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3 steps to improvise your way towards being more creative

Posted by Alex Rodríguez

Improvise to be more creative

Are you often wishing you could be more creative, but can’t quite figure out where to begin?

(Note: This blog post is better enjoyed if read while playing this performance by Thelonious Monk and his band in the background.)

Many people — from entrepreneurs, developers, and even artists — have told me that they wish they found out the secret to be more creative in their endeavors. Most people understand quite well the benefits of being more creative, yet the path to get there seems to elude them.

I think the path to set loose their creative flow and get into a pattern where they can be more creative has a lot to do with one of my favorite music genres: jazz.

The two main misconceptions about jazz are that: 1) jazz musicians just “wing it” all the time, and 2) jazz musicians are only as good as the licks (i.e., repetitious patterns) they learn. The reality is that it is neither this nor that.

The formation of a jazz musician can be boiled down to a three-step process, which someone in any field can follow to be more creative.

Here are the steps:

1) Let go of preconceptions

The first thing a musician needs to do when learning how to play jazz is to empty their mind from structured patterns they may have picked up along the way. Holding too firmly to elements learned in the past can inhibit the creative mind, as it only “anchors” it on a safe — but common — spot.

In like manner, when embarking on a creative endeavor, you should put aside the notions, concepts, habits, and techniques that you have learned along the way — whether they’ve been helpful in the past or not.

The fact of the matter is that if you are to take on a challenge with a fresh new approach, the more baggage you come into it with, the more your approach will be tinted with what was already familiar to you.

Let yourself be free for a bit — even if that means opening yourself up for making mistakes — and observe the challenge with an open mind.

2) Review the rules

This is going to sound completely contrary to what I just said, but please bear with me.

Almost every creative endeavor has rules set forth by people who have preceded you, with years of experience that you cannot possibly equate in a short amount of time.

Jazz music has styles and genres that have already been established. It has scales and chord systems that are unique to jazz, and there is a whole science behind them. Jazz even has models around what works and what doesn’t work with regard to solos.

For example, it is often seen as jarring when a jazz musician begins his/her solo by just blurting out notes randomly. The “correct” way to do it is to begin the solo by laying the groundwork for a pattern (melodic or rhythmic), then repeating the pattern with a slight modification, then possibly modifying it further a third time, and only  then releasing forth a free-form stream of notes.

Even jazz musicians like Thelonius monk — despite being perceived as plunking notes at random — was a genius student of forms, chord patterns, and other rules. Once you realize this — which may take a bit of study — you will be amazed at how much restraint Monk showed.

In everything you do, it would serve you well to read up on the rules of what has worked and what simply doesn’t work.

I’m not here telling you that you need to complete a master’s degree in logo design or creative writing, or whatever it is that you want to be more creative in. With just some basic knowledge, acquired quickly by reading a book, a few articles, tutorials on YouTube, etc., you will be well ahead of people who don’t care to stop for a second and pay attention to these tried and true guidelines.

3) Now break the rules

For every Count Basie, who showed unbelievable restraint in the context of jazz, there is an Ornette Coleman, who sounds like he is just picking out notes as he goes along without any sense of structure.

But this is hardly the case.

A famous quote by master artist Pablo Picasso goes, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Once you’ve gone through step 2, learning and reviewing the guidelines around what you’re hoping to achieve, you will then be free to break the rules, take creative licenses, and flat out bust into your version of a sax solo.

The difference here is that you’d be doing it on solid ground, and not by incessantly poking in the air to see if something sticks.

I love one of the coolest lessons from Victor Wooten’s Groove Workshop (which you can see right here — warning: it has terminology from music theory) is that “You are never more than half a step away from a right note.”

What he means is that, as long as you have your sight on the outcome you wish to arrive at, and the guidelines that can take you there — which you should have crystal-clear after applying step 2 — there is nothing so unbelievably wrong you can do, that cannot be easily tweaked back to being right.

Creativity is all about taking risks… yet the risks aren’t life-threatening! Go for it, take a step forward, feel free to make mistakes if you need to. Often you’ll realize that even what you initially thought were mistakes, aren’t really so bad after all.


I hope these three steps can help you feel a bit unblocked so you can learn to be more creative. The band has played, the drummer just flammed… It’s time for your solo!

Have any other tips you would recommend to unlock the creative mind? Feel free to share them with others in the comments section.


Best SuperBowl 2015 Ads, classified by Creative and Strategy

Posted by Alex Rodríguez

SuperBowl 2015 Ads

Did you watch the SuperBowl ads last night? (Everyone knows that the ads matter less than the game. 🙂 ) If so, which were the best SuperBowl 2015 ads?

There’s no need to resurrect the debate on whether the Super Bowl ads are what they used to be 20 or 30 years ago. The fact remains, the largest brands and ad agencies bring out the big guns for one of the events with greater exposure in the USA. They know millions and millions will be watching their 30 second – 1 minute commercials, so they make an effort to pack their very best for the big event.

When discussing which ads were the best, we can do so from many different angles. Most casual viewers will judge by which ad was the funniest, which one made us cry, or which had the biggest and baddest visual effects.

While certainly valid criteria, as business owners and entrepreneurs, we know that these ads are huge investments, and as such are expected to bring in a return. We may never have a chance to peek into these brands’ financials, but what we can do is look at the ads from two very specific points of view:

Creative: Did the ads portray the brand and its unique selling proposition in a unique, different, and memorable manner?

Strategy: Did the ads have a defined strategy, beyond passive “brand awareness”?

Here are what I considered to be the best in each of these two categories:


Loctite – Positive Feelings

Sure, they didn’t hire Kim Kardashian nor Katy Perry, but rather took the complete opposite approach: Take your average person — fanny packs and all — and have them dancing in an electric music video. It’s the right approach for an “every day” item such as Loctite, as it’s a brand you have laying around your house, until all of a sudden you need an extraordinary function, such as resurrecting your thick-rimmed glasses.

Fiat 500X – Blue Pill

Take an iconic — and somewhat cheeky – symbol of growth as Viagra, and put it in the tank engine of a Fiat as a mishap. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind on what the ad message is: “We don’t just make tiny cars, check out our new larger model.”

Clash of Clans – Revenge

I’m a CoC player, so I admit this is somewhat biased. But let’s be honest, nobody expected to see Liam Neeson, hot on the trails of the third installment of his Taken movie series, protagonizing a SuperBowl ad… For a mobile app?! Yet his character, which is a widespread meme for taking revenge, is the perfect fit for one of the game’s core functions, the ability to take revenge upon real-life players who attack your village.

Snickers – Brady Bunch

In a very noteworthy version of their already-successful “You’re Not You” ad series, Marcia is hungry and stressed out… And turns into MACHETE! Not much to say about this, other than the fact that they successfully took unpredictability to the extremes of the scale. I wouldn’t want to see Danny Trejo demanding Alice for food.

Bud Life – Real Life Pacman #UpForWhatever

Upon seeing this ad, everyone with whom I was watching the SuperBowl last night cried out, “I wanna do that too!” Yes, the majority of them were teens under the age of drinking… but you know what? I said it out loud as well! Whether you’re 48 or 8 years old, you know Pac-Man, and you know it’s a game that’s all about fun and taking losses lightly, which are exactly the brand promises with Bud Light.

The execution of the Pac-Man was quite amazing as well. I just wish the editing weren’t as jarring, but otherwise, I loved the luminescence of the Pac-Man assets, plus how the main actor in the commercial “ate up” the dots by just walking through the maze (whether it was through a real responsive digital floor or not, it still looked pretty cool).


Toyota Camry – My Bold Dad

Car ads are a staple of SuperBowl commercial breaks, and ad agencies seem to be running out of ideas on how to sell us on the latest and greatest model. For a model like the Toyota Camry which is meant to be a nice “family vehicle,” going back to the heart of their brand promise was the right approach. Many of the deepest moments between a father and his growing daughter involve transporting her to and fro. The Camry becomes the silent supporting actor in this very important relationship.

It’s worth noticing that Nissan also tried to approach the “dad” angle with their #WithDad SuperBowl 2015 ad, but in my opinion they tried to go too big and ended up losing the essence of what Toyota did so well.

Always – Like A Girl

This just happens to be my favorite advertising spot from 2014, and although they cut it down quite a bit to appear among the SuperBowl 2015 ads, I still love it. It challenges all of us — women and men — to respect and give credit to girls, which is at the root of the Always brand.

Carnival Cruises – Come Back to The Sea

With a voice over of an inspiring speech by president John F. Kennedy, the ad uses powerful visuals — yet notably no background music — to remind us that sea water is an essential part of the human experience. The ad is effective in selling the cruise experience as much more than a boat with all-you-can-eat fun. It’s an intimate encounter with a part of us that, for most of us in urban and sub-urban day-to-day hustles and bustles, is unfortunately a privilege we don’t often have the chance to take part in.

McDonald’s – Pay With Lovin’

For a company that has had trouble making profits in the last few quarters, you’d expect some reinvention on their part. Hard to do, when they’ve planted their stake on the ground as the place to get Big Macs, fries, and McNuggets. Any variances from their usual offerings have been careful and not without risks. In this case, the reinvention comes as a limited-time promotion to pay your order with “lovin'”, with nothing more than hugging your family or calling your mom.

It’s the closest thing to giving their food away for free, and it’s a brilliant activation of their “I’m lovin’ it” tagline.

SquareSpace – Dreaming with Jeff

Jeff Bridges in your bedroom “OM”‘ing while spinning a singing bowl is creepy as creepy can be, but the message is clear. No matter how far-fetched your idea, you can create a website pretty easily for it on SquareSpace. It was one of the few SuperBowl 2015 ads with a strong digital funnel, which allows you to visit the site, listen to the tracks, and download/purchase them if desired, all while showcasing SquareSpace’s ability to offer everything easily.

Budweiser – Brewed the Hard Way

Most people are going to spread love on the Clydesdale spot, but this is the one that I believe took real risks, and approached a relevant market situation.

I’m not a fan of their product, but the strategy is clear — separate the waters between craft beer consumers and “the rest of us.” Criticize them or not, it’s a firm way to plant the foot in an era in which indie beers is actually biting away significantly at the macro beer’s market share.

Which SuperBowl 2015 ads did you like? And under which category would you place them?