A BBH LA POV on Trump’s America and the post-truth media world.
If you’ve read Paul Feldwick’s latest book retracing the history of our industry, you’ll know that the debate on whether logic or magic is best at building successful brands has been raging ever since the lights were turned on on Madison Avenue.
The hard cold facts or the emotional bond? Cold or warm? Speak to the head, or charm the heart? USP or ESP? System 1 or System 2?
But until recently, outside of the advertising world, it was quite clear who was in charge of logic (journalist and news outlets) and who in charge of magic (novelists and film directors). And it was also quite clear than on most important subjects, logic would win. After all, both free market capitalism and democracy are based on the premise that citizen-consumers are all rational individuals that make informed decisions on the basis of their self-interest, right?
Well, think again, because:
MAGIC IS WINNING (even on the grown-up stuff)
Magic trumps logic, pretty much all the time. We always knew that rational discourse alone wasn’t enough to build a brand. But now it looks as if rational superiority amounts to nothing, unless it isn’t powered up by emotion, even on the most critical topics.
Brexit officialized and legitimized the triumph of feeling over fact (for more on the subject, read this). And as of this year, we live in a world where editors and politicians openly admit that they care more about affecting opinions than realities. And then of course, there is the fact that a man whose business smarts couldn’t outperform an index mutual fund just beat history’s best prepared candidate to the top job.
But hey – we’re the creative guys! We like to tell stories and impact culture! So surely this is great news?
(IT’S THE WRONG KIND OF MAGIC THAT’S WINNING)
It’s not all sweetness and light in the world of emotions. Fear, anger, and jealousy lurk in the shadows.
Obama gave us Hope, but since then Farage, Le Pen and many more have given us Fear, and Trump is getting ready to give us back segregation, isolationism, and patriarchy. Sadly, recent history has proven Yoda right (not that it needed to): ‘the Dark side is more seductive. It is the quick and easy path’.
WE NEED TO TAKE A COLD, HARD LOOK AT HOW WE DO OUR JOBS
Why is this all happening? In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about our species’ unique ability to generate affiliation, commitment and action on a large scale through powerful imagined cultural constructs (faith, nation, even family, have no biological basis or equivalent in the animal world). He identifies it as the single most important factor in our success: our capacity for collective fantasies is what allows us to get shit done. It could also be what destroys us.
But the media industry has a lot to answer for. This excellent long read from the Guardian does an outstanding job at explaining how social media has blurred the lines between truth and fantasy, by effectively devaluing the expertise of journalists in favour of a click-bait economy. In the words of Hossein Derakhshan and as written in the article, ‘the diversity that the world wide web had originally envisaged’ has given way to the ‘centralization of information’ inside a select few social networks, and the outcome is ‘making us all less powerful in relation to government and corporations.’
When we focus on share-ability, when we talk about being user-centered, are we implicitly creating a world where knowledge and truth weigh nothing against the sensational? By signing up to emotion, have we effectively signed away the value of fact?
NOW IS THE GREATEST TIME TO BE CREATIVE
If your agency is like mine, then the last weeks have been particularly tough. The results of this election have many of us asking “Why?” and “How?” What’s been so hard for many people who work here is, they’ve been very involved in process – taking buses to Phoenix to get the vote early, volunteering time to phone bank, or hitting the streets in protest.
And now we find ourselves at the end of 2016, and our world has been flipped upside down once again. Not unlike the “Upside Down World” in Stranger Things, we find ourselves in a dangerous place. But it offers you an opportunity, to wipe the blood from your nose and get back to work.
If something positive can come out of this, it’s the fact that we can’t ignore the issue any more. There’s not ‘back to normal’. More people, young and old, will now know what happens when you don’t take responsibility. They will be compelled to roll up their sleeves. We have the opportunity to create an age of mass awakening. People are listening: so what will we choose to talk about? Race, gender, walls, bullying, privacy, media, police, guns, pussies, weiners, age, tic tacs, the environment and tanning booths… It’s up to us.
You have the most powerful, creative tools this world has ever known at your disposal. In your hands and at your desks. Use them. They can be more powerful than any bomb and more piercing than any bullet. If the revolution won’t be televized, it must be mobilized by you.
Your voice, your ideas and your actions can be the change this world so desperately needs.
Bring in ideas that start with profound human insights, sharp points of view and teeth. Gnarly f***ing teeth that cut through anything in its way. Craft like your life depends on it, because life as you know it will never be the same. Sweat over every detail, every syllable and every thought. Because the world needs your art, words and vision more than ever. To say what we are feeling, make sense of what we are living and heal what we’ve been through.
AND IN PRACTICAL TERMS… HOW WILL WE MAKE THE GOOD MAGIC WIN?
Strategists: come back to the roots of your craft, to be the voice of the people. What can you do to ensure you genuinely understand your audience? If you ‘didn’t see Trump coming’, then you fundamentally don’t. Work harder to ensure you are truly getting insight from real people – not just the real people of the Lower East Side of NYC and Santa Monica, California.
Creatives: you have the power to shape representations in a subtle, and yet insanely powerful way. Big ideas won this year’s elections, powerful emotive ideas capitalizing on the appeal of nostalgia, fear and conservativeness in the context of a tumultuous globalized world. How can you tap into collective emotions to create momentum towards progress, generosity and optimism?
