Last month Google asked me along to their Creative Sandbox in Cannes to give a ‘lightning talk’ about ‘something I was particularly interested in’. Luckily, they gave me just 15 minutes to speak or we would have been there all day in the baking heat.. Thank you to everyone who came along and asked lots of questions afterwards – here, for what it’s worth, is a record of what got discussed.

I’d like to talk about 2-3 things here, loosely connected by a theme around how and why we should keep contributing to, using and building the open web:

1. The Guardian, the UK newspaper (a client of BBH London) and their ‘open journalism’ positioning.
2. A project we’re developing at BBH Labs called
3. A postscript on how we like to work here and what “open and constant learning” means in practice.

But first, some brief scene-setting: we’re all familiar with the debate that has raged and continues to do so about the open web – but why should we care?

There are deeply profound, human arguments in support of the open web that are frankly better articulated elsewhere [check out Google’s Sergey Brin on human rights issues around freedom of choice and free access here and Alexis Madigral in The Atlantic here on mankind’s predilection for declaring things dead prematurely.  In that piece, amongst other things, he includes a fascinating example to illustrate the fact that new developments don’t de facto kill off the old: namely that WW1 pilots used to carry homing pigeons in their cockpits with them.]

WW1 pilot with carrier pigeon, via Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic

But I’m going to skip right past these arguments and instead draw attention to something else a bit closer to home: the difference between real and incremental innovation and what the open web has to do with this.

Of course innovation isn’t a one-sided thing (famously closed organisations like Apple and Facebook haven’t done too badly), as we’ve discussed before. But, as Chris Saad at Echo puts it: “We’re building an ‘App’ and calling it a ‘Platform’. Too often (almost every time) though, these apps are nothing more than proprietary, incremental and niche attempts at making a quick buck.”

And bluntly, I think agencies too often think the same way. Saad argues we need more companies to think deeper. Too often start up founders, investors and influencers gravitate to what he describes as the ‘Flipboard of Monkeys’ – easy to understand, not adding a whole load of long term value.

“How can you contribute to the very essence of the Internet the same way that TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML, JS and so many other technologies have done… Sure, there are plenty of good business and marketing reasons why you shouldn’t stray too far from the beaten path, broadening it one incremental feature at a time, but the core essence of what you’re working on can’t be yet another turn of a very tired wheel. If you’re shouting ‘Me too’ then you’re probably not thinking big enough.”

This may feel like a lofty challenge to levy at agencies, but I’m putting it out there anyway. Every day, we’re making stuff for the web. It’s as much our responsibility to make the experience better for everyone as it is the responsibility of the tech start ups and investors Saad mentions.

1. The Guardian

Which leads me to the first thing I’d like to talk a little about, The Guardian and the work BBH has done for them recently. A brand that’s undergone a pretty extraordinary transformation from a left wing, very British newspaper to an open, digital, global news hub. Alan Rusbridger, its editor, has coined a phrase to describe their approach:“open journalism”. Gone are the days when journalists smoked heavily in ivory towers, passing down the day’s news to the unwashed masses. Instead, they see modern news as participative, dynamic, an open dialogue. Theirs is an open platform, where they publish their news lists daily and share their data sources.

How to do justice to this in marketing? I was struck by a tweet from Ben Malbon that I saw whilst I was in Cannes:

Interesting, because Jason Gonsalves, who led the strategy on this campaign at BBH, talks about this as a very real consideration in what we set out to do for the Guardian. So BBH’s role for The Guardian was to deliver, yes, some good adverts. But the approach we took is an emotional product demonstration; the content largely drawn FROM the web. And of course the idea being extolled (watch the film here) is one that is hard-wired into the origin myths of the world wide web: open access to resources and information. Now The Guardian’s stall has been laid out, the next step for the marketing is inevitably “to apply open to the campaign idea.”


