Ben Malbon

My Last Post – Some Things I’ve Learned at BBH

Me in the Googleplex ball pool, September 2010.


I stumbled through the door of BBH London on March 29 2005. I was terrified. Despite coming from arguably the best & most famous planning agency of all time (BMP in London), I was (as we say in the UK) ‘sh*tting my pants’. Everything that felt charming yet amateur about BMP had been brutally and suddenly replaced by a new world of complete professionalism, extraordinary process and unrelenting focus. It was, quite literally, Day 1 at the Big School. Even Lotus Notes felt awesome.

Three moments defined my first few months there. I thought I might share them, as I disappear, because I think they’re still relevant.

Like every new hire I had a brief meet & greet with Nigel Bogle in week one. Of course, he was scary and brilliant in equal measure, but what he said to me in our first meeting stayed with me. Perhaps, looking back now, it was the one moment that defined my time at BBH more than anything else. While welcoming me, he heavily stressed the importance of not fitting in, of not becoming a BBHer, of not doing things the ‘BBH way’, but instead, of being the disruptor, the challenger, the thorn. For better or for worse, I took him at his word; if nothing else, it’s true to say I’ve never really fitted in at BBH.

Anyway, in week one (literally Day 2, if I recall correctly) I found myself pitching for Google. An extraordinary experience, partly because of the ace people I was pitching with (Robson, Exon, Stainer) and partly because of the crazy clients. They had no idea what they wanted, but they didn’t want an ad agency. And so we didn’t give them one (the title slide of our pitch said simply ‘WE DON’T WANT TO BE YOUR AD AGENCY’). We gave them an ideas engine that was an extension of their own company, but which operated outside the (even back then) stifling constraints of their own insane business. We didn’t make much money for the agency but we made important contacts (our client back then is now the global CMO of Google) which we’ve nurtured over that five-year period, and we developed a way of approaching creativity that was quite different to anything any of us had experienced before. No hierarchy, no titles, no departments, no egos, virtually no rules. Fun, frantic, fruitful. Three things stuck: I knew that was the model for me going forward, that Google was the most extraordinary company I’d come near, and that the Internet was the most disruptive & magical thing ever.

Third, just weeks after BBH won the Google pitch, I was on the British Airways pitch. I had no idea at the time just how much baggage (no pun intended) this pitch would arrive with. Having been narrowly beaten to the business by M&C Saatchi ten years before, for Nigel & John in particular, but for BBH more widely, this was an opportunity to right the wrongs of a decade previously. In addition it was a huge and highly prestigious piece of global business. I worked with some phenomenal people – my future BBH Labs partner in crime, Mel Exon, Derek Robson (who also pitched Google with me), Guy Murphy, and I had my first taste of the overwhelming firepower of the fully operational battle station that is BBH at it’s best. We worked with Gwyn Jones & team in NYC, and with Ben Fennell & team in Singapore; pure BBH. Together, these people re-calibrated my benchmark for what an agency could do, and how it might do it. It was the best pitch experience I’ve ever had; it was also the hardest three months of my life. But I took away from it an utter conviction around two beliefs; that (a) literally nothing was impossible at BBH, and (b) there was probably no better agency on the planet at that time.

Anyway, all rather dull historical context. It’s five-and-a-half years later. Here I am about to leave. I’ve learned a ridiculous amount at BBH. Perhaps more than anything, if I learned how to not be an academic at my first agency (Duckworth Finn), and I learned how to be an ok account planner at BMP, at BBH I learned how to apply strategic thinking to a much broader canvas. I was liberated by BBH; the disciplinary shackles were removed. Much of this learning was beaten into me by truly world-class people, at all levels, not just the scary senior legends you might imagine. And a tiny proportion of it was the product of my own stumbling invention and experimentation (a fair chunk of that with Mel Exon, to whom I owe particular thanks).


In any case, here are a few of the things I’ve learned along the way, from BBH London days (Google & BA), through Head of Account Planning & ZAG leadership in NY, BBH Labs start-up and (once again) to Google days over here in NYC, & my most recent Innovation role. As ever, many people will disagree with some of them; some people will disagree with all of them. They’re in no way intended to be definitive. But they are what I think is the right approach.

Only people matter
They matter more than clients, more than teams, more than fancy buildings, smart suits or posh titles; they matter even more than the ideas. Great ideas are just what happen when the right people are put together and organized (or not) in the right way. The only role of agency management is to find, retain, organize and inspire others. If management is not doing this, they’re part of the problem.

None of us is as good as all of us
This is a classic Bogle-ism, one of his very best, and it’s never been more true than today. Avoid the Prima donna at all costs; as Calle Sjoenell (our ECD on Google at BBH) notes, ‘no egos, no drama’.

Ask forgiveness, not permission
The people that make a difference tend to be the ones that don’t seek approval first. They are often not the most popular. They’re rarely the most rewarded. But they’re the most valuable. If you can bring yourself to put up with them, they will be your secret weapon. And they’re way better on your team than on someone else’s.

Awesome is always scary
The vast chasm between really good and extraordinary is filled with fear. If you push yourself to the extent that you’re deeply uncomfortable, you’ll be fine; if you’re comfortable, you’re not pushing hard enough.

