You don't have to be mad to work at '?What If!' but it helps.
Matthew Kingdon's business card gives his profession as "explorer", but rather than trackless jungle and tundra, he travels the nebulous world of concepts and ideas. ?What If!, the company he co-founded four years ago, is a unique firm specialising in product innovation. He and his staff are the modern-day equivalent of the old-fashioned inventor, though they work with computers and flip-charts rather than screwdrivers or test-tubes.

For the modern innovations business is a million miles from the wild- haired Heath Robinson-type boffin toiling in his garden shed. Inventiveness still has its place, but it has to be tempered with shrewd business sense. "What we try to do is give companies real innovation, not just catch-up innovation," explains Kingdon. "We only focus on one thing: real step-jump change. We tell people how to be new and different - but different in a way that fits strategically with what their company does, not different just for difference's sake." The ?What If! client list includes Guinness, Heinz, KFC/Pizza Hut, PepsiCo, United Biscuits, Tesco and Unilever, along with other household names who have demanded a pledge of confidentiality; they have variously hailed the company as refreshing, energetic, exciting, and even fun.

It's obvious, on stepping through the doors of the offices in Primrose Hill, north-west London, a stone's throw from Oasis's recording studio, that ?What If! is an unusual place to work. There is no snooty reception area; it's more like stepping into someone's home. The staff work in small, intimate rooms, floored in wood, with bright rugs. They sit at antique wooden tables rather than desks, and the walls are covered with family photographs, interspersed with shots of the team letting their hair down. "Most offices don't allow for creativity," says Kingdon. "Ideas come when you're relaxed."

His colleagues are sparkly young creatures. There is not a suit in sight, no one looks much over 30, and everyone looks almost unnaturally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, perhaps due to the visits of the psychic healer subsidised by the company who drops in every Wednesday morning. These same staff, when they join the company as graduates, can apply for a pounds 1,000 bursary to finance a new experience; a massage or photography course, or jumping out of a plane. And taking part in brain-storming sessions and going pubbing and clubbing together are virtually part of the job description. Bubble gum, Liquorice Allsorts, juggling balls and spacehoppers, intended to bring out the kid that lies dormant in everyone, are handed round at meetings.

All terribly Nineties and New Age, surely? "Don't make us sound flaky," pleads Kingdon, from the "creative room" at the top of the office building, all sisal matting, white walls and exposed wooden beams. "We are not New Agey - that has such a sound of Californian weirdness about it." Certainly, the ?What If! turnover has swelled to a far from flaky pounds 2 million, and it has grown from a two-man operation in 1992 to one that now employs 20 people. (Though the occasional decidedly flaky idea has been ditched along the way, admits Kingdon ruefully. "When we started, we had the idea that we were a creative company that generates ideas, so we decided to use a completely random numbering system on our invoices. It didn't work; now we have a proper administrative staff.")

Wildly erratic airheads, however creative they may be, are not welcome. The staff are a judicious mix of seniors with experience in line management and manufacturing, who are aware of the constraints of getting a brilliant idea on to the supermarket shelves (Kingdon and his partner Dave Allan have a solid Unilever pedigree); specialists in market research and "complex qualitative validation exercises"; and a gaggle of youngsters. "You need youth," says Kingdon. "At 13, your aspirations and what you think is cool are so different to what you think at 15, 17, 19 - so many products are targeted at people in their teens, and if you target the wrong layer, they know immediately. There are far fewer layers for people in their twenties and thirties."

So what do they do, this highly trained staff? Mostly, they can't say exactly what they are turning out, actually. Big clients are highly secretive about specific projects. But how they do it has proved a shock to several corporate middle managers. Kingdon calls the ?What If! approach "a mixture of madness and measure". The measure part is fairly standard market research analysis - "what everybody does" - not so far removed from something a large company could do in its own research and development department. But the madness part consists of exercises that sound like party games, with names such as Consumer Shoes, Naive Experts, Brainsuck and Chef Net.

"People buy us for the crazy techniques," says Kingdon. "For Naive Experts we surround our clients with provocative people with expertise in the relevant field. For example, we were working on a DIY project, so we called in a West End theatre lighting designer, a feng shui expert, someone from Colour Me Beautiful, a fashion predictor and some interior designers. The client was thrilled and delighted, and went away with some new concepts." For a similar project in hair styling, where the key principles are body, hold and lift, he drafted in a potter complete with wheel, and a welder. Another technique is The Street. "This is fantastic," says Kingdon. "We recruit an entire streetful of people, and take our clients to wander up and down, knocking on doors to discuss their products. You get a look under the kitchen sink. One of our clients' detergent products was being kept in a goldfish bowl under one sink, because the pack got soggy so easily - that's the kind of minutiae you don't get from surveys."

Among the pictures lining the walls at ?What If! are a series of photomontages charting the events of the year; who's joined, who's left, the ups and downs of the staff's love-lives (so much more interesting than a conventional company report). One of the pictures is Kingdon and Dave Allan clutching great stacks of fake cash, to represent made-a-lot-of-money- this-year. But, says Kingdon, this is just the beginning. "The plane is still taxiing down the runway. Over the next few years, it will take off. My fantasy is to inspire our clients to appoint a director whose sole purpose is to ensure the company has the right blend of measure and madness."

THE BIRTH OF THE DEFROST-ME-NOT CHEESECAKE

McVities approach ?What If! to create a new cheesecake product. ?What If! recruits cheesecake-eaters, and decides to introduce them to the company's cheesecake technologists, who do not normally meet the consumer. They consume quantities of cheesecake together. The main finding is mum's cheesecake nightmare: the kids want pudding, when everything in the freezer is rock solid. The cheesecake boffins are fired with enthusiasm at this intelligence straight from the horse's mouth. They race to the lab to develop a cheesecake that doesn't need defrosting. ?What If! advises on design and recommends a marketing mix: name, price, size, packaging, flavours. It is now on sale.

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