18th July 12
Posted in storytelling
Author: James Mitchell, Strategist, BBH London & BBH Labs
The girl, Nina , is dressed for a meeting. “I’ve only got two business plans left,” she states matter-of-factly. She places two objects on the table in front of me: a condom, and a pouch of pills. “I would be very grateful if you could decide.”
I hesitate, and the girl’s mask of professionalism falters. “These are my only options, so could you choose…please..?”
In that moment, I realise that my choice is her choice, and her choice is the choice of a hundred young people across London.
At an IPA event on Tuesday, Saatchi’s Head of Planning Richard Huntingdon commented that “beyond all else, what we do is empathy.” It’s true – the comms we create should be an act of empathy towards our audience. When the problem is just right, empathy itself can be the answer. Complicated issues of debate – particularly around things like social justice, where the topic is one we don’t like to discuss – can lose people in the discussion. When the most important measure of success is understanding, the quickest route to the head is through the heart, as empathy. Parents know this. When they try to convince children of the wrongness of a situation, the phrase you’ll most often hear is: “well, how would you like it if…?”
When we feel anger or distrust towards someone we’re often told to walk a mile in their shoes. As humans, we’re actually very good at playing roles and seeing things from another person’s point of view – if we get the right prompts. But executionally, it’s a fine balance. You have to manage the audience’s experience positively enough to draw them into a character, and only then can you subject that character to their (often harrowing) fate. Finally, the immersive experience must offer the ‘immersed’ some sense of redemption, the sense that there’s something to be done to give this character a better future than their present. Only then can the audience leave not just with understanding, but with the desire to act.
One of the most profound cases of alienation that divides “us and them” is shocking because it’s so everyday – homelessness. Centrepoint Parliament know this all too well. They campaign to raise awareness of youth welfare, but it’s easy for the messages to get lost in the debate. We all remember the point and counterpoint that swirled around the London riots last August. Whose responsibility was it – the kids’? The media’s? Blackberry’s? British society was about to give up the youth for lost and no amount of rational discourse would overcome those images in the press of a burning M&S, a looted Tesco, a burnt-out car.
Centrepoint Parliament needed a way to viscerally cut through it all – and over six months, we worked with them to find it. The answer came directly from recordings of the youth hostel itself. No rhetoric, hyperbole or ‘advertising’ could match a simple recreation of the truth – this was Nine Rooms, an experiential theatre piece devised by its own members, with help from BBH. You are placed directly into the worst scenes of a young homeless person’s life – the loneliness, the idleness, and the dilemmas.
My choice made, I hand the item to Nina. Her expression flickers with pain but all she says is a polite “thank you for your time.” She collects her notes and walks out, leaving me alone with the untaken choice, and a sense of gratitude that I’ll never have to make this kind of decision for myself.
They are scenes that we all have suspected are happening to ‘someone, somewhere’, and internally written off as the facts of life. To be forced to go through them – to wear the shoes – drags them out of the realm of statistics in the head, and into a the form of a nuanced human experience in the heart. To read the impact Nine Rooms had on people is both affecting and uplifting. It’s clear that the power of the performance has made this a brief well answered:
“Powerful and emotive. So well done to get in touch with the reality of homelessness. Portrayed in a way which allows the audience to feel what the characters feel.”
“Moving and very effective – being so close and personal made it a hard journey.”
“Powerful stuff. Is this really going on in London? We all get so tied up in our lives that we don’t know what’s really going on. Thank you for the experience.”
There were tough strategic choices to be made, too – we reasoned that delivering a powerful experience for the few was better than a message that would get tuned out by the many – as long as those few were so impacted that they would pass it on. The sense of shock and outrage we got from our comments book shows that it’s worked. And as we said above, immersive theatre at its best doesn’t just affect people, it moves them to take action – in this case, signing the petition to restore careers advice services so that no young person has to make Nina’s choice.
From ‘events’ like Secret Cinema to political projects (Coney’s Early Days Of A Better Nation) and even new twists on horror, both secular (Hotel Medea) and sanctimonious (see the rise in the US Evangelical concept of the scare-you-straight “Hell House”), immersive theatre has come into its own as a way of heightening reality for a media-skeptic generation. Even traditional media becomes that much more powerful when technology lets us step into the scene (see the experiential touches of our own work for Missing People). Whilst at its most shallow, ‘experience’ is a play for PR-able creativity, at its best, it’s a dose of empathy that’s truly transformative.