Producers: Casting, location, choice of directors… Your decisions have the power to challenge stereotypes. Could this mum be a dad? Why couldn’t the CEO be black? How about shooting in Arizona? Could a female director shoot this comedy script? (I hear some women are funny)
Agency leaders: are you actively creating a culture that’s ‘open-hearted and inclusive’? What are you doing about diversity? Are you creating space and time for your teams to embody the values they believe in?
Media buyers: what future of journalism and media are you creating through your investment decisions? How much are you spending with Facebook, and can you use this lever to talk to them about their responsibility as the new gatekeepers? Do you spend money with titles that spread hatred or untruths?
Commit to fighting for truth. Do not let this crisis go to waste. It won’t be easy. Nothing great ever is. Progress is never perfect. But it’s the only way forward.
It is sadly ironic that The Simpsons predicted the outcome of the presidential election 16 years ago, while almost all of the polls and predictions run by the media just before the 8th November 2016 were wrong. Again, I might add, having experienced a very similar phenomenon just a few months ago following the Brexit referendum.
Working in our industry, especially as a planner, I wonder how much we can actually still listen to the polls, the research groups, the quantitative studies? In a more unpredictable and uncertain world, is there still a role for forecasting and foresight? Can data ever be trusted?
Last Tuesday, on the day of the election, I attended the Future Foundation’s Trending 2017 event. On the day they revealed their rebranding to the Foresight Factory – a day whenmillions of Americans defied all the foresight. In hindsight, this doesn’t just feel like a bad coincidence. It almost seems symptomatic of the state our industry is in.
Don’t get me wrong. I have been working with the Future Foundation for years and intend to continue to do so. The event was a really interesting one to attend, with lots of food for thought around the evolution of conversational commerce, personality pressures in our social media driven world and the latest stuff on biohacking. Definitely enough material for another blog post and a testament to the work from companies like the Foresight Factory to inspire us all to think beyond the present and keeping an open mind for the future. Gazing into the future and thinking about what’s next is critical to what we do, and will always be something I enjoy most about my job.
However, there seems to be a more urgent question we need to ask ourselves at this point: has the way we handle ‘foresight’, research and ultimately data, put us out of touch with what actually moves the majority, or at least a big part of our society?
This might be a surprising question to ask for BBH Labs, but an important one nevertheless. In her article ‘Reality check: I blame the media’, Danah Boyd reflects on the role the media played in the election outcome and demands that “all of us who work in the production and dissemination of information need to engage in a serious reality check”. I would include the advertising and wider marketing industry, so see this as our reality check.
Here are three observations on what we can learn from the data flaws in predicting the US election and what has gone wrong when it comes to ‘data’ in our industry. As always, we are interested in hearing your thoughts.
Data itself has become the spectacle
Going back to the #TrendingFF17 conference. On the daythere was an Amazon Echo inconspicuously sitting on the podium. Throughout the program, everyone in the auditorium giggled at Alexa giving us the latest polls and predictions when asked to do so. The source and content of the reassuring predictions of Hillary Clinton having a clear lead in the election almost seemed to be secondary, as everyone was still quite confident about the outcome and the technology took centrestage, or as Boyd puts it: “I believe in data, but data itself has become spectacle.”
Apart from the fact that our industry has a certain obsession with the latest gadgets, data itself and the way it is presented (in this case by a hands free, first generation AI, voice controlled speaker) tends to become more important than the actual facts it represents.
No question, Amazon Echo is a fascinating device and we love exploring what the future might hold. In this instance it was just another symptomatic reminder of how ‘the medium really is the message’ and that it is easy to overlook the validity of the data being presented through all those shiny devices. “This abuse of data has to stop. We need data to be responsible, not entertainment.”Which leads me to my next point.
Predictions aren’t properly scrutinised
No, this election might not have marked the ‘Death of data’ but in this article on filter bubbles and analysis, Kalev Letaru points out that “the mass availability of data today means we are increasingly grabbing at data and using it to produce findings without spending the time to think about the limitations and biases of the views it may provide us and especially issues like self-censorship.”
Everyone working with various forms of research and data inputs knows this. Methodologies, the size of the sample, the ways consumers respond in different environments, and the way conclusions are derived, are critical yet often overlooked or at least easily forgotten once the results are in.
This is the main reason why the media “weren’t paying attention to the various structural forces that made their sample flawed, the various reasons why a disgusted nation wasn’t going to contribute useful information to inform a media spectacle.”
The points about ‘self-censorship’ and a ‘disgusted nation’ are really important ones. It suggests that a big part of society is disenfranchised with everything that represents the establishment and the system that is working against them, including the media, corporate America and maybe the world of Marketing, brands and advertising.
This should make marketers uncomfortable and question their data and the research that drives their decisions. Maybe people don’t actually want your business to succeed. Maybe they don’t want to engage with a brand. Maybe they are fed up answering endless questionnaires on their attitudes and purchase behaviours. True, no one is forcing them to, but the same can be said for the polls.
The only thing I am saying is, let’s be more rigorous with our data and let’s not fall in the arrogance trap and scrutinise every prediction and conclusion. It is critical for our business to have an eye on the future and continue to ask what’s next, but we should always question trends, future forecasts and the data that lies beneath.
Mistaking foresight with insight
The most important point though is to truly listen. I know it sounds like a cliche but with all the sophisticated data sets and tools we have at our disposal, they still don’t make up for truly understanding of how people think and feel right now.
I was fascinated when I saw this Michael Moore talk. He predicted Trump’s election months ago. Not only is he from a white, middle-class background, he spent a lot of time travelling around the country, talking and listening to people and trying to understand why they would support Trump as a candidate.
