Ben Malbon

Getting comfortable with chaos

Posted by Ben Malbon & Heidi Hackemer

I’ve just finished an awesome article in ‘New York’ magazine by Sam Anderson called ‘In Defense of Distraction‘. I say finished. I mean barely finished. I’ve been reading it for four days.

llustration by Glen Cummings/MTWTF (Photo: John Day/Getty Images)

Illustration by Glen Cummings/MTWTF (Photo: John Day/Getty Images)

The truth is, it took me waaaaay too long to read the piece. Not because it’s not a really top quality dissection of the attention crash, its causes, and ramifications – it is – but because almost every sentence I read contained a phrase, name, concept or idea that I wanted to get more information about. I barely finished a single sentence in one go.  I spent more time on Google than on the New York magazine site.

My colleague Heidi (@uberblond) also took a crack at it. In her desperate attempt to not meander off into conceptual undergrowth, she opened a new tab with a Google search every time a thought hit her. At the end of the article, she had racked up almost twenty tabs of where her mind wanted to go. It turned out we both struggled to finish what is a really excellent, highly readable article on a subject we’re both really into. Not good. Some would say pathetic.

In Anderson’s piece, David Meyer, one of the world’s leading experts on multitasking & cognition describes this phenomenon in bald, almost harrowing terms. He sees our distraction “as a full-blown epidemic—a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought.”

This struck a chord with us, although we were both barely paying enough attention to the piece first time around to register the thought. Only when we compared notes did we recall skim-reading that quote as our bit-addled brains struggled to process thousands of concurrent potential search terms at once. Our mutually pathetic attempt at pointed concentration got both of us thinking: if two averagely-smart people can barely concentrate on something that *really* interests us, what does that mean about our ability to think creatively? Hmmmm . . .

Image by Kevin Dooley, Flickr (CC)

Image by Kevin Dooley, Flickr (CC)

Well we haven’t got any smart answers to that one, but fortunately, as we both took so long to finish the piece, in the meantime something on this theme snuck in and offered an interesting counter-argument. A recent piece in Wired magazine by David Allen, ‘How to be creative amid chaos‘, proposes using the disordered reality of over-stimulation, continuous partial attention and multi-tasking as a liberating force that can feed, not stifle, creativity. Allen muses on how, perhaps, the skill of the next generation might lie on mastering how to extract meaning from this cacophony. He cites the example of Evan Taubenfeld, a guitarist and producer in a rock band.

He was telling me how he’s learned to produce an album most effectively. Some of the best ideas for his songs happen while he and his band are working on another one. Now he has a whiteboard in the studio. They’ll be in the middle of one thing, suddenly get inspired about something else, and stop to capture it. Evan said it’s chaotic, but once the band got used to it and trusted the process, they were way more productive and more creative than ever. Before he realised the power of capturing thoughts as they occur, and building in just the kind of structures that he needed to foster and support the process, he experienced lots of wasted and frustrated energy, with much less output. Trying to exert the “discipline” of staying focused on one song at a time stifled his creativity. The coolest thing about the new process, he said, was that making music was fun again.

We thought this was cool, and inspiring. And we’re now less worried about not finishing pieces we start. Far from trying to install some form of order around the cacophony, maybe we should jump into it? Maybe we resist order and accept that it’s from within that craziness that we might craft and find creativity?

You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star. (Nietzsche)


Expialodocious, remixed

We’re enjoying the work of Pogo, hailing from Australia.

He’s just released this (cheers to @mikearauz for the heads-up) – check it out in HQ. Love the Technicolor of the original picture.


Plenty more, and downloads, at:

Happy Wednesday.

Will work for all it’s worth – the launch of Agency Nil

Almost everyone who works at an agency has a few favourite horror stories about the particularly tricky negotiation into their first position. The crazed lunacy of certain graduate recruitment processes (mine still gives me nightmares), the deeply uncomfortable hours spent in creative directors’ offices having your book taken to pieces, begging your way onto an intern programme, starting out in the mailroom. It’s always been tough. It’s part of the folklore. At least the reward’s in the car park.

But now it’s tougher than ever. No, really. A punchy piece by Jef Loeb on, “Same as It Never Was“, published just recently, paints a undeniably grim picture of an industry undergoing dramatic change. Loeb’s themes – structural transformation, accelerating evolution of new media trends, financial woes – are painfully familiar. As he notes, even if we’ve passed the bottom of the trough, our “shared profession is more than a long link or two from being at the top of the food recovery chain”.

Imagine now that you’re just graduating from your Ad School or coming to the end of a degree or Fine Arts programme. Suddenly the tales we recount of our elaborate scheming to get a job out of college look like some kind of joke. Where would you start today?


“Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them”

Have just finished a fantastic article in the New York Times, on “Searching for Value in Ludicrous Ideas“, by Allison Arieff. It covered, in wonderful detail & with generous illustrations, the uncategorizable work of Steven M. Johnson, a kind of hybrid planner, architect, designer, futurologist, inventor. He comes up with crackpot ideas such as this, the “Nod Office”. Brilliant; reminds me of Douglas Coupland’s sketches of ‘veal fattening pens‘ in Generation X.


I found it inspiring, exciting and instructive all at the same time (I fully recommend you go and read the whole thing, I won’t even attempt to do it justice here; Arieff puts it together superbly well and ensures Johnson is the hero of the piece).

And it got me thinking . . . about the value of mavericks. In a world of frenetic recycling, mash-ups, re-tweeting and outright imitation I wonder how we can find more left-field thinkers and, as importantly, allow them to flourish when we find them? Does the sharing of everything, all the time, with everyone, combined with the sheer volume of stimulus that assaults us, result in the lobotomizing of the renegades, the free spirits, the natural geniuses? The natural evolution of average. Not survival of the fittest so much as survival of the most popular.

Buckminster Fuller, Dymaxion House Prototype (c.1945)

Buckminster Fuller, Dymaxion House Prototype (c.1945)

Buckminster Fuller, referred to throughout Arieff’s piece, and without question a misfit and visionary some decades ahead of his time, once memorably proposed, “everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them” (even his use of the word ‘de-genius’ is a maverick move). Wonderfully phrased but also, surely, terribly sad?


(Thanks to Tim Geoghegan for the heads up on the NYT article to start with, and the awesome addition of the Supertramp video).

The Battle Between Art & The Algorithm

Technology … is a queer thing.

It brings you great gifts with one hand,

and it stabs you in the back with the other.

–C.P. Snow, New York Times, March 15, 1971–

There’s a battle raging, yet it’s almost Truman Show-like in its subtlety. It’s the battle between art and the algorithm. Between emotion and rationality. Between indescribable magic and perfect information.

Jim Carrey, in 'The Truman Show'

Jim Carrey, in 'The Truman Show'

As the granular world of relevance, measurability and accountability tightens its grip on the increasingly emaciated flesh of businesses struggling to re-tool quickly enough to survive, many are rushing too quickly away from striving for the magic that has characterized the work we all admire, no matter what the decade or canvas.

As far as I know, no one is trying to kill me. Yet, I sometimes feel a little like the unfortunate hero at the center of the dystopian sci-fi thriller “Minority Report,” John Anderton. The famous mall scene in which Anderton (Tom Cruise), is assaulted by dozens of individually targeted ads — some of which, much to his horror, even loudly broadcast his name as he passes — represents a world a lot closer to ours than the fictional date of 2054.

It’s a world of perfect targeting. Optimization. Zero wastage. Absolute utility. Total accountability.


How Do Creatives Think?

One of the most enduringly brilliant things about working in a creative business is that, for the most part, it remains a complete mystery as to how the creative mind actually develops thinking and ideas. Much as many have tried to bring science, objectivity and rationality to advertising and marketing over the years, most would agree that the majority of breakthrough creativity somehow seems to defy rules, not follow them. It all still seems – on balance – to be more art than science. And long may that continue (in fact, I’m trying to write something up right now on the emerging battle between art and the algorithm).

I’ve been talking to Glenn Griffin (SMU-Dallas) and Deborah Morrison (U. Oregon) about this theme. These guys are professors who teach aspiring creatives and study creativity. Their latest project is a book that will showcase drawings of the creative process by some of the ad industry’s best, including BBH New York’s very own ECD Kevin Roddy (see his drawing, below), Alex Bogusky, David Baldwin, David Kennedy, Nancy Rice, Luke Sullivan and many others.


The drawings reveal so much about each individual’s pathway to ideas and constitute a unique archive of the brain power that fuels the business. Just skimming through the early submissions from some fairly legendary creatives I was struck by both just how different they were from each other (some drawn, some cartoon, many mixing images and copy), but also how simple they were.

The book, tentatively titled Pure Process, is set for publication in Summer 2010 by How Books. Glenn and Deborah are still looking for last-minute submissions from anyone who wants to play.

Interested? You can contact them direct at

Twitter – the Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning?

The crescendo of noise around Twitter grows by the second. Yet while for many this delivers a symphony of Web 2.0 magnificence, crafted by millions of tweeting voices (Aaron Koblin managed only 2000, though it was far from symphonic), others hear nothing more than deafening silence. I’ve been trying to think through this paradox. Two events of the last week illustrate this tension well.

