the merits of the workshop approach or the reasons for its growing use. “We use them to generate ideas, challenge our thinking and get a collective view of strategy,” he says, going on to argue that this collectivism will define the marketing department of the future. “Increasingly, good people at all levels want more involvement in the big decisions. If they’re not empowered, they won’t stay.”

David Taylor, founder of The Brand Gym, is one of the new-age marketing consultants to have spotted the trend and accelerated it with an ideological insistence on collective methods. “In theory, you could use a workshop to tackle any marketing issue,” he says, “but they are particularly powerful for team alignment, focused energy, and shared vision.” When pressed on the absolute quality of ideas emerging from the typical workshop, however, Taylor concedes that it can fall short of the best, especially where a contentious or polarising outcome was justified. “Innocent could never have come out of a workshop,” he concludes.

Inevitably, it is those on the creative agency side who are most sceptical about the ability of big groups to conceive cut-through ideas. Malcolm White, a founder of communications agency krow and chairman of the Account Planning Group, believes that workshop dynamics lend themselves best to a strictly editing role. “They can be very useful for evaluating and developing ideas that are already on the table,” he says, “but not for their origination.” The issue at the heart of things is responsibility, which is a great motivator for small teams, but which weakens the more it is shared. White was one of the tight team of four that created the name and brand identity for the low-cost airline bmibaby in a single afternoon session. “We knew that it was down to us to crack it,” he says. “But in a workshop, with 20 other people around, responsibility is more diffuse; there’s always another breakout team that might solve it, so you don’t dig as deeply into your creative and intellectual reserves.”

Catherine Cluney, Worldwide Vice President of Oral Health at Johnson & Johnson, concurs that workshops can be mis-used as a way to escape the pain of serious thought. “There is a tendency”, she says, “when things get sticky to just decide to do an offsite.” Nevertheless, Cluney believes that workshops can be a worthwhile part of an innovation process as long as the inputs are carefully framed. “Objectives need to be tight, and you need to be clear about all the commercial and practical boundaries up front”, she says. “Otherwise you end up with those silly ‘why-not?’ ideas that can’t be implemented in the real world.”

Certainly, there is much that can be done during the preparation process to tilt the odds in favour of success in the event itself. The trap to avoid is thinking of a one-day workshop as just that, just a single day in the calendar. A better view of its significance and potential upside is to multiply the day by the number of people attending. If 20 senior people are scheduled to turn up, it is 20 senior working days condensed into one – with all the investment, but also all the potential gain, that that implies.

The responsibility for running such a session, and maximising the ratio of achievement to investment, is therefore not one to be taken lightly. Adam Morgan, founder of eatbigfish, has a clear idea of what has made his ‘challenger brand’ workshops such a success on the circuit: meticulous up-front attention to the mix of people who will attend. Drawing on the Hollywood adage that “75% of good direction is casting”, Morgan cites the importance of a genuinely eclectic mix. This goes beyond the usual multi-disciplinary line-up to include people at opposite ends of the knowledge spectrum. ‘Brand archaeologists’ – those who know the brand inside out – are mixed with ‘intelligent naives’. These are successful thinkers from an unrelated category, or from outside the commercial world altogether, whose very ignorance about the market works to force the wider group out of its mental straightjacket.

Morgan believes that properly conducted workshops are the only way to represent everyone in the organisation and to achieve the behaviour change that is the driving theme behind today’s inside-out brand thinking. “It’s no accident”, he claims, “that the surge in workshop activity has coincided with the growing understanding of the importance of internal brand culture.”

And certainly, at the internal engagement level, workshops are a great marketing tool. Their power to involve, to pull people together, to break down the cross-cultural barriers, is undisputed. As a means of getting people to rally round the new Big Idea, they have an undeniable role to play. The nagging doubt remains, however, of how incisive these unwieldy groups are at creating that big idea in the first place. Marketing relies on breakthrough thinking, on originality and on that mix of insight, cunning and courage that gives a brand a chance to stand out in an overcrowded commercial world. Marketing needs its mavericks. Workshops are a consensus play, and sharpness of thought, it could be argued, is what gets blunted as the numbers increase.

So on the question of quality of output, the jury is out. But here’s something to fuel deliberation. Everyone interviewed for this article was asked for an example of a great marketing initiative that was conceived in a workshop and went on to play its part in a commercial success. Not a single one was forthcoming.

Strange but true: workshop techniques for our times

Brand Archetype Journey

Alexander Dunlop’s unusual workshop approach aims to identify the Greek God or Goddess which can act as the organising principle for the brand. Popular with Unilever for a while. The deo brand, Sure, for example, was deemed to be Atalanta – the butch female athlete of ancient Greek myth.

Picasso session

Part of the eatbigfish workshop process. The group engages in an exercise to jettison everything that is extraneous to the brand’s new identity. The analogy refers to the answer Picasso is reputed to have given when asked how he was able to fashion a lion from block of stone: “I chip away everything that isn’t lion”.

Red hat, green hat

A new challenge to classical brainstorm theory from SRI International, reversing the dictat that criticism is banned in workshops. Instead, the group is divided into ‘red hats’ and ‘green hats’. The reds have to criticise the output, and the greens have to defend it. Then they swap.