Now for something completely different, a Labs experiment we’ve just begun called Turning social data into personal robots. In other words, we’re planning to jack any willing participants’ social output into our not-so black box and make that data manifest as an online robot, physically defined by the user’s behaviour.

Early WiP Robotify branding design by Stephen Wake, Rich Davies & Gary Hudson

This project came about for a few reasons:

1. Labs has a remit to experiment: both in output and in ways of working
2. We have a strongly held belief that we learn in different ways when we make our own products and services
3. We’re interested in the growth of the quantified self movement. Specifically in testing a hypothesis that we want to understand ourselves better through data. And to find out whether the data can take on a life of its own and whether that might prove either useful or entertaining.
4. We love robots.

Earlier this year, the Labs team began with around 10 experimental ideas that had survived a deliberately open process. But what was mildly disturbing to see was how the discipline of progressing a chosen 5 of those ideas a little further in the wild slowly dissolved until, finally, it seemed just about everyone had sneaked their way onto the team.

Since that point, we’ve been a little more disciplined. An outline of where this may go below:

Phase 1: Focus on our MVP: creating a robot avatar that is unique to the user, with a set of simple sharing, reward and comparison tools.
Phase 2: (if Phase 1 works): drop the robots into an environment.
Phase 3: (if the robots let us live): “Robosociety” – a community with a shared social object (tbc)

So, nothing finalised here or even agreed upon in design terms, but we thought sharing visual WiP helps to bring the idea alive, alongside the theory. We’ve got some early design work below – for branding and storytelling purposes:

And then we’ve got the beginnings of some actual robot parts:

Early robot designs by Mick Marston,

Inevitably, however, most of our efforts have been focused upon agreeing the robot logic. Some elements feel quite obvious: the volume of self-expression may dictate the size of the robot’s mouth, geo-location data determines the nature of your robot’s legs. Other elements are less obvious: friending velocity = the robot’s gut (a sleek six pack means you’re motoring..).

To return to the theme of this post, we’re also using open-source technologies because we really don’t have a budget to speak of, but honestly why wouldn’t you? These are mostly the technologies you’d expect:

– The source code is managed on Github – core platform of the open source software community, but you knew that.
– We’re using the Django Web Framework and a number of open source Python libraries for the backend.
– The OAuth Authentication Protocol is used by all the Social platforms, and therefore by us.
– And we’ve got a long list of Open Source Javascript projects on the frontend.
– One of the most interesting ones to draw attention to is Twitter’s Bootstrap project, an open-source framework in which they collected and solved a lot of basic but annoying Web UI issues in a very robust and cross-platform way. By sharing it openly, now the majority of new web projects are based on this code library.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we’re now thinking/dreaming about an open API that would let users define their own rules and robot components. And I guess this is what experiencing the open source generosity and problem solving of others does to your brain. We start thinking of ways to make something more open and, in the process, we hope our own output gets stronger, better, faster. Open web, open mind.

The Robogrid

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An addendum on BBH Labs and how we work

So regular readers of this blog will be familiar with a lot of this, but inevitably a lot of the stuff discussed in this post informs the way we like to work.

– We learn in the open: quid pro quo

– Our team is kept fluid and hybrid through necessity. We’re rarely all in one place at any given time, we switch different people into projects as appropriate. We find hybrid people (with very clear areas of speciality) do things more collaboratively and faster.

– Decisions are made “at the point of knowledge, not the point of authority” (a phrase I have stolen wholesale from Jonathan McNeale at McLaren)

– Less related to ‘open’, but a fact of life is that anything we make for ourselves has to be done around client business. Keeping momentum up is undeniably hard. We started a few months ago. [It’s actual agony typing the word ‘months’]. Rather than beat ourselves up, we’ve found that the main thing is to find solid pockets of time, use them well and don’t give up just because it’s been a week since you last looked at it.

Thank you to Gabor Szalatnyai (@endofu) for his input above on the open source technologies we’re using for