The truth is, real insight into people’s behaviours has always led to the more impactful solution, whether it is an ad campaign, a newly designed service or in this case, one of the most surprising and effective (as sad as that might be) campaigns ever. Donald Trump’s campaign succeeded because it tapped into an insight – that a big part of society felt disgusted, left behind and neglected by the whole system.
So let’s not forget that data is only as useful as the insight you can gather from it. If insight trumps foresight, maybe the Simpsons are the best way to predict the future. By holding up a mirror to society, Matt Groening and the writers behind the show have predicted many things to come true over the past few years.
In hindsight it all seems so obvious, we should have listened to the Simpsons. Or as someone once said “An insight is an insight, when it is obvious in hindsight.”
I woke up in the early hours of Wednesday morning and immediately looked at my phone. There it was, Trump in the lead. I check Facebook shortly after. My feed is having a meltdown. Outrage, disgust, emoji-sobbing, mocking. I consider joining in. And then realise: it’ll make no difference.
Whilst I’ve enjoyed all the satirical Trump films, fact checkers, and Hollywood celebs imploring America to vote Hillary (and not be ‘a steaming dump’ about it), I’ve also felt a little uncomfortable about it all. Or rather – uncomfortably comfortable.
I recently read a brilliant piece that asked whether too many businesses today are run like boring dinner parties: ‘The risk with running our businesses like our dinner parties is that we begin to create corporate echo chambers: organisations that repeatedly support the same sentiments…and reinforce the same rules’.
To borrow this analogy, I can’t help feeling I’ve been sat in one long, loud, rather smug political dinner party this year. Britain stormed out half way in the evening which was awkward, but the chatter soon happily turned to another topic we’d all vehemently agree on – the US election.
In his latest film HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis looks at how ‘we have retreated into a simplified and often completely fake version of the world’, made worse by the disconnected, ideological echo chambers of the internet. We’re essentially talking to ourselves. All the time. It’s not just a boring dinner party – it’s scary one. (I’ve watched too much Mr Robot, forgive me).
We can draw a number of parallels between Brexit and the US election. People are angry. They’re feeling desperately disenfranchised. They’ve born the brunt of crumbling infrastructures and intractable social issues. The world’s accelerated at a dizzying speed and many feel left behind. Bigotry abounds and trust deteriorates.
But it’s not the first time voters here and in the US have given the Establishment a kick in the teeth, nor is the sentiment of anger driving the mood of these countries a recent phenomenon. It’s been building for quite some time.
What is striking is this total disconnect in both nations between what ‘we’ thought would happen and what actually happened; between the media and its audience; between our algorithm-happy ‘echo chambers’. The fact is, we haven’t a clue how the ‘other’ thinks or feels. The same goes for the people governing us. We’re all too busy admiring our own reflections. ‘So much a part of the system that you were unable to see beyond it’.
So how do we see beyond it? How can we better understand the reality of our world? And what’s all this got to do with our industry?
The ‘wisdom of crowds’ can only possibly work if the crowd shares and is exposed to different perspectives. We know that diversity of experience, education, temperament, intelligence, ethnicity, gender and age, leads to better ideas, better solutions, better societies. Lack of difference essentially makes us stupid. It makes us boring. It makes us complacent. Me and my Facebook feed included.
This has implications not only on the way we build brands but also the role brands – and therefore our creativity – can play in people’s lives.
As a marketer, you look at what’s happened this year and revisit what you always knew: feeling trumps all else. You can throw out all the facts and rationale you want, if you don’t get how different people feel and how to make them feel, you’re nowhere.
You’re also reminded of our own marketing echo chamber. We’ve built a sophisticated system around us, which we ceaselessly tinker for efficiency. It feels comfortable in here. But not much changes with comfortable. And perhaps like the pollsters, we can now justifiably question what we’ve been comfortably measuring.
Very deliberately making space for and seeing difference is important. It matters for political brands – the likes of Trump have undeniably understood and exploited this, far better than their opponents. And it matters for our creativity and the brands we’re busy building. Difference has the power to make a difference – a mantra we at BBH strive to live by for the work and, as heads of planning, a mantra Will Lion and I encourage every strategist to go out and feel for themselves, beyond these walled gardens.
But can brands really make a difference in society, beyond ‘doing their bit’? It’s easy to feel squeamish about mixing good with commerciality, but I believe brands can and should play a more significant role.
People are feeling a profound lack of trust in governing bodies, the media, even their own social echo chambers. This makes the more ‘transactional’ relationship they have with brands seem rather more straightforward. Buyers know we’re here to sell and seduce, and they know brands have the power to be better and do better – and will reward them for it. That’s the deal. And it’s in many ways a more transparent and accountable ‘deal’ than exists between voters and leaders. Or even Givers and charities. Brands have the permission. It’s up to us what difference we want to make.
We’ll hear a lot now about uniting and coming together, and of course that’s the noble thing to strive for, not least for the brands we serve. But before that, let’s hang on to the importance of seeing and hearing difference, outside ourselves – because that’s what’ll make the difference ultimately.
That is the question that BBH Labs has always asked.
When I walked into the office this morning, I felt a sense of nervousness but also excitement. On Friday a true BBH legend left the building and as @jeremyet mentioned in his farewell post, he handed over the precious keys to this blog. I promised him that we won’t screw it up.
So with my first blog post for BBH Labs, inevitably comes the question: What’s next?