Give *everything* away
Be generous with ideas, with credit, with opportunities, and most important of all, with time. Although it’s not the real point, be reassured that this generosity *always* comes back.

Do less, but do it better
We try and do too much because we’re not honest with ourselves about what we’re best at and we’re not honest with our clients about what we’re really capable of. One of the unheralded roles of planning is to distill, simplify and encourage focus; to eliminate nonsense, or the chance that nonsense might occur. Strategy is, indeed, the art of sacrifice.

We can’t be friends *all* the time
If we’re not passionate about what we do, we should pack up and leave. If you’re not upsetting someone, somewhere, most of the time, you’ll end up with ‘average’. This includes clients, but perhaps more importantly applies internally.

Build & love your network
You don’t have to share an office with the best people around to work with them, or learn from them. If you’re lucky, you’ll share an office with some of them (I’ve been lucky many times over). When Mel & I launched Labs we had no idea we’d develop such a strong group of supporters and advisors. We still have no idea how we have. But they – not us – have built Labs.

PowerPoint is the enemy of awesome
There’s an inverse relationship between the quantity of PowerPoint produced by a team and both the quality of work produced by that team, and their level of happiness.

Make sure it’s fun
It’s all just a gigantic game.

So, summing up this already tediously over-long account, this is the deal:

A Plan For Change, BBH, 2010 (a Made By Many / BBH Joint Production).


I was lucky enough to snowboard with John Winsor (@jtwinsor) this March, in Vail. As you might guess, he literally left me standing, and in some cases, climbing out. But we caught up on life on the ski lifts back to the top and talked about a lot of stuff. The next day he sent me this (below). It’s by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. It blew me away.

Only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will himself sound the depths of his own being. For if we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. In this way they have a certain security.

And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells. We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares have been set around us, and there is nothing that should frighten or upset us. We have been put into life as into the element we most accord with, and we have, moreover, through thousands of years of adaptation, come to resemble this life so greatly that when we hold still, through a fortunate mimicry we can hardly be differentiated from everything around us. We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.

How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence something helpless that needs our love.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, 1904

Massive thanks to all the completely ace BBH-ers I’ve worked with since 2005. You will continue to make BBH a magic place to be & to learn.

Bye. @malbonnington

Old Record Player + Stop Motion + Lights + Tron Legacy Soundtrack = Awesome

This is great. Almost too great to be true. But take a look and see what you think. Hot on the heels of Dentsu London’s clever use of the iPad to paint pictures, something altogether more lofi but equally excellent.

Light Drive from Kim Pimmel on Vimeo.

Stop motion form and colour, using light painting techniques.
Lighting: Kim Pimmel
Sound: Tron Legacy trailers

From Kim Pimmel’s Vimeo site, more detail:

I’ve been interested in taking my Light Study photo series and evolving them into motion pieces. I shot a lot of footage for a VJ gig for FITC San Francisco. So I edited together those stop motion sequences, mashed up some audio from the Tron Legacy trailers, and out came Light Drive.

The video is stop motion, so every frame is an individually shot photograph. Each photograph is a long exposure photo, with exposures reaching up to 20 seconds in some cases. To control the lights, I used an Arduino controlled via bluetooth to drive a stepper motor. The stepper motor controls the movements of the lights remotely from Processing.

The light sources include cold cathode case lights, EL wire, lasers and more.

via @finnbarrw (the constant source of the most magical films and special effects)

Painting with Light, using an iPad. An ace film from Dentsu, London

The team at Dentsu in London collaborated with a team of geeks at Berg London, and, using all sorts of crazy computer modeling and animation techniques, created 3D light-paintings by playing a “CAT-scan” style animation on the iPad while sweeping the iPad through the air. Then, by repeatedly sweeping through the air with various 3D models, they were able to create 3D light painting stop-motion animations.

Words don’t do it justice, take a look.

Making Future Magic: iPad light painting from Dentsu London on Vimeo.

There are far more details and some good insights around the technology behind the project on the rather good Dentsu blog, written by old BBH Labs collaborator (Google Chrome) & ex-Glue London head of strategy, Beeker Northam. We look forward to seeing a ton more experimentation in this space.

We came across this on PetaPixel, again via @finnbarrw.

What do go-karts, used mannequins, indestructible soccer balls, flame-retardant garments, & a painted toilet stall have in common?

Author: Jeff Johnson, Creative, BBH New York (@fittedsweats)

Late in the spring, British Airways gave us a great brief for North America. Last year they held a contest where they gave out hundreds of free international flights (and shipping) to small business owners in the U.S. so that they could do business face-to-face rather than just via email, iChat, Skype and…fax. They hold the belief that face-to-face contact helps seal more deals rather than just staying put and hoping for the best—which in the current economy, we’re probably more likely to do. Stay the course. Take less risks. Tread water. Shutter the place. Etc.

We immediately told them we would use the entire budget to make a feature length-documentary about the death of the use of the fax machine in Sacramento-area small businesses between ’98-’08, while also weaving in our commentary on the dearth of new ideas in leather belt holsters for mobile devices.

