Inside Kellogg’s New Conference On Creativity

An art battle at a business school conference? Two Chicago area street artists painted murals during the first By Design Conference at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. The goal of the conference was to help MBAs unlock their creative confidence. Courtesy photo

Consider, for a moment, the ridiculousness of Goldfish Crackers. They don’t taste like goldfish. They’re not made as cat treats. They’re simply crackers, shaped like fish, meant to taste like cheddar.

And yet, you’ve certainly heard of them. You’ve most likely snacked on them, even though Cheez-Its are right there.

Now imagine if you were the finance guy at Pepperidge Farm. Would you be the person who killed Goldfish Crackers dead in the water – and the billion-dollar brand it would become – because you didn’t get the concept? Or would you have had the creative confidence to recognize the potential in the nonsensical?

Paul Earle

“If you’re a CFO or tracking to be a CFO, maybe you’re not painting a wall in a skate park. But if you can learn to recognize the power of a huge idea, and the transformational impact of a huge idea, you’re more likely to fund that idea,” says Paul Earle, an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and lead faculty of a new Kellogg conference devoted 100% to creativity.

“You might remember this case study about Goldfish Crackers and you might say, ‘Okay, this idea doesn’t make sense. But it could be a billion dollar platform and I’m going to invest in that.’”

KELLOGG + CREATIVITY

This spring, nearly 250 Kellogg MBAs spent a full day talking and thinking about the link between creativity and business at the school’s first annual By Design conference. It’s a conference organizers hoped to develop at Kellogg even before COVID, but was obviously delayed.

It’s also a passion project for Kellogg donors Gordon and Carole Segal, the founders of Crate&Barrel – a company built with design and creativity as a competitive advantage. “(Gordon) really wanted to amplify how in all the different areas of study, and all the different disciplines of management, creativity is one thing that endures generation to generation. Businesses that can continue to lead with creativity are often the most durable and longest lasting,” says David Schonthal, director of entrepreneurship as well as faculty director of Kellogg’s Zell Fellowship Program.

Schonthal described By Design as a “one-day creative palooza,” where MBAs heard about the Beatles’ process for making music, watched an art battle between two street artists painting murals in real time, and listened to Gordon Segal talk about the power of taste in recognizing great ideas.

Jess Lanzillo, head creative of Dungeons & Dragons, spoke about building creative worlds at Kellogg’s first By Design Conference: Unlocking the Creative Advantage. Courtesy photo

There was a panel discussion on creative collaboration with a rock star (Jason Narducy, front man for punk band Verboten and touring bassist for Superchunk) and a Tony award winning theater director (Anna D. Shapiro, artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre from 2015-2021). The head creative of Dungeons & Dragons, Jess Lanzillo, talked about building creative worlds: You have to go both wide and deep if you want to engage and build a passionate fan base. And, Britt Nolan, president and chief creative officer at Leo Burnett, shared the story of Goldfish Crackers and out-of-the-box creative campaigns he created for companies like Samsung, Wingstop and the Art Institute of Chicago.

There is tremendous value in artsy fartsy creative nonsense, Nolan told the Kellogg MBAs, a phrase that made Geetha Somayajula, MMM ‘24, smile.

“(Nolan) emphasized that testing the art of the possible pays off. Regardless of the industry you work in, we must cultivate the courage to bring our wild ideas to the table,” Somayajula tells P&Q. “Delivering work that elicits an emotional response in our audiences and users is key to making a campaign, strategy, or product stick – we can’t shy away from the big feelings.”

For future conferences, organizers are looking to add workshops and excursions to creative locations. While the conference was fully subscribed for its first year, they hope to expand to offer more room to more interested MBAs.

IS CREATIVITY TEACHABLE?

One of the great myths Kellogg’s By Design conference aims to dispel is that creativity is something you’re either born with or not, says Earle, a serial entrepreneur in consumer products and Principal of Paul Earle & Co., an innovation consultancy and venture platform. He’s also a Kellogg MBA, Class of 1999, and wishes there had been a similar program when he was studying business.

“There’s a creative mindset that we see a lot in the artistic world. So one of the things we tried to do at the conference was bridge the worlds of artistic creativity and business creativity. Not everybody can be Michelangelo or John Lennon. But everybody can be creative to some degree. It’s just a matter of where you fall on the spectrum,” Earle tells P&Q. “So we’re trying to improve people’s creative confidence.”

Creativity is not the exclusive domain of brand managers and advertising executives. The best possible outcome Earle could imagine might actually be the finance executive who figures out how to work more creativity in his or her job. In fact, one of the most creative works he’s seen recently was actually a vendor invoice. It was brightly colored and beautifully designed with a 3D embossed letterhead.