As @melex outlined in her leaving post, BBH Labs had many different iterations over the years – from the original plan of a Marketing skunkworks, to experiment with emerging stuff, developing new agency models, and most of all to learn, publicly and privately. Now it is time for the next iteration.
There are many people here at 60 Kingly Street and across our network, keen to shape the future of BBH Labs, keen to build on the success of the past but also keen to take BBH Labs forward. We want to do some of the same things in the same way, but we are also really keen to do things differently. BBH Labs, at its heart, has also always been about difference. Working in different ways, playing with different ideas and involving different people.
We will continue to explore what happens at the intersection of technology, culture and brands. We want to connect with likeminded people who want to push the boundaries of our industry and we want to continue to test things, to experiment, to fail. We want to continue to share our learnings with you. And we want to bring the learnings from the outside world into 60 Kingly Street.
That is why we also want to make BBH Labs even more open, more collaborative, more participative – internally and externally. And now we want to involve you.
I am a planner by trade, so what better thing to do than to start with some research. I want to invite you, the long-time BBH Labs community, to get involved. What are the things you would love to see from BBH Labs in the future? What are the things you are most interested about? What have been some of your personal highlights over the years? What should we continue doing? What could we do differently?
I know you are out there, so let us know what you think and get in touch. Either here, on Twitter or via E-Mail: email@example.com
Whatever the next iteration of BBH Labs, we will definitely continue to ask what’s next.
410 Gone Indicates that the resource requested is no longer available and will not be available again. This should be used when a resource has been intentionally removed and the resource should be purged. Upon receiving a 410 status code, the client should not request the resource in the future. Clients such as search engines should remove the resource from their indices. Most use cases do not require clients and search engines to purge the resource, and a “404 Not Found” may be used instead.
Reading back over my very first Labs post, written a couple of weeks after I joined, I’m struck by how incredibly green I was. I knew so little about advertising, so little about the culture and history of BBH and so little about the expectations placed on everyone who works here by colleagues, clients and the wider advertising community.
Knowing that I came from outside the industry, BBH eased me in gently – my first assignment was to babysit a Google radio ad for Romania on behalf of a vacationing CD. I had to listen to two voice samples and decide (the power!) which one was more Googley. I can do this, I thought to myself.
If only it was always that easy.
Six years later, writing my last Labs post, there’s a bit of me that wishes I’d managed to stay an ingénue a little longer. But it’s hard to do that when you’ve got so much experience and so many great teachers to learn from.
So, thanks to the people who got me into BBH, shared the BBH Labs spirit and got me thinking harder, faster, better, stronger than I believed possible. Thanks also to everyone *out there* for their thinking, doing, talking, making and oh-so-generously sharing; There are too many of you to name and you already know who you are – see Mel’s leaving post if you need their twitter handles. But I do want to say particular thanks to my Labs partners in crime,@melex and@agatheg – it was truly a blast. I’m leaving Labs in the safe hands ofAchim Schauerte and look forward to seeing what comes next.
Working at BBH and being given the space to consider the challenges and opportunities that lie at the intersection of technology, culture and brand has been an absolute privilege. I leave with the desire to take everything I’ve learned here from everyone I’ve learned from and try and find opportunities to make the internet a little better. Better for the people who make internet things and better for everyone who uses internet things.
A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of attending The Future of Storytelling summit, and hearing from the passionate community of people from the worlds of media, technology, and communications who are exploring how storytelling is evolving in the digital age.
I will not summarize all of the great thinking thought and feelings felt. Go to the website and watch the videos from the expertly curated speakers, dig into all of their enlightening perspectives, look up their incredible projects – some links are provided below.
What I’d like to delve into is only one particular feeling I picked up across attendees and speakers; the future of storytelling is about feeling like a child.
Here are some powerful ways that the speakers encouraged a sense of pure, childlike emotion, perhaps unbeknownst to them, that we can learn from:
Follow our ideals
Two astronauts (of the 533 who have ever been to space) spoke about their ‘orbital moments’, what it feels like to be in space. When you see the earth from afar, there is first pure awe. Then, there is revelation – that we are fragile, we are one and we are capable of anything. These astronauts see an idyllic version of the world and are re-energized to create it when their feet are back on the ground. We discussed that besides astronauts, the champions of unwavering utopian sense of the world are children. They believe in hope, in peace, that they can be whatever they want to be. We can find opportunity for this positivity and optimism in our storytelling and apply it more often, especially when things feel most dystopian and complex. A documentary in progress, Constellation aims to spread this mentality to the world.
When children ask questions of adults, there is an important exchange that happens – a kid finds courage to explore an original idea and they’re rewarded by a personal answer that is memorable and meaningful.
Pretty soon, some important adults we can ask questions to are going to die. Specifically, Holocaust survivors. Inspired by the need to maintain this childlike curiosity and learning around the Holocaust a few important organizationshave used emerging technology to record many hours of footage with survivors. Language processing and display technologies allow a 3D virtual holocaust survivor to process and answer original questions in real time.
Harness the power of live experience
Jeffery Seller, producer of Hamilton, Avenue Q, Rent and In the Heights led an intimate round table about the emotional exchange that happens through live musical performance. A live performance is a real time exchange of creative energy between people. He spoke of being most impacted by this feeling in childhood and following that feeling to where he is now. A sweet moment in the conversation occurred when a YouTube star confessed that she couldn’t draw a live audience in the traditional staged way that Mr. Seller is devoted to, so she turned to Google Hangouts and, voilà, over time millions saw her sing live. Whether traditional or modern in method, they both admitted the emotional exchange created in live performance is needed today more than ever, in a world where a lot of our creativity is mediated instead of spontaneously heard and felt.