Ask the residents of Nine Rooms.
You don’t have to have been through the rooms to take action – sign Centrepoint Parliament’s petition here.
2nd July 12
Posted in online video
Want to find out how to get a great look under even the most trying of conditions? Let YouTube celebrity and makeup artist Lauren Luke show you how in this helpful tutorial:
If that wasn’t quite what you were expecting, you’ll know what Lauren’s many followers and their friends will be experiencing over the coming days, as a result of our partnership with Lauren and domestic abuse charity Refuge. It’s a very different approach for a charity, but it’s one that we think is vital to help them adapt to a very different type of audience, and a different type of public conversation.
The world is noisy. Everyone has something to say. But there are some things people just don’t want to talk about. And in a media landscape catering to our individual needs, people don’t have to talk or hear about things they don’t want to.
People don’t want to talk about domestic abuse.
MORE THAN JUST AN AWARENESS ISSUE
When society doesn’t talk about the big important problems, particularly the ones that may cause fear or discomfort, a vacuum of knowledge inevitably forms, quickly filled with misinformation.
People think that everyone “gets” what domestic abuse is. They’re wrong. Research shows that more than half of teenage girls aged 13-18 have experienced sexual violence at the hands of a partner – and considered it normal. 40% of teenage girls would consider giving a boyfriend a second chance if he hit them. A third believe that cheating justifies the use of violence.
By not loudly and continuously reinforcing that domestic abuse is a problem, society sends a message that it isn’t serious. By ignoring the issue, it is normalised, and creates a generation of potential victims.
In a very real sense, silence kills. Two women in the UK die at the hands of an abusive partner or ex-partner every week. Talking saves lives.
That’s why Refuge’s call to action is “speak up, save a life”. But speaking to teenage girls requires a different type of speaking up: one tailored to a fragmented media landscape, a group focussed on entertainment rather than weightier issues, and a subject that discourages discussion.
A CASE FOR SUBVERSION
A traditional disruptive approach wasn’t going to work. But we knew our audience wouldn’t come to use through choice. Our response has been to create a piece of communication directly tailored to the way that teen girls consume and communicate information. That encourages them to become part of the conversation on their terms. Not disruption of their experience, so much as a subversion of it.
We knew we’d have to sneak our message into an existing channel that our audience were already interested in in a way that created maximum impact. Considering the role of subversion of expectation in viral spread – viral activity often takes the form of practical joking – we realised that the more that we could increase that sense of contrast between expectation and content, the higher the likelihood of spread.
And we wanted to make sharing and commentary the call to action, because sharing is how teens conduct public debate. It allows them to make a stand without exposing their own opinions and be part of something with a low risk of emotional or social damage. Viral behaviour is their version of the town square, the salon or the pub.
In effect, we were creating a practical joke with a purpose that couldn’t have been more serious: shocking people out of their complacency around domestic abuse, and allowing them to take a stand against it on their terms.
What we needed to do was find a Trojan horse who would carry our message to young women. That was where Lauren Luke came in.
Lauren’s relationship with her audience is paramount; every content decision and direction she makes is with her subscribers in mind. Her enthusiasm for the cause and participation in shocking her fans is, in short, the kind of unstinting bravery needed to tackle domestic violence as a subject.
The film itself has been deliberately designed to maximise the shock of the contrast between the context and content: particularly Lauren’s chirpy demeanour contrasting with her appearance. But this wasn’t about forcing a scripted film into a social channel. We provided a general framework and direction for Lauren and allowed her the space and time to make the film her own: a challenge she rose to brilliantly.
We then wanted to make sure the content was framed in a way that maximised the stunt aspect: the copy that appears alongside the film wherever it is shared is intended to draw people in without ever giving an indication of the content.
Finally, our call to action is the most simple and natural one that our audience know: share. And by sharing, speak out.
