Ty Montague, co-founder of co: collective shares why creative solutions come from being a troublemaker.
Why Advertising Won’t Fix Brand Identity Problems
Ty Montague believes that creativity starts with being a troublemaker.
“People should actively seek resistance and then when they find it, lean into it. That’s where the good stuff is. We live in a culture where we teach people not to do that. We teach people to stop.”
That sentiment animates Montague’s personal and business strategy, which is why when he left his job as the Co-President and Chief Creative Officer of mega agency JWT, he decided to create a company that offers brand solutions which attempt to bypass advertising altogether.
“I had one frustration in the business, which was that by the time a brief hit my desk, the one thing I knew for sure was that somebody somewhere had decided the answer to the problem was advertising. But I could often think of five or six other ways to solve it.”
“That was the motivation for starting Co:, to create a company that worked with clients before they had decided what the solution to their problem was, to help them really define the problem, create a pathway to the solution, and then build a team of specialist experts to make that solution real in the world no matter what it was.”
Co:, the company that Montague co-founded in 2010 with Rosemarie Ryan, his partner at JWT, defines itself as a “Storydoing collective that invents and re-invents businesses, brands and products.” They offer companies the tools necessary to isolate their core goals and future aspirations and then help them achieve them, without leaning on the easy crutch of ad sales.
“In the mid 1990s I started to notice companies that were building very big businesses without using very much paid media at all. Starbucks was the first example. I became fascinated by companies that operated in that way, and I wanted to really understand how they worked.”
As Montague learned more about the inner workings of these organizations, he began to draw a clear distinction between “storytelling” businesses and ones he termed “storydoing” businesses.
“In a storytelling company the story of the business is the remit of one department, usually the marketing department. Often, the people who are in charge of the story don’t even meet the people who are in charge of making the product. In a story doing company, the story is the domain of the entire leadership team, usually up to and including the CEO.”
“When the whole leadership team really understands the narrative of the business, that narrative can be expressed much more holistically. When you do that in a very regular and strategic way you become more efficient as a business. You don’t have to spend as much on paid media, and you get more attention on social media.”
This positive attention comes from brand transparency and a clear understanding by the general public, of the goals of every person in the company.
“Story doing companies are on something that we call a quest. Story doing companies are trying to create some big, positive change in the world for people, or trying to right some kind of global wrong that they’ve perceived.”
“We help all of our clients define those attributes, help them make the story, the domain and help them define a really clear quest. We help them figure out not only what they’re for, but what they’re against.”
To isolate this brand essence—what Montague has termed the metastory, the Co: team of creatives and specialists ask questions of businesses such as: What is the truth about you as an organization?, Who are you trying to get to participate in your story?, What are your strengths?, What are your weaknesses? and, If you were going to start a company that was out to kill your company, what would that company be like?
The final question in this list denotes the underlying levity and originality that is at the core of the story-doing process, which basically mirrors Montague’s own creative process.
“There is such a playful aspect to creativity, but for me, this is most interesting when it’s applied to a specific problem. I really like to have a well defined problem that I’m trying to solve, then adding to that a magical combination and juxtaposition of new ideas.”
“Creativity for me, consists of a period of really rigorous definition—a winnowing and cutting away, followed by a period of opening yourself completely back up to the craziest possible solution or idea.”
This structure is also applied to the work process at Co: to ensure that the most original strategy is planned for each client.
An openness to new ideas, and the ability to take a non-conventional path is key to the storydoing process and is also one way that Montague helps to keep himself inspired.
“I am an information omnivore. I’ve decided to just collect skills. I like learning about things that are completely outside of the business of our business, that’s where I draw inspiration. Last year I went to wilderness survival school. I did that for a week out in the Pine Barrens, and I met a group of people and learned things that I never would have met in a million years in the New York City creative, art, media, commerce intersection.”
“I enjoy dipping into to all of those different worlds. Understanding how people work is fundamental to being successful in the advertising business. It’s definitely fundamental to us at Co, as well. I think exposing yourself to as much of the world as possible, the world of human beings—how they’re built, how they react, what they like and what they don’t like, is fundamental.”
This practice can be seen in the way that Montague has structured the human element of the company.
“Bringing people in who have no business working at a company like Co: is incredibly satisfying. I just like finding people who don’t really fit in anywhere else, and I am personally drawn to creative people who are trouble makers.”
Troublemaking, for Montague seems to be synonymous with out-of-the box thinking, and not taking “no” for an answer. “My perspective on ideas is, until somebody is telling you the idea is crazy, it’s probably not that good of an idea. I think people self censor. They decide that an idea is either impractical, or weird, or is going to be unpopular and give up too quickly on it.”
Ideas are energy sources in Montague’s world and he believes they should be protected and cultivated.
“Your ideas are reflective of you. No one else can tell you which are good and which are bad. There are the ideas that you can get out into the world, and the ones that you can’t. There is also a point at which you need to understand that if you let an idea go, another one is going to come to you. I was so unsure of that when I was young that I would go too far defending mine. But one lesson I learned is, if you are a creative person, you never run out of ideas.”