The O.G. puppeteers on Sesame Street are of the most dedicated to their craft of any storyteller today. They connect with millions of children with their hands held high, inside puppets mouths and bodies, where slight movements of the wrist or finger convey entire worlds of emotion and connection with children viewing at home. These incredible artists have been provoking children’s imaginations for about 30 years. We all tried it. It’s hard to bring life to felt and glue (albeit very cute felt and glue). These physical nuances, that rock children’s worlds, should not be underestimated. Sometimes smallest physical gestures can be the most powerful means for communication, even when broadcast to millions.
Neuroscientist Beau Lotto reminded us that as human beings, we hate uncertainty – we hate to not know. This is because primitively, to not know was to die – and therefore today, uncertainty still creates stress.
He suggests that the solution to uncertainty is play because play is where uncertainty is celebrated. A child is the best example of embracing this way of being, uncertainty is inherent and play is practiced with abandon.
Sometimes in our industry, we do things we already know are going to be great. To this, Lotto would say, ‘who cares’. In this vein, maybe the true creative visionaries will be we who shed our pretense for childlike uncertainty and play. Through this, truly innovative, inspiring storytelling can take place.
One of the most powerful uses of virtual reality is to give people transportative experiences they have never had before. Being in space. Learning dance in Cuba. New experiences in turn can provoke feelings we have never felt before. In correlation with research I’ve done on VR, the closest feeling to being in a VR world is the feeling of being a child: where experiences are new and wonderful, feelings are surprising and pure, and you discover them for yourself (unlike filmic storytelling that leads you where it wants you to go). If we use VR in the right ways to tell stories, we can return to this kind of pure emotion and experience that our modern adult, civilized lives are so good at stomping out.
I left with a renewed commitment to telling stories from the heart and the gut. A dedication to simplicity in our communication. It is our job and responsibility to identify and amplify the aspirational feelings that being a child so perfectly exemplifies. We have the best of the physical and digital world to do this, to champion these feelings more than ever, in a world where we may need them more than ever.
Everyone knows that other people’s dreams are boring, but that you’re going to get told them anyway. The same is true about conference recaps. My half-baked reconstruction of the fascinating talks from last night’s Interesting conference is nothing compared to the joy and passion shared by brave souls talking rapid-fire about topics ranging from gnome sex to feminist picture-books, via the connection between synths, squid, and the military industrial complex. Yes, it really had everything…
But if I’m going to have to recount a talk – my personal favourite was Tim Dunn‘s on the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum. He told the story of the recovery of Sierra Leone’s heritage through a trainspotter’s quest to find some lost locomotives. Once located, they created a wonderful museum, digitised an archive, and gave training and jobs. They had taken a niche passion and done something with it that makes the world that little bit better.
The main feelings I left with were: inadequacy at my limited hobbies, and a small flame to just get on and do something that I care about. Phil Shipley, Strategist
From the impressive variety of weird and wonderful topics that were covered at Interesting 2016, one that stuck with me the most was Ade Adewunmi’s TV evangelism. She repeatedly emphasised how much she loves TV. I am a TV sceptic, with the shows I currently watch woefully limited to Bake Off and First Dates. I am not a box set binger or series devotee. But Ade’s perspective on how we learn and test ourselves by watching these shows made me a potential convert.
I found her premise that TV is the arena in which we can reconsider our social constructs, prejudices and push the limits of what and who we experience in everyday life in an importantly low risk environment, a new way to think about the shows that are broadcast every day. I, like she, consider myself to have a relatively liberal outlook. But to include those who live more conservative lives, we are all offered a socially acceptable window into experiences beyond our own, allowing everyone to experiment with ideas without effort or offence. Definitely a good reason to spend more time in front of the box I think. Annie Little, Strategist
Somewhat hazy from the fervour of London’s Conway Hall mixed with the effects of too much free Waitrose wine – for which now, thanks to the unapologetic wine taster‘s speeches, I can detect notes of marmite in – I found myself travelling home on the tube, writing a letter to my 4 year-old niece about the importance of pursuing whatever it was that she finds interesting. This may be largely due to a mother‘s talk on her plight to create a gender-equal inspiring and imaginative literacy landscape for young readers – so all children can explore whatever career they wish, without gender stereotyping.
In any case, for someone who has always binged on sources of inspiration and consumes TED Talks more hungrily than a 12″ pizza, last night’s Interesting conference could not have been more, well, interesting. The sheer eclectic spread of topics covered; from digging up graves to vibrating underwear, the speakers’ passion points reached into the far corners of our imagination and stirred up, certainly in me, a desire to apply my free time more freely and interestingly. Josephine Kiernan, Account Manager
Phil, Annie and Josephine were all at Interesting2016, curated by Russell Davies. ‘Diamond Geezer’ has a full round up of what went on there, here.
A few weeks ago Mel Exon (yes, that @melex), BBH Labs co-founder and BBH London MD, broke the news that she was leaving the Black Sheep pastures for, er, pastures new. It’s taken us a while to get over the trauma but we’ve managed to prise this piece from her, covering Labs, nineteen years at BBH (yes, 19!) and some typically righteous thoughts about advertising culture. So get yourself a cup of tea (or perhaps a perfect manhattan in tribute to Mel), sit back and enjoy.
