Not too long ago, I noticed (in the virtual world of my LinkedIn contact list) that Lisa had left the glamorous world of Saatchi for a company called ?WhatIf! Innovation . When I started poking around, ?WhatIf! struck me as something akin to design consultancies like Design Continuum and Frog Design but more focused on helping companies discover their own latent creativity and innovation to drive growth. A slightly deeper probe revealed a long and diverse client list .
My interest officially piqued, I decided to reconnect with Lisa to ask her how she went from the MBA program at Texas A&M in College Station, TX to an innovation consultancy in the East Village of New York City.
When I arrived at the ?WhatIf! offices at 2nd Avenue and St. Marks Place, Lisa showed me around the beautiful old building, which is home to (count ‘em!) 0 offices and 0 cubicles.
Pointing out the configuration of the couches in the large, open first floor foyer, Lisa proudly declared that on no two days have they ever taken the same shape (just of one of the ways the company physically embodies their values). The couches represent the value of “Freshness.” The other ?WhatIf! values: Passion, Action, Love, and Bravery.
Lisa then showed me where the inventing (and eating) happens, before introducing me to “Super Cow,” ?WhatIf! New York’s unofficial mascot.
After the tour, Lisa and I sat down for a little chat about life as a creative MBA.
ThinkingDesign: Good old-fashioned herd mentality and groupthink are pretty common at most MBA programs. How did you assert your creativity during and after business school?
Lisa Buckley: I’m kind of the poster child for a non-traditional MBA at A&M, one because I’m a woman, but also because my undergraduate degrees were in psychology and musical theatre. Everyone else was, you know, business, law, marketing, finance, and so on and so forth. So right away, they [Texas A&M admissions] were like “Yes, we’re going to take you because you’re going to give us some diversity.”
I think I really had to work hard to seek out people who were living life more creatively than your average person. At A&M, I found two professors who were sort of doing that on the fringe a bit, so I formed relationships with them. They were also really encouraging about my odd choice to go into advertising. Because everyone else was like, A) You’re not going to make any money. What are you doing? And B) You’re not really going to use your skills, so what a waste.
But I had to be doing something creative. I figured advertising was as close as I could get to that with a psychology degree, an MBA, and the [musical] theatre thing. And I thought it would be this creative Mecca and amazing and all about bouncing ideas off of people.
ThinkingDesign: Tell us a bit about why you chose Saatchi?
Lisa Buckley: When Saatchi hired me, I thought, “Oh my god, I’ve made it!” because I wrote my MBA application about Kevin Roberts. He’s the Global CEO and he wrote Lovemarks . I was obsessed with this framework and thought that this is the place I have to be.
As it turns out, it was a bit stifling for me. It was much more staid than say a Crispin Porter Bogusky, which is a lot of razzmatazz but also some method to the madness.
I still did well there, because I’m just a hard worker – that’s how my parents raised me. But I wasn’t happy. I was there almost four years. Then, I found a recruiter that only hires for creative companies. I didn’t even know that existed, but here in New York, it does.
ThinkingDesign: When they brought you in here to ?WhatIf!, was it with the expectation that you were going to be an Excel jockey?
Lisa Buckley: Here? Noooo! I am one of three MBAs here (out of 40 in the New York office). And there are maybe 10 in other parts of the world (out of about 250 worldwide employees). And in fact, ?WhatIf! used to advertise that they didn’t hire MBAs, because they were the ones that were going to bring in the fresh thinking, different from the MBA analytical thinking common at many companies.
But now, I’m recruiting from Stern at NYU, because if I can do it…
We used to be very anti-MBA, but as we grow up as a company, we’re figuring out that there is a place for that.
ThinkingDesign: Cool. So what are you looking for in an MBA hire? It’s obviously not about having the best finance skills, right?
Lisa Buckley: No, we’re just looking for MBAs that are like me basically. Okay, they have all that [business] background and can do it, but they don’t want to.
The anatomy of people I’m hiring now are things like the right blend of playfulness and gravitas, naturally good at having ideas, inspiring, engaging, and superstar communicators.
ThinkingDesign: Who are some of your clients? And what do they come to ?WhatIf! looking for?
Lisa Buckley: We train some of the most regulated industries out there. Our number one client base comes from pharmaceuticals. We work with some of the biggest pharma companies in the world [here she rattled off a list of 10 or 12 of the biggest names in the industry].
We train cross-functionally – R&D, marketing, manufacturing, operations, and others. And that’s one of our philosophies – if you just sit in marketing, or you just sit in R&D and you get the training, then there are innovation “haves and have-nots.” And sure, you can have ideas, but if the people that need to get it out to the market aren’t part of it, they have no ownership. They haven’t been on the journey so they don’t have the same understanding of the ideas.
So, we’ll go in and we train them in our behaviors and the way our inventors behave, so they can set up their own little shops.
ThinkingDesign: A bit more of a personal question for you. Do you do the work more for the way it makes you feel, or to make a lasting impact in organizations you serve?
Lisa Buckley: When I first came in, it was definitely for selfish reasons. I was like, “I will thrive in this environment. I’ll be challenged every day. It will be all me me me me me!” To this day, this place is still what I’ve been looking for. I’m constantly surprised and amazed at the opportunities that exist here. And the working relationships I have are just phenomenal. We love and adore each other. Clients are drawn to it and want to be a part of it.
So it started off inward-focused, but it’s so much more. For example, the first thing we do on day one with a client is we put a group together in a room – the traditionally “creative” people alongside folks from departments like finance and operations – and actually knock all of that down and explain to everyone why they’re all massively creative. Some of them just forgot how to do it. When you were a kid, you lived in this amazing world of possibilities and there weren’t rules...
We get feedback from every client interaction we have, and the number one takeaway people have is that they realize or remember that they are a creative person. They thank us for helping them remember how to build creativity back into their lives. That’s massive! That’s huge! On an individual level, it’s the most rewarding career thing I’ve ever done.
On an organizational level, we’re working with a CPG company that a year ago didn’t know how to do innovation, didn’t have anything in their pipeline. On our last day of our workshop with them, we gave small teams a project, with an executive sponsor, and we coached them through three or four months on these projects that are all uber-successful. And these aren’t small projects. The goal of one of them was to come up with some $300 million ideas, which they’ve done.
ThinkingDesign: What advice do you have for other creative MBA types?
Lisa Buckley: I would say to find a company that has an innovation program and a training around it, and also systems that give you freedom within a gilded cage to go innovate, to do whatever you want within confines that are pretty loose within a big, bureaucratic organization.
Or, be someone that is more of a catalyst that goes into these companies and helps them.
Or go to a really small company that, by the sheer nature of the small entrepreneurial culture, will allow you to be nimble, try stuff out and fail, and rip it up and start over, because that’s what’s going to make you happy.