Copywriter: Jack Smedley
Art Director: George Hackforth
Art Director: Stephen Noble
Film directed by: Wesley Hawes and Gary McCreadie
Creative Director: Pablo Marques
Strategists: Claire Coady & Simon Robertson
26th June 12
Great brands have long understood that providing customers with enjoyable, differentiated user experiences is critical to winning their loyalty. Walk in to a Waitrose supermarket or Kohl’s store and there’s no comparison to a Tesco or a kmart from the layout of aisles, to the attitude of the staff to the products they do and don’t stock.
‘Screen’ UX offers brands a whole range of new opportunities to really deliver on their promises and strengthen their customer relationships. But too often this is a missed opportunity, we end up with experiences that are good but not great. They work, they conform to best practice rules & standards but if you take away the logo they are indistinguishable from each other.
Wind tunnel web design?
The screen shots above are from a recent Zag audit of the Personal Finance Manager (PFM) market but the point applies to plenty of other categories. Jim Carroll has spoken passionately here about the Wind Tunnel Marketing but are we also in danger of entering the age of Wind Tunnel Web/UI design?
We believe that the most effective way to avoid this situation is to put brand at the heart of UX, to use it as the north star to guide the myriad of interactions and touchpoints that brands create for their customers.
Of course this is easy to say, much harder to do. Here are 6 ingredients that we find help foster a successful fusion of brand and UX, based on projects we’ve worked on and projects we wish we’d worked on. It’s certainly not comprehensive, more intended as a conversation starter – we’d really like to hear about other ingredients that people find useful here.
#1 A proper understanding of your audience
This is obvious but too often people pay lip service to this area. You really need to know the needs, interactions and emotions that colour their experience of your brand and your category. And even more importantly is to have genuine empathy for them as PEOPLE not consumer/users. He’s not a 25-44 year old ABC1, he’s a proud dad who works to hard and reads to his kids too quickly on Thursday nights so he can go out with the boys and so on...
#2 A proper understanding of your brand’s purpose
Again obvious. But again too often this is more about platitudes than purpose. For this to work you need to have really asked the tough questions of the brand in question. Why is it really there? What is its role really?
Nike’s purpose is one of the best I’ve seen for this sort of thing. It’s inspirational, it’s directional and it’s very very stretching. Nike will never complete this mission but they are creating a lot of amazing products while they’re trying. The CEO Mark Parker was instrumental in pushing this mission through eleven years ago. It’s hard to see the previous one (‘to be the number sports & fitness company in the world’) being much use as a guiding principle for UX…
#3 Appreciate that the rules of branding have changed
When we say ‘brand’ we don’t mean a didactic set of messages, rules and templates to roll out over every touch-point. We mean a coherent set of guiding principles to help designers make the right decisions about what to say and what to do. Adaptable rather than monolithic. Otherwise the whole exercise will do more harm than good.
#4 Run a collaborative multi-discipline process
Every project has a different set of skillsets but one thing we’ve found always leads to better results is to keep it open and collaborative from the outset. So we make sure our graphic/digital designers are challenging (or even writing!) the business/brand strategy on any project from a very early stage. This helps avoiding the platitude/purpose issue touched upon early. If the brand strategy isn’t speaking to the people charged with bringing it to life then it’s probably pointless.
If you’ve got the above ingredients in place then you should be in a really good place to try and achieve something special, to make the brand thinking tangible and improve it:
#5 Create signature interactions
Flipboard is there to be beaten as an example of brand and UX. A clear vision to be a ‘Social Magazine’ that fuses the beauty and ease of the print magazine experience with the power of social media. The signature interaction of the gentle ‘flip’ movement. And it’s in the name!
Wonga’s ‘money sliders’ are another powerful example. They exemplify ‘straight talking money’ and a more down to earth approach to finance every time you to interact with them.
#6 Surprise people (in a useful way)
Everyone knows the situation. You’ve finally reached the end of a critical project phase. You are sending the authoritative, definitive email to all the stakeholders to wrap everything up, accompanied by the pdf of the amazing work…and then you send the email without the attachment and have to send another going “ahem’ here’s the attachment”. Except when I [Steve] was in the process of executing this understandable error Gmail stopped me.
You can be sure that anyone who’s experienced that bit of help will tell a lot of people and be more loyal to the brand in the future.
To us this is the benchmark in terms of moments of surprise and delight. Here is a brand using ‘screen’ UX to build relationships with their customers in as powerful a way as Waitrose are using their store experiences.
