The inaugural flight of Boeing’s Model 299 long-range bomber ended in a fiery crash. This next-generation test plane, known as the “flying fortress,” was designed to fly faster and twice as far than any previous bomber. These advancements also made it incredibly complex to fly. After its crash landing on October 30, 1935, it was deemed by newspapers as “too much airplane for one man to fly.”

Is there such a thing as “too much digital for one person to produce?”

That’s the question I was asking myself back in 2009 at CP+B, after launching a series of projects that weren’t successful. We called them “the flaming apps”; seemingly good ideas that fell flat in production due to avoidable mistakes.

For me, it came to represent the moment when web experiences changed form. Suddenly, all projects included new dimensions, a mobile-web interface and a social layer. The creative canvas had gotten bigger. But the opportunity came with an increase in project complexity. Gone were the days of web scripts powering single desktop interfaces. The new order of things included mobile and tablet form factors from new devices. To power these experiences, web scripts would need to be replaced by modular software. Projects inherited the characteristics of complex software builds not commonly associated with digital advertising.

As these projects were flaming out, I was coincidentally reading The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by Atul Gawande. In the book, Gawande describes the distinction between simple, complex and complicated problems. Complex problems are ones that can be reduced into a series of smaller problems that are easy to solve over and over again. On the other hand, complicated problems cannot be reduced or distilled into smaller pieces because they’re dynamic and change shape rapidly. Solving a complicated problem is difficult each time.

Gawande’s example of a complex problem is flying the Model 299:

“Substantially more complex than previous aircraft, the new plane required the pilot to attend to the four engines, each with its own oil-fuel mix, the retractable landing gear, the wing flaps, electric trim tabs that needed adjustment to maintain stability at different airspeeds, and constant-speed controllers whose pitch had to be regulated with hydraulic controls, among other features.”

So what did the Army do after purchasing a fleet of Model 299s, only to discover they were too complex to fly? Surprisingly they didn’t require pilots to undergo longer training, instead they created an ingenious tool: The Pilot’s Checklist.

“The test pilots made their list simple, brief, and to the point – short enough to fit on an index card, with step-by-step checks for takeoff, flight, landing and taxiing. It had the kind of stuff that all pilots know how to do…with the checklist in hand, the pilots went on to fly the Model 299 a total of 1.8 million miles without one accident.”

So I guess you could say that making web experiences got more complex in 2009, not more complicated. With that insight, we scrapped our production guidelines and replaced them with a single-page document called “The Producer’s Checklist.” It was a giant checklist with 78 items on it. The Project Statement checklist included items like “Create a ‘Not Included in Scope’ section” and “Define the Mobile Extension.” The Schedule and Timeline checklist included notes like “Set a hosting procurement deadline.”

The checks are the kind of stuff that all producers know how to do, but each check acts as a mini trip-wire designed to catch production mistakes quickly, preventing bad work from happening. [image]

The Model 299 went on to be called the B-17 Bomber, the first plane too complex to be piloted reliably by skilled pilots from memory alone. Digital production entered its B-17 phase in 2009, with jobs having too many requirements to be reliably produced from memory alone.

We’re still in that phase today.

When you’re launching over 400+ projects a year with dozens and dozens of producers, it’s not okay to make avoidable mistakes. At our scale, the mindset is “Don’t let any avoidable mistake happen, even once.” And that’s what the checklist is designed to solve: making great work at scale with an army of super producers. Or as we say in the producer pit, “Don’t let bad work happen.”

In practice, our checklist only partially delivered on its promise. It was a great tool for reviewing how a producer did on a job, but less valuable to a producer on the job in real-time. The biggest issue was its size. At 11x17, it was something to pin on the wall versus a tool to be used while producing.

In his book, Gawande recommends that each checklist be small and contain a short list. Otherwise, the simplicity of the tool starts to fade. So for the next version we made it our goal to make ours shorter and more portable. We wanted the same content, but with new packaging. After reviewing a few options, Jesse Jones, CP+B Executive Producer and 4-Star General, came up with the idea of calling it the “Producer’s Mixtape” and housing the individual cards inside a cassette box. We launched the Producer’s Mixtape in 2012.

The new form factor was a hit.

Producers featured it proudly on their desks. We ceremonially bestowed it on new hires. Despite being strangely analog, it suited digital producing perfectly. It was finally portable and built to travel. And most importantly, fewer mistakes were being made and our build quality improved.

After a while we discovered that it was traveling too well. We started hearing that it was making appearances at other agencies. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about our guidelines being used at other shops without permission.

Was it stealing? Was it a compliment? Should we care?


We’re supposed to protect intellectual property. At least make it more difficult to travel, right? After all, we’re in a competitive industry. But we’re also in a community. We’re a community of agency producers. We’re a community of makers. We’re responsible for moving the industry forward by helping brands embrace the capabilities of the modern web. That’s how we make the Internet a better place. 

Being good citizens of the Internet trumped the protection of our IP. That’s how we came up with the idea of releasing The Producer’s Mixtape under a Creative Commons 3.0 license. The final touch was to give it a modern twist by packaging it as a maker kit and including a 3D-file of the cassette box to print on your agency Makerbot or Ultimaker 3D-printer.

Use it, edit it, put your logo on it. Now the entire industry has no excuse for letting bad work happen, even once.


About the Author:

Ivan Perez-Armendariz, @ivanpa

As Chief Digital Officer for CP+B, Ivan is responsible for growing and shaping CP+B's digital capabilities throughout their global offices including overseeing the making of web, mobile, social, experiential, platforms and ecosystems.

Since joining CP+B in 2008, Ivan has led many of the agency’s most innovative work such as American Express OPEN Forum, Vail EpicMix, and Old Navy's Shazam-able TV commercial. Previously, Ivan served as President of texturemedia, an award-winning interactive agency that was acquired by CP+B. There, he received Entrepreneur Magazine’s Top 100 award.

Growing up in Boulder, Ivan has chosen the ocean over the mountains twice; first when he attended Stanford University for his degree in Computer Systems Engineering, and second when he moved to Los Angeles in 2011 to work out of CP+B’s office there.

The original 11x17 Producer's Checklist created in 2009.
The original 11x17 Producer's Checklist created in 2009.

Now called the Producer's Mixtape, the second version was comprised of individual cards housed in a cassette box.
Now called the Producer's Mixtape, the second version was comprised of individual cards housed in a cassette box.

The Producer's Mixtape kit launched in 2013 under a Creative Commons 3.0. License.
The Producer's Mixtape kit launched in 2013 under a Creative Commons 3.0. License.


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