Thank you Mel, and keep on keepin’ on.
19 years’ worth of career detritus
It’s something of a tradition at BBH Labs to ask a leaver to write a farewell post as they depart. As co-founder of Labs, I’ll admit this feels a little weird. Not least because a hell of a lot of water has passed under the bridge since that day:
But when we founded Labs it wasn’t so. The Turing Test had not been passed. No Whatsapp, no Snapchat, no Instagram, Facebook had barely stepped out of college dorms and YouTube had launched just a couple of years previously.
In setting up BBH Labs towards the end of 2007, Ben and I wrote a business plan heavily inspired by the principles behind Lockheed Martin’s skunkworks. But the truth is our plan bore little resemblance to what Labs then became. In fact I’m fairly certain that BBH Labs has survived thus far because of – not despite – a liminal, ever-evolving and gossamer-thin definition of its goals.
Its purpose was simple though. To think and experiment with emerging stuff (read: new behaviours and new technologies), in the hope we’d develop other stuff (read: prototype processes, products and agency models) that might prove useful down the road. Later, when the word “innovation” became so overused it started to lose meaning, we called ourselves a “marketing R&D unit” instead. Not sexy, but broad enough to let us do our thing.
Labs was not, and is not a gadget shop, a future trends report factory, nor a conference, although we have always attempted to give back to the conferences where we’ve learned the most over the years.
Labs has made money, but it is not a money-making endeavour held to a commercial target every year. If anything, it’s been a mistake-making machine. And boy, have we made mistakes, infuriating an entire industry and occasionally sparking outrage despite our best intentions.
The real purpose has always been to learn, publicly and privately. Openly exposing our thinking (and our ignorance) outside the walls of BBH directly increased our velocity and improved our output. Giving our ideas away meant others repaid us ten times over with their feedback and their own ideas about how to make the work better. Despite years of hearing the opposite, we learned that openness doesn’t make you weak, it makes you strong.
Back then, it felt like we were working in an industry culture that seemed trapped in a box of its own making, chasing its tail and chewing on its nails with a mix of boredom and tamped down disquiet.
So we also wanted to rediscover some of the stubborn, deep irreverence of this industry’s past and learn to love a steep learning curve again.
A cycle began to emerge, where we would then attempt to apply the useful learnings before heading out in discovery mode again, rinse and repeat. The ad industry certainly had some (un)conscious knowledge and skill gaps, but we knew those were gaps that could be closed. The much more fundamental issue was cultural: which companies were prepared to evolve, which people wanted to adapt?
In fact if there is one, overriding thought I take with me now, it isn’t an ill-advised soundbite about the future of marketing or a breathless observation about technology (although there are at least eleven, bona fide reasons to be excited about that).
It is this: culture is strategy.
I joined a place like BBH for the work, I stayed for the culture.
Back in 2007, I was lucky to be part of a company that was prepared to take risks. To let a few people remove themselves from the lucrative commercial food chain that was the ad business and “to cut the apron strings’ with the mother ship…or else you won’t bring back anything useful” (Gwyn Jones). A culture unapologetically obsessed with creativity and difference, and with making the work better.
Just like brand strategies, the strongest organisational cultures are both distinct and consistent. Basecamp’s Jason Fried puts this much better than I can:
“You don’t create a culture. Culture happens. It’s the by-product of consistent behaviour..the result of action, reaction, and truth…real culture is patina.” ~ Jason Fried, ‘You don’t create a culture’, 2008
As an expression of culture, one of the three founders of BBH, John Bartle, gave a speech when he left the agency in December 1999 which has stayed with me. He spoke about the enemies of creativity, or “the 3 ‘C’s”, as he called them:
Cynicism Complacency and Conservatism.
Thinking about what I’ve learned about culture from everyone I’ve worked with, I want to add another 3 ‘C’s to John’s list, three allies of creativity:
Care Curiosity and Compassion.
Starting with CARE.
“People know when something has been made with care or carelessness.” ~ Jony Ive
It’s often seen as not cool to look like you care, but I’d urge us all to stop giving a sh*t about that.
I’m not the first person to acknowledge the inconvenient truth that almost nothing great is won easily. But thenease isn’t the goal, excellence is. The writer Kate Mosse, when repeatedly asked what makes her successful, says she replies along these lines:
“It’s almost embarrassingly simple. I work hard. At first it’s about completing the famous 10,000 hours that make you competent at something – you don’t just start running a marathon or become a concert pianist overnight. But it’s also about the time you spend in the moment, rewriting and rewriting the sentence in front of you until it’s perfect.”
I distinctly remember joining BBH in 1997 and being told in my first week that the agency was “definitely over”. But the thing about companies like BBH is that they never give up. Wherever we end up working, for the work to stay great over decades not days, we have to care: stay hungry, stay positive and Do. Not. Drop.The. Bar. For. Anyone.
Onto my second ‘C’… CURIOSITY.
Dustin: “I have a science question. Do you know anything about sensory deprivation tanks, specifically how to build one?”
Mr Clarke: “Erm…why don’t we talk about it Monday, after school, okay?”
Dustin: “You always say we should never stop being curious, to always open any curiosity door we find.. (shouts) WHY ARE YOU KEEPING THIS CURIOSITY DOOR LOCKED?!”~ Stranger Things, Series 1, Chapter 8 “The Upside Down” (Netflix)
I’m fairly sure that simple curiosity was at the root of why we started Labs. Dissatisfaction and discomfort with the status quo had a hell of a lot to do with it too, but wasting our breath dissing the old – or the new for that matter – wasn’t going to get us very far.
