Management:
                   More Companies Send Staffs on Retreats
                   To Spur Creativity and Jolt Thinking
                   By Joan E. Rigdon

                   10/16/1991
                   The Wall Street Journal
                   PAGE B1
                   (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
                   Shaffer.

                   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
                   unit.

                   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
                   $38.2 million.

                   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
                   toy.)

                   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
                   Concept Hell!"

                    -30-
 

                      Back to Joan's clips