On Cocktail Napkins

In Defense of a Low-Tech Secret Weapon

First of all, let’s be clear about this: we take a back seat to nobody in our passion for High-Tech Gee Whiz Creative Toys. 20 years ago, when our supply of fonts zoomed past 200 megabytes, when our storage needs soared into the gigabytes, when we routinely started doing direct-to-film separations in-house, we felt like Electronic Hotshots. Goodbye keyliners, stripping costs, X-acto knives, t-squares, type houses, whiteout, airbrushes, rubylith, prestype. mechanicals, dot etching, galley proofs and color markups. [Note to young people in the business: ask somebody really Old to explain those antiques to you.] On the production end of the business, we were proudly Captain Video and the FinalCut Rangers.

We got every ba-da-boom software package, plus every ba-da-bing upgrade. Well before the millennium, we got into digital interactive video and DVD and DAT drives and blazing-fast processors, because semi-blazing wasn’t fast enough.

But … we also have much more powerful, more flexible conceptual tools working for us, ones that can help us produce great work – even if the power goes out. We are speaking, of course, of the ultimate low-tech conceptual medium: the cocktail napkin.

We’re not kidding.

Have you ever noticed, as we have, how some of the best ideas for ad campaigns (or new products, made-for-TV movies, national healthcare reform or vegetarian restaurant names) begin life as cocktail napkin doodles? It’s that way in agencies small, medium and large. In New York and L.A., Frankfurt and Fargo. It’s been that way for decades.

When you study the humble cocktail napkin doodle, a few illuminating insights unfold. For one thing, we believe the kind of conceptual breakthrough of which we speak is not caused by the beverages being consumed in the native habitat of the cocktail napkin, the neighborhood saloon. (Not entirely.)

Nor do you get that proverbial whack upside the head because of the out-of-office, no-telephone peace and quiet of those same watering holes. (Not entirely.)

Instead, we believe there’s something intrinsically valuable in the medium itself: the act of creating doodle layouts on cocktail napkins is necessarily an exercise in visual and verbal economy. Think about it: a felt-tip pen on a tissue surface forces you to keep your ideas and images simple, to use a single dominant visual, to stress a single selling proposition, to find the minimum number of perfect words to ignite an idea.

With cocktail-napkin layouts, you can’t rely on body copy to rescue a weak headline. You can’t fall back on production values to shore up a limp strategy. There’s no color. No bimbos in bikinis. No Motown soundtrack. No dazzling animated effects. There is, in short, nowhere to hide.

… the act of creating doodle layouts on cocktail napkins is necessarily an exercise in visual and verbal economy

This is the 180-degree opposite of running FinalCutProHD on a dual-processor rocket. With neither razzle nor dazzle, you’re producing nothing less than a naked idea, and it has to be great to survive. Not brilliant enough? Wad it up, call for the barkeep, order two more of the same, please.

We decided that if this was a constructive creative discipline to hold writers and art directors to, such a great litmus test for concepts, couldn’t we find a way to make it work in-house as well as it works during Happy Hour with one foot up on a brass rail?

So when we opened our agency in 1987, one of our first investments was an industrial-size case of cocktail napkins.

We’ve been using them ever since, for brainstorming sessions, thumbnail layouts, whatever. It’s not that we don’t use our computers to doodle, e.g., "Let’s see that headline in 12 other typefaces, in front of 12 different color background textures right now." But in the early stage of fevered start-from-a-blank-sheet conceptual activity, there’s nothing like nice fat Sharpie markers and a pile of our secret weapons. Also Naugahyde booths, Killian’s Irish Red on tap, neon signs, Billie Holiday tunes on a jukebox, and a gum-snapping waitress named Darlene, but we haven’t gone that far. (Not entirely.)

It takes 128 cocktail napkins, by the by, to cover our conference table. The number needed to cover your specific branding problem(s), we hasten to add, may vary.

But any end product that begins with this low, low, low-tech approach usually embodies a kind of direct simplicity. And that, if you think about it, is a pretty valuable disciplined creativity for an agency to work toward.


If you’re a client looking for powerful, simple, effective creativity, let’s head for a saloon. We’ll bring felt-tips. Call Bob Killian, Chief Napkin Marker-upper, at 312.836.0050.

Ready to start your project?

Start here →
Let's do launch

Evolve your brand for exponential growth

In today’s digital jungle, your brand must adapt. Before your competitors do.
Take action