Instead stubborn, relentless curiosity turns out to be the single best way to break new ground. Although genuinely ‘new ground’ rarely looks particularly pretty or, for that matter, easy to reach. Nor is it popular. One of the phrases I’ve held onto grimly is borrowed wholesale from an old BBH endline for Levi’s –Originals never fit. (It’s also a critical reminder that having a like-minded client like Kenny Wilson makes life a lot better and easier).
Curiosity also helped us deal with change. Being curious meant embracing new technologies at their gawky teenager stage, getting to know them before their rough edges were chamfered away and they grew to become our titanic overlords. We simply learned more that way. Under a decade ago the social web was being laughed at, mobile was still dismissed, VR and AR were initially ignored, not to mention the fact that many of us are faintly scared of Artificial Intelligence right now…. But let’s not shy away. In the words of Nigel Bogle: run at the future, not away from it.
Not least because user behaviours inexorably change and evolve. Irregularly, sometimes frustratingly slowly, sometimes so quickly it takes your breath away. But they always change.
So far, so obvious. But I suspect it follows that “change programs” are inherently foolish endeavours. By the time one is completed, a new one’s needed. If we have to subject ourselves to a training program, let’s coach ourselves to be adaptive instead. To help us cope with the fear of looking stupid and learn to love learning again. As my friend Pelle puts it, “the agency of the future is one that can change.”
And listening topodcasts that explore the edges. There will be at least a grain of truth to nibble on and hell, if it’s a little weird or tangential, roll with it. Our minds are elastic: they like being stretched.
As I write this, I can sense the tension between two thoughts here: on the one hand, the consistent behaviours that create real company cultures and, on the other, the need for those same companies to be adaptive. My simplistic answer is to add them together: a strong culture is consistently adaptive. Let’s hope so.*
A curious mindset will also make you want to listen to and debate with different voices. If you’re lucky, a little while later, surrounded by a team of skilled, different-in-every-way and collaborative people you may feel you’ve formed the creative equivalent of Voltron. Super cool.
Certainly, people who don’t look like me or sound like me have done the most to help me see new corners of the universe, they have made the work better and the process of getting there way more exciting.
Which leads me, finally, to COMPASSION.
Look up the definition of compassion and it can sound passive, pitying. Even, god forbid, patronising coming from someone who’s grown up as a white, cis, middle class English girl. Instead, I’d rather define compassion as the urgent need to keep looking outside of ourselves.
At its most business-like – putting the human, egalitarian aspect of diversity to one side for a second – excellence and difference in output demands real diversity of input.
Then, once your own house is in order, it’s time to look outside. In 1965, Jackie DeShannon sang:
“What the world needs now is love, sweet love,
No, not just for some, but for everyone.”
Those lyrics may sound like a romantic hippy ideal, but 1965 was the year Malcolm X was assassinated and US combat troops were sent to Vietnam. Right now, with everything that’s going backwards politically and socially around the world and right on our own doorstep, let’s take those lyrics to our hearts.
And particularly our hearts in fact. The atomic unit of a creative business is an idea. A well expressed idea, big or small. We have this incredible super power: creativity that can move people to act, to persuade, to make them laugh and cry.
Let’s use that super power. Keep caring about the work, be curious, become urgently more compassionate. Be part of real cultures that make us proud.
To borrow shamelessly from Queen Bey herself: let’s get in formation.
*As I get older, I notice the intrinsic duality to life more and more. The ongoing crop of opposing ideas and opinions, not to mention the ambiguities we have to navigate en route to getting something useful into the wild. Trying to do this without quietly losing your mind is the new normal, so let’s take comfort in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words: “The test of a first rate intelligence is to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Working at Penguin Books in 2000 I recall plenty of excitement about a brand campaign featuring black-and-white documentary photography with the caption ‘be here’ in Penguin orange. The striking images and absence of any actual books certainly made the work stand out from the mass of publisher marketing activity, which largely featured a book jacket and a quote.
The campaign was a huge success. But perhaps there was a little ambiguity in the messaging. The intention was, of course, to imply that there was no better way of immersing oneself in a story, a world, someone else’s life than through the pages of a (Penguin) book. But such was the power of the imagery that, without the Penguin logo, ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ could have been an equally valid interpretation.
I was reminded of this last month when Facebook’s Nicola Mendelsohn seemingly predicted the end of the written word, at least on that platform. “The best way to tell stories in this world, where so much information is coming at us, actually is video,” she told a conference in London, adding, “We’re seeing a year-on-year decline of text…If I was having a bet I’d say: video, video, video.”
Of course, Nicola has both data and Mark Zuckerberg on her side. Video content made up 64% of web traffic in 2014, had reached 70% by the end of 2015 and is predicted to reach 80% by 2019. At Facebook’s F8 developer conference Mark Zuckerberg told the crowd that we are ‘at the beginning of a golden age of online video’, announcing a raft of tools for the production and dissemination of live video content. Twitter seem to be placing a major bet on and major investment in the streaming of live sports. And Snapchat proudly opens into the camera rather than into anything as passé as a text entry box.
And in the meantime, traditional publishers are doubling down on video. Most major newspapers have created video production units, and just a few weeks ago The New York Times (‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’) picked up two Cannes Grand Prix, one for Mobile and the other for Entertainment, with its VR app and The Displaced VR film. Even The Economist magazine has a documentary film arm, tautologically advertised as the place ‘Where the Image is the Final Word’.