What are the equivalent moments for the brands you work on?
If you enjoyed this post then we should acknowledge the influence of inestimable @adamtvpowers, BBH London’s Head of UX.
26th April 12
Posted in makings
Author: James Mitchell, Strategist, BBH & BBH Labs
Every once in a while at Labs, we like, no, need to get our hands dirty. Oily, even. We like to make stuff that we can learn from – learn from the making of and learn from the interactions with. Robotify.me is one such experiment. And unlike most of our output, we’re going to share its whole gestation with you. Partly because we’re too excited not to, partly because we want you to shape the product.
Product? Yes. With robotify.me, we want to put a personal digital robot into the hands of every person who wants one.
Of all the companions you could make, why a robot? Why not a plant, an animal, even a pet rock? Because of the line robots walk (or fly), between the artificial and the human. They are not alive, but in the way the act we try to give them life. And this has bearing on the other half of the project.
Since our first aol email addresses, our first Second Life avatars, our geocities and myspace profiles, our first (and second) anonymous twitter accounts and our weavrs, we’ve been talking about the difference between a person, and an online persona. Is there one? We hope robotify will tell us, because the other trick is this: the characteristics and features of your robot will be determined entirely and exclusively by your social network data. So if you post lots of pictures on instagram, your robot might grow a telephoto lens in its belly. If you click lots of odd links, you might develop tank tracks – negotiating rough digital terrain, you see.
That’s the simplest version. Gradually we want to progress to a version with a robot that changes and grows as you do – a living marker of your data journey. We’re even hoping that, over time, robots will be able to interact. Robosociety, if you will. But that’s the nature of the agile process we’re using – aside from the vision, there are lots of assumptions layered on top of each other, and we’d like a willing army of beta pioneers to help slice through these assumptions and get to the robotify.me that you want.
At the same time, we’d like to experiment with a slightly altered way of communicating – so for the 50s radio-style version of the Robotify story, just slip on some headphones and click play.
Hang on. You said something about beta users?
Yes, labs reader. That’s you. We’re making the beta right now – signup at http://signup.robotify.me. If there’s anything you want to see, anything you’ve always wanted to know about your social data, or anything else you think we should look at, let us know below…
27th March 12
Posted in Uncategorized
Author: James Mitchell, Strategist, BBH & BBH Labs
“I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, and no heart.” – Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report
In 2006, Stephen Colbert promised (parodically) to “not tell the news to you, but feel the news, at you.” He coined the term truthiness, a quality applied to something that has a sense of truth, that is true enough to serve its purpose, without actually being factually accurate. It was just a swipe at lazy newscasting, but Colbert had it right – in modern culture the truths we tell ourselves are the ones that best make us feel something. Advertising has long known that, and has told actual truths about its products, wrapped in representational ‘life truths’ that spin off of it. These are narratives, and all parties in the situation know it. So far, so good.
In my second BBH interview in 2010, Planning Director Ed Booty asked me, “do you think people have had enough of the real?” The concensus we got to was that people could never have enough of the real, but that media forces have worked to inflate people’s expectations of what the real can deliver. Remember: this was at time when Endemol’s solution to the stagnation of ‘reality show’ Big Brother was to put ever more abrasive and conflicting characters into the mix, and people had begun to call it out as a circus. Since then, the response from entertainment has been a whole string of programmes with a new definition of truth: The Hills, Jersey Shore, Geordie Shore, The Only Way Is Essex. Watching them is like reading The National Enquirer; within their own ecosystem they are true, and they offer the most value when you read them as true. Deep down, you know them to be false, but the spectacle tacitly asks you to suspend that to get some value from them. They are truthy. The old masters of this form, the wrestling (“sports entertainment”) industry have a term for this – kayfabe. Successfully engaging with kayfabe can be a lot of fun.
- The combination of the extremes of fiction and the rawness of reality have left us wanting the impossible – a fantastical truth. At the same time, ever since Cluetrain we’ve come to realise that our collective ability to dismantle a narrative is potent, and hungry. A tough gig for anyone who wants to tell their truth in the most engaging way possible. Remember when James Frey got ripped into A Million Little Pieces by Oprah? It turns out that parts of his story were just that, a story, and it was unforgivable.