I had a message from my brother Tim (@malbonster), co-Founder of social media agency Made By Many in London, when I woke up here in NY. Tim is ‘into Twitter’. His message was subject titled: ‘I hope it’s not, but the fun bit feels like it’s almost over’. He was lamenting a tweet he’d read this morning from a friend (@netgrrl) which read: ‘Ah… I’ve mentioned coffee too many times now, I’m being inundated with follows from coffee marketers.’ Yes, I found myself nodding subconsciously, it’s being ruined. The crazy experimental bit with no rules, where no one has any idea how to monetize, or even whether it will be successful, and where marketing has been wrong-footed; that’s all gone . . .

(for full post click below)


10 Reasons Why There’s Not More Great Work in the Interactive Space

(NOTE: This post is an attempt to capture some of the emerging themes resulting from an earlier and original post on the subject – see for original post . . . probably worth going there first if you’ve landed here and want to contribute)

Some great, insightful and provocative replies to the earlier question around the perceived paucity of great work in interactive.

First off, I found it fascinating that – to date at least – no one’s responded with a great list of knockout creative, or, in fact, with any knockout creative. This would suggest that there is indeed a problem and that it’s not just perception. Please correct me if I’m wrong here. I’m reassured that various folks who ‘know their shit’ have commented here, and I’m certain they would have picked out the gems had I missed them in my haste to make the point.

Second, what we have emerging is a really very useful list of factors that, together, explain why we’re not yet seeing consistently great work, and in particular strong enduring campaigns, in the interactive space. Factors cited by contributors will be familiar to many, and include the following, which are reported not as fact but as supposition, at least at this stage:

1. SPEED – Our lack of speed in responding to the changing landscape, a blight suffered by agencies of both old & new skools, digital & analogue, hampers creative innovation.

2. ENDURANCE – We suffer a particular weakness at creating . . . (more)


Why isn’t there more great work in the interactive space?

There’s a debate that, if not quite raging, is certainly simmering about the perceived lack of breakthrough creativity in digital brand advertising (for example: I think everyone would agree that great work does exist. But maybe just not enough of it. So why the paucity?

Well let’s get one thing out of the way right away. It’s almost certainly the case (please argue with me if you think this is not true) that the percentage of “great work” in interactive is no less than that on any other canvas. Great work is rarer than a Texan in a Smart Car. Full-stop. But there seem some quite specific reasons why there’s not a whole load of stunningly great creative in interactive.

So, a few linked observations about why this might be the case.

One, as an industry, it seems as if marketing is mesmerized by the (very welcome) potential efficiencies & measurability of digital and that this can lead to blindness when it comes to the creative opportunities. The talk is frequently of driving costs down through zero wastage, or improving efficiency (all good of course), and less often about increasing engagement, forging deeper links with consumers over time, storytelling across screens, and so on. How far away are we from work of the quality and ambition of Aaron Koblin or Jonathan Harris in what we produce for clients? To some extent, even average digital work can be more accountable than much of the work produced for the offline world, and sometimes that accountability can veil what is actually remarkably humdrum work. Here one’s reminded of the John Banham quote: In business we tend to value most highly that which we can measure most precisely. Traditional agencies are, in particular, often in the position of knowing they need to produce both more effective and more emotive interactive work, but not knowing remotely how to develop it.

Two, we probably need to stop looking at digital creativity as somehow different . . . (more) (more…)

Linking intelligently (or why I love

I transitioned from to earlier this year. Probably way after most people started using it. It’s awesome. But I’m guessing the reason I love is not the reason most people would give. Yes, delivers super utility simply by shortening a link of seemingly any length to virtually no length. And it makes it easy and quick. That’s part of it.

But I’ve become addicted to the data which provides on every link you shorten. Because with the shortening is just the beginning of it’s magic. If you register on the site you have a record of all the links you’ve shortened. And if you hit the ‘Info’ function underneath a link you are presented with a treasure trove of metrics & insight. Traffic (clicks) with time & date information, geographical location, platform used to access the link, conversations the link featured within, RTs, and so on.


So one learns that a link posted on Twitter that touches on industrial design is 50% more likely to be clicked on in Brazil than in the UK. Or a link that relates to LEGO is three times as likely to be clicked on in Denmark than in Canada. Or that the optimum time to post is 10pm ET, or that actually one needs to re-post because the two peaks are 10pm ET and 10pm GMT, or that if you want to provoke an Australian audience one should post after 11pm ET. Much of this might seem intuitive, but accessing the data that proves (or refutes) some of the assumptions we work with when we share links is a revealing exercise. Above all, it provides much greater depth of feedback on what’s popular (or not) than simply the crude measure of how often your message is RT on Twitter. And it’s not just Twitter – you can add a add-on to your Gmail ( allows you to do a whole lot more than fire-and-forget; it promotes smart linking, and that makes it cool in my (Excel work) book.