Words, it seems, have had their day.
It’s undeniable that the raw, unedited, as-live video that fills our news and social streams provides a more visceral and immediate storytelling experience than a more passive, measured reading experience can. But – and this might sound a strange question from a publisher-turned-marketer – is storytelling all there is?
Right now, given tumultuous events both at home and abroad, I’d argue that there is a desperate need to propose, share, support, challenge and discuss ideas, not just tell each other stories. We need ideas that can change views, overcome apathy and suggest how we get to a better tomorrow.
And words, carefully chosen and elegantly arranged, are perfect tools for the communication of ideas.
Certainly the brand as storyteller is a notion that many dismiss nowadays. The 2016 brand needs to have a purpose and a mission, an idea of what a better world might look like and an idea of the role that a brand can play in helping us get there. The GMO of Procter & Gamble has pronounced that Millennials demand brands have a purpose. And it is purpose driven ideas (that word again!) that win pitches and win awards.
So perhaps we should hope and expect to see more brands crafting campaigns with ideas formed out of words instead of stories crafted from video. History and momentum suggests the year-on-year decline of text on Facebook is an inexorable trend on that platform. But just as is it’s not all about storytelling, it shouldn’t be all about video.
Our culture and our marketing needs ideas more than ever. We still, unambiguously, need to choose and use our words carefully.
Author, Richard Cable, Content Director, BBH London
There’s a post being shared on social media that shows a scene of Armageddon under the legend ‘If we leave the EU’. Beneath it is an identical image under the legend ‘If we remain in the EU’. It’s a perfect expression of the dire predictions emanating from both camps.
At stake is the United Kingdom’s place in the world. We are engaged, as a nation, in creating a positioning statement that will define our role in the 21st century. The shaping of destiny is heady stuff. Now is the time, if ever, to do the ‘vision thing’, break out the stirring rhetoric and inspire a generation. It’s a big stage that cries out for big ideas.
Instead, we’ve ended up with stereo negativity. Surround-sound Project Fear. The political equivalent of an Eastenders Christmas special, in which unloveable people say terrible things about each other for an extended period, followed by an unedifying revelation just before the ‘doof doofs’ at the end.
Which is bizarre, given that there are two ready-made big ideas at the heart of both campaigns.
According to Millward Brown, the anatomy of a truly big idea is that it disrupts the category, has emotional resonance, compels you to discuss it, is credible and believable, and cuts across cultural and geographic boundaries.
By that rationale, the European Union is the biggest of big ideas, transcending the nation state, bringing peace through shared prosperity, creating order and structure through collaboration across one of the most historically diverse and fractious continents on Earth. Britain in the vanguard of a great leap forward. (Campaign song: ‘All Together Now’, The Farm)
On the other hand, we have the radical, kick-over-the-traces option that would see us be the first to cut loose from an organisation no-one has ever cut loose from before and striking out as an independent. The challenger brand that promises a less encumbered, less parochial perspective, match-fit for a century that will be defined by what goes on in Beijing, Rio and Delhi, not Brussels. Britain as a re-energised global free agent. (Campaign song: ‘Here I Go Again (On My Own)’, Whitesnake)
Both big. Massive, in fact.
Yet somehow we’ve ended up with a choice of lanes on the dual carriageway to Hell; financial catastrophe if we leave (campaign song: ‘You Oughta Know’, Alanis Morrisette) and the-immigrants-are-coming-to-get-us if we stay (campaign song: ‘The Wall’, Pink Floyd).
It’s as if the two camps see us, the electorate, as a gigantic Lou and Andy sketch, sitting, myopic and listless, mumbling ‘I don’t like it’ over and over again before suddenly deciding ‘I want that one’.
Failing to land a big idea could be considered an occupational hazard. Failing to formulate one to begin with is nothing short of intellectual cowardice.
A big idea tells people what you stand for, but a big idea is fraught with risk. It takes courage to stand up and say “We choose to go to the Moon”. It takes luck and energy and talent and belief to actually get there. You choose a big idea not because it is easy but, as Kennedy went on to explain: “…because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept and unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win…”
Would Kennedy have electrified an entire nation with the pioneering zeal to see the job through if he’d chosen instead to talk about projections of the likely long term economic benefits of the space programme, or the fact that on the Earth you don’t get to choose your own laws of gravity and they’ll let literally anyone live here?
No. He captured the imagination of the quarter of a billion tax payers who were going to foot the bill for this ludicrously expensive enterprise by landing one big idea: The Moon. First.
The ‘big idea’ is advertising’s most recent sacred cow to be trotted in the direction of the abattoir. If you needed a cautionary tale against dragging Daisy up the steps and in favour of setting her free in Elysian Fields forever, the EU Referendum is about as cautionary as it gets.
As David Ogilvy put it: “You will never win fame and fortune unless you invent big ideas. It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.”
Co-founded global innovation unit at BBH. Effectively a marketing skunkworks: pioneering new marketing models around technology, mass collaboration & entertainment.
Company Director / Bartle Bogle Hegarty
Latterly ran pitch and then led British Airways account as Global Business Director. Also ran Levi's Europe account (twice).
Other accounts worked on since joining BBH in 1997 include Boddingtons, Murphy's, Rolling Rock from the day I joined to being put on the board of BBH in 2000. Subsequently led the pitches for and won Smirnoff Ice (Diageo), Libresse & Bisto.