“It’s the only invoice I’ve ever gotten that made me smile. Guess which invoice I paid first?” Earle says. “These students are going to come out of Kellogg with an incredible set of skills – in finance, operations, accounting, statistics.They’re going to have a lot of arrows in their quiver. To add creative sensibility – even if it’s just empathy or a heightened awareness of what a great creative idea can do – I mean, they could be superheroes with that.”

David Schonthal

Schonthal agrees. Take a class of six or seven year olds, and few will hesitate to draw out an idea on the whiteboard or ham it up in a class performance. But as we get older, we put ourselves into buckets. “I’m creative, I’m not creative. I’m left brained or right brained,” he says.

Throughout the conference, presenters tried to weave in the importance of play. Play is an essential part of ingenuity; that creative chunk of your brain just can’t help but activate when you fold play into everyday life. Just ask that class of six year olds. Find ways to play at work, at school, in the kitchen, wherever, and see how much more creative your outcomes become.

“I don’t think we’re trying to teach people creatively, we’re just trying to unlock the creativity they already have,” Schonthal says.

A CONFERENCE UNIQUELY KELLOGG?

Creativity has long been a feature of Kellogg’s approach to business. The very first class its EMBA students take is on one on design thinking, and it offers classes such as “Creativity as a Business Tool.” Its Levy Inspiration Grant, a kind of inspirational Fulbright Fellowship for Kellogg entrepreneurs, offers small, 100% customizable grants to individuals who want to explore a business case or problem, anywhere in the world. Last year, grants funded a trip to Townsville, Australia, so an MBA could study the business solutions to the dying Great Barrier Reef. Another student traveled through Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, to explore how restaurant tech could transform the food industry in LATAM.

Kellogg MBAs help color a mural for the By Design Conference. Courtesy photo

A dedicated creativity conference, however, has the potential to reach more MBAs than the limited few who can enroll in a course or take a class trek to LA to talk about the intersection of film, music, and business. And it can reach students in finance, operations, or marketing that aren’t actively pursuing careers in entrepreneurship – an endeavor with creatively necessarily built it.

“I think that’s what we’re trying to debunk – that it’s entrepreneurship and innovation and creativity that belong together. There are places of importance for creativity in everything that we teach. If we can get students to unlock that creative confidence, they might approach a job that may have seemed very left brain in an entirely different way,” Schonthal says.

Other business schools, certainly, offer programs that emphasize creativity. Stanford Graduate School of Business offers a Design Thinking Bootcamp to executives and strategy professions. At Rotman School of Management, its Business Design Initiative aims to move Design Thinking beyond the engineering and design schools it typically occupies and incorporate Design Education into the heart of its business school. In November, Columbia Business School hosted a conference on Marketing and the Creator Economy, focused on influencers, podcasting, video creation, blogging, and product development.

Kellogg’s conference is somewhat unique in that it is tailored to MBAs specifically but does not focus on any discipline or creative endeavor in particular.

“Kellogg is uniquely positioned both geographically, as well as with the university that we’re affiliated with. At Northwestern, we have extraordinarily strong arts and communication. We have extraordinarily strong music. We have extraordinarily strong business, we have extraordinarily strong engineering,” Schonthal says. “I do think one of the unique things about us is that, on campus alone, you’ve got all of these creative disciplines that rarely come together under one roof. One of the aspirations of the creative advantage is also just to put on display the multidisciplinarity of what happens at Northwestern and how business students can be inspired by engineering students and how engineering students can be inspired by music faculty.”

Geetha Somayajula, MMM ’24

For Somayajula, who earned a dual MBA and MS in Design Innovation at Kellogg, By Design was one of the most unique experiences she’s had at the school. Creativity has been a throughline of her career so far – she worked in design consulting at PwC before Kellogg – and plans to continue to work in creative fields. At Kellogg, she was co-leader of the student org Innovation & Design Association.

While she will return to PcW after graduation, she dreams to someday help big brand concert music organizations like the Chicago Symphony or LA Phil find new ways to connect with audiences.

“I’m inspired to dream even bigger. It’s easy to fall into the trap of pushing forward with what’s been tried, true and tested, leaving the ‘out there’ thinking for later. By Design has taught me the value and honor there is in throwing out the playbook, and equipped me with the courage to pioneer what I believe in,” she tells P&Q.

“The classical music industry is hundreds of years old, and reimagining audience experiences and building deep emotional ties is hard work. After hearing from leaders who’ve successfully disrupted historic industries like toothpaste, lip balm, and boxed pasta with great design, I feel empowered to chase my own wild ideas.”

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