Even when the cause is ‘just’, the scent of manipulation is hard to deoderise. In the past month, we’ve seen KONY 2012 explode and be exploded – partly from speculation about the company’s finances, partly from questions about the appropriateness of the solutions they offered to the problem, but in equal part from the sheer slickness of the manipulation. It was too glossy for the message it was trying to put across, too much like an episode of MTV’s Made, rather than a call to action. The response to this criticism might be “that’s the format our target audience responds to, so that’s what we have to use,” but the savagery of the counterattack suggests that young people still respond to message as much as medium.
Then there’s Apple. When public radio show This American Life chose to broadcast an excerpt of monologist Mike Daisey’s show The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in January, they got their highest-ever ratings in the show’s 17-year history. That’s because Mike’s monologue is the story of his experiences in Chinese tech factories, including Foxconn, one of Apple’s biggest suppliers. Because it describes the working practices that go into making the tech we use even as we consume blogs like this one. The narrative arc and the expertly crafted pathos could only come from a practiced storyteller – and therein came the problem, because Daisey used a storyteller’s toolbox – deletion, distortion and assumption – to the point where the story just wasn’t true any more. It was a cobbling together of things that happened to Daisey, things that used to happen but don’t any more, things he’d heard about from others but had no proof of, and simple fabrication. And Daisey has been eviscerated by much of his audience. This American Life has never felt so mortally wounded – to the point where Ira Glass and his team produced an entire episode called simply Retraction, and pulled the original from the podcast feeds.
Where does that leave the practice of marketing? Advertising deals in truthiness because it uses things that didn’t happen to get audiences to think of what could happen, and to feel the ‘truth’ of a brand’s world. And this was Mike Daisey’s defence on This American Life: “this isn’t about me lying to you or anyone else. This is about me doing everything I could to get the media to pay attention… Did I go too far in that effort? Maybe. That’s for others to judge.” The truth didn’t quite cut it, so he used made up facts in order to get to what he thought was a higher truth – the story of labour practice in other countries. And to be fair, it worked well enough to enchant the audiences on his tour, the normally journalistically rigorous This American Life, and everyone that listened to it – including the New York Times.
But what these events teach us is the care we must use when we wield the power of story. That when you have an audience that wants life to be larger than life, they should know where and when the enlargements and the brightening of the colours is occurring. There have been calls for cosmetic adverts to have an “airbrushing watermark”. We don’t need to go that far for story: rather, we just have to watch where we’re putting the truthiness. We have to map the zones in the media space where absolute truth is expected – yes, spaces like facebook and twitter – and treat people with what they deserve there.
But the biggest lesson of all lies further upstream. As marketers for brands, we’re usually telling stories about ourselves. So if we want to tell any story we can – all we have to do is make those facts be true by causing them to happen. If you’re Starbucks, don’t just talk about how friendly you are – get your employees to write customers’ names on their takeaway lattes. If you’re Johnnie Walker, don’t just talk about progress – put a real investment into the Keep Walking Project, and make progress happen.
The people have spoken, and they’re not satisfied with truthiness. They don’t just want brands to tell them stories. They want brands to take part in the rewriting of reality, so that the stories they tell each other can be that much more amazing.
23rd March 12
Posted in sxsw
How I went to Austin expecting to learn about browsers and came back wanting to change the world.
Author: Agathe Guerrier, Strategy Director, BBH & BBH Labs
I went to SXSW for the first time this year, with the firm intention to learn about UX, data visualization trends, and new, exciting browser features. As I landed in Austin, I couldn’t wait to find out more about the native vs. web-based apps debate.
In reality, although clearly there WAS a lot of talk of browsers and coding languages and apps, I found myself confronted with a much more fundamental subject: that of meaning and purpose. More than acquire new knowledge, I was filled with new enthusiasm (and a little bit of concern) about the task that lies at hand – basically, redefining the rules of our economic, political and societal framework. Rethinking the world. Yup. Something that we need (the creative and tech community) need to take part in for two reasons: because the last 10 years have demonstrated the need for a new paradigm, and because the growing importance of technology in our world, means it now intersects significantly with world views, beliefs, and ethics.
Take the “Skynet vs. Mad Max: Battle for the Future” dual session