Gates-ian ideas work in ad biz
Clear direction, time to think are elements of
winning system at Microsoft
By John Emmerling
September 23, 1996
Back in 1990, while researching a book about creative ideas, I spent an hour chatting with Bill Gates at his home (the old small home, not the new huge one). Conducted across the dining room table, the interview boiled down to one question: "How do you inspire creativity at Microsoft?" Recently, I came across the cassette of our conversation and listened again to Bill's words. It was a bit of a surprise, because the six principles he talked aboutthe ones that inspire the software developers at Microsoftwould also work magic in any agency's creative department.
1. Hire the best people. In Bill's words the best hires should be "fairly smart, broad people who have interests in a lot of areas, and are willing to work intensely on our stuff." He looks hard for those people whoin addition to having superb skills in their special area of computer technologyare also interested in the market... and in the users. (LESSON: Look for stunningly talented art directors and writers who are familiar with both Wired and The Wall Street Journal.)
2. Crystal clear direction. At Microsoft, the eight-word company mission is "Put a world of information at everyone's fingertips." According to Bill, that means a customer can "sit down and get any information they wantit's very easy to see." (LESSON: Can you write your agency's creative philosophy on a matchbook cover?)
3. Give them time to think. "People must have time to think about things," said Bill. The architects of the company's buildings must have gotten the messageall offices are private and whiteboards are mounted on the walls, ready to receive scribbled notations, diagrams and concepts. (LESSON: The client called this morning and insists on seeing the new ad tomorrow? Beg, borrow and stealbut push the deadline till Friday.)
4. Shorten the feedback loop. Even back in the dark ages of 1990, Microsoft was aggressively pushing the creative use of e-mail. Developers were expected to send e-mail describing their ideas to the reigning software experts. The feedback responses would come zapping back in minutes. Instead of a couple of face-to-face meetings a day, there could easily be 20 electronic consultations. (LESSON: Don't use e-mail just to send memos. Toss a creative idea into your agency's electronic potand ask for comments and tweaks.)
5. Let people feel their impact. Gates wants people to feel important. If anyone starts to get the sense they are plowing old ground, doing something that's been done before, they are quickly given something else to do. Or they are given a clear understanding of how "we haven't yet achieved what we want to achieve." (LESSON: When is the last time you asked yourself if your creative people "feel important?" Ask it. Then act on it.)
6. Allow unicycles. Good people like to work with good peopleand Bill helps set a tone that is "individualized and interesting." At Microsoft, ties are an oddity. It's OK to play Friday night golf in the hallways or mount your unicycle and hold a jousting match under the chairman's windows. Stay loosethe ideas flow faster. (LESSON: Allow unicycles.)
Bill Gates' creative stimulants must be working. Worth less than $4 billion back during that summer of 1990, he's now topped $16 billion. That meanseven if he puts in 70-hour work weekshe's been pulling down more than $500,000 an hour. So if you're reading this, Bill, thanks again for the half-million dollar interview.
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