They pushed back. Gently.

Actually, that last paragraph’s not true. BA were giving away more free flights this year, and thought last year’s winners—in telling their own unique success stories—would inspire other small business owners here to enter this year’s contest, and go see their clients and prospective clients face-to-face.

Meeting real people who’ve dreamt up their own business and are ambitious enough to make it a reality was the fun part. Working with a budget that didn’t allow us to send clients, directors, producers, account people and creatives back to far-flung locations to recreate face-to-face meetings was the challenge.

Tireless creatives Jessica Shriftman and Zac Sax teamed with director Chris Bren and Picture Farm out of Brooklyn, as well as photographer Todd Selby, and BBH editors Mark Block and Jonah Oskow to bring stories from a handful of the most compelling businesses to life. Throughout the summer, the group was fueled for the most part by Kombucha tea and it’s startling before-taste.

The films (and the chance to win) can be found at British Airways’ Face of Opportunity site, and, we hope, elsewhere.

Pac-Man Performed in Stop-Motion with Humans as Pixels

This is fun. Albeit slightly pointless fun.

The latest in our recent series of brilliant non-digital awesomeness (see also the incredible projection show in Kharkov & Target’s spectacular light show at the Standard Hotel in NYC).

French-Swiss artist Guillaume Reymond created this stop-motion video showing Pac-Man being played at a movie theater in Switzerland last month. The project had 111 patient volunteers sit, shift, and change shirts over the course of more than four hours.

This is the fifth video in Reymond’s GAME OVER project, in which he recreates classic arcade games with humans as pixels. See more here (including Pong, Space Invaders & Tetris).

(via Laughing SquidPeta Pixel & Finnbarr Webster)

A Radical Proposal to Save Advertising on the Web

Author: Calle Sjoenell, Executive Creative Director, BBH New York

(Follow Calle here: @callesjonell)

After reading Chris Anderson’s piece in Wired about the web being dead, long live the Internet, I got a really uneasy feeling. Banner advertising has always been the weird step child of advertising. Few creatives wants to do them, clients don’t know how to approach it and nobody clicks on the ads. I always argued that it’s the ultimate test of stripped-down creativity, with lots of constraints, just 40K to play with and super-restricted space. It’s like creating wonderful music out of an old synth; just a few dials, but turn the right ones at the right time and wonderful things happen. On occasion, that can happen with banners. But maybe we have all missed the real problem. The first trouble with display ads is that people don’t know how to look at them. I believe the reason for this is the creative and the instruction for interacting with the creative is all over the place.

Right now, internet display advertising is like driving through different towns where every town has invented their own traffic sign system. You need to look really carefully at every sign and interpret what they mean instead of brainstem reactions that would come with a unified signage system. Learn more, Click here, Fold There, plus signs, single arrows, >>, all in a box, or not. Underlined. Bold. !!!!

We are just not sure what to do. So, in over 99% of instances, we do absolutely nothing at all.

This is connected to a second problem with display advertising: that there is no clear way of knowing if you will leave the site or interact where you are. In the early days it made sense that you left the site you were on and went to the advertisers’ websites. That was how you used the web back then, hence the idea of ‘surfing’. Now people are on fewer and fewer sites and are reluctant to leave where they are. They’re also afraid of viruses and malware.

Is there a solution? I propose we separate creative from instruction.

I propose we create a clear set of universal instructions letting users know if they are staying on a site or leaving it. Or, to push it even further, what if every ad had two standard buttons at the same location, “Save for Later” (like Instapaper for display) and “Go to Website”. That way ads would behave more like we use the web today. A Universal System for display, in which everyone knows what to expect. A system that respects the user.

Few have got this right to date. Google come to mind, with their Adwords text ads (& look at the impact of a user-focused design approach on their revenues). With Google, the parameters are tight and everyone knows what to expect. Facebook is also on to this with their standardized format that provides a static picture and lots of text. These are fairly low on the creative side, but I think the creative part of a banner can be wonderfully executed through animation, API interaction or just a plain old static picture that says it all. Whatever it is, the instructions should be standard, simple and clear.

This is one reason why I have joined the IAB and their Rising Stars forum, to drive forward this question of standardization. It might point to the way forward for creative AND functional display ads on the web that users know how to interact with. But there are a lot of people who need to agree and compromise to make this happen.

So to save advertising on the web, who is willing to come to the table?

The rise of ‘Event Outdoor’ continues – brilliant projection show in Kharkov, Ukraine

Hot on the heels of the Target installation at NYC’s Standard Hotel a few weeks ago, it seems ‘event outdoor’ is just becoming more interesting by the day. This is phenomenal. My Russian isn’t fantastic (Mel – can you help please?), but no narration seems that necessary. It’s an old idea done in a particularly crisp & stunning way. I especially like the ‘dog walking along the precipice’ moment around two minutes into the film.

If anyone knows whether this show was on behalf of a brand (it doesn’t look like it), or anything else about it, please enlighten us in the comments underneath the film. Thanks.

(The original film we posted has been removed from YouTube – this one below is not quite as well-filmed but gives you the idea).

Thanks to John Hagel (@jhagel) for the tip off.