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Bringing Ideas to Life: A Look Behind the Creative Curtain


I was jotting down notes in one of the many journals I have around the office (or The Cave, as it is known around here). I happened to come across multiple pages of notes and sketches created around this time last year when we were formulating ideas for the Content Marketing World 2015 theme. After poring over the pages, I thought it would be neat to share with you the creative process for our biggest project – from simple ideas on paper to the final products – and how we all worked together to get it done.

The creative process is collaborative; drawing on team strengths for an effective visual story. Click To Tweet

Step 1: Develop the theme

We are a pretty fun-loving, close-knit group at CMI. That is why the ideation process for projects is always interesting to say the least. Ideas for various successful CMI projects have been born not only in our staff meetings but during our extracurricular activities such as pick-up basketball games, lunch outings, golfing, or a cup of coffee.

In December of 2014, the idea of having a Hollywood theme for Content Marketing World was presented. We all thought the general theme was a good one.

We knew that the theme had to touch many aspects of our event, including:

  • Joe Pulizzi’s opening keynote talk
  • Main stage design
  • Conference materials including posters, program, signage
  • Marketing tools including social and digital
  • Sponsor booths (optional)
  • Speaker presentations (optional)

We needed to not only consider the fun, visual applications of the theme, but also how it translated into the conference’s subject matter – content marketing – and how Joe, other speakers, and sponsors could incorporate a Hollywood theme into their own work.

After discussions with each team (sales, marketing, events, executive) involved in Content Marketing World, we came up with the tagline: “Bright Lights, Big Content.”

Step 2: Gathering the ideas

Immediately after getting the thumbs-up on the theme from the team, I started on the ideation process with the marketing, community management, and event teams.

With decades of Tinseltown promotion to look through, I referred to some life-and-style magazines (and websites) about the 1940s to 1960s era of Hollywood. The goal was to get the idea machine in motion with visual references, from red carpet photos, promotional posters and lobby cards to production notes from Hollywood’s most iconic eras.

Take any one of my journals, and you’ll see many sketches that happen at in-person meetings and brainstorming sessions.

Step 3: Developing and executing ideas

With our marketing vice president and community manager, we decided to introduce the Hollywood theme to our audience, sponsors, and attendees with a series of social media-friendly images using the likenesses of some of Hollywood’s most iconic and recognizable actors and launch it on our social platforms.

social media friendly images

Those fun-lovin’ posters

A few years back, the CMWorld theme was rock and roll. I had an idea of doing rock-and-roll-style concert posters promoting each session track. Large-scale posters were placed in areas around the convention center and smaller versions were printed for attendees to take home. Digital versions also were available via our social channels. They were a hit with both the speakers and attendees, so each year I continue to create a set of posters promoting the conference tracks and speakers.

Below are some of the original ideas and sketches for the posters. Our initial idea was to use iconic actors and quotes, but after some early layouts, we decided to move forward with the iconic movies. This gave us a better visual to use across multiple channels, online and offline.

iconic movies

I worked very closely with our vice president of marketing in the creation process. We coordinated which movies and genres had a natural fit to a session track (i.e., the Future Content track as the Back to the Future-inspired poster). In addition, we worked closely with the event staff to make sure we had the most up-to-date speaker listings to ensure that no one got left out. Speakers had access to their own poster as well as optional visuals (banner ads, speaker announcements, buttons, etc.) for sharing on their social channels and promoting on their websites.

PRO TIP: If you want your influencers to share your visuals, make it easy. We did this via tagging on Facebook and Twitter, and shared Dropbox folders for the raw files. By providing access in multiple ways, we increased the likelihood that they would help promote their sessions and our big event.

Oh my stars

After kicking around some ideas for the general look of some of the marketing imagery, my attention turned to the on-site presence of the theme – from outside the convention center, to the walls inside, the expo hall, and conference areas.

I worked with the events and marketing teams (notice the integration of teams again) to come up with an idea of a Walk of Fame complete with floor graphics mimicking the stars on Hollywood Boulevard. Being that CMW 2015 was our fifth anniversary, we wanted to show love to those people who had attended every year by putting their names on the CMW Walk of Fame.

Take a look at the original idea sketch below and the final product (with yours truly posing next to my star).

CMW Walk of fame

We didn’t stop the theme transformation with the floor or the walls. Our biggest challenge was the Hollywood Squares set. It was something else. If you didn’t get to see it, let me explain. We built a full-size set looking almost exactly like the vintage ’70s game show. We hosted one show each day and, in between, attendees could climb into their favorite square and have a picture snapped.

To get things started, our events team worked with our event contractors and tech onsite team to get the specs approved and then we had to realize the concept. With input from the contractors, I sketched out some of the concept using the initial ideas. It also was my job to create the graphics, logo, and everything orange. The tech team worked out how to make it all happen – and they did a fantastic job.

CMW Concept sketches

A little help from my friends

As I stated at the beginning, none of the visual content success is possible without the direction and input from the multiple teams that I work with at CMI. Integrating the CMI teams’ feedback obviously helps steer the creative, but it also helps me explore different avenues to take the designs.

Over my years I have learned that to create great visual content, you must have great listening skills. The creative process is a collaborative one that, as our team has learned, draws on each person’s strengths, to get the right pieces in place for an effective visual story like the one we created for Content Marketing World 2015.

We’re well underway in following this same process for Content Marketing World 2016. Want to see the results and improve your content marketing skills? Register by February 29, 2016 for super early-bird savings. Use code BLOG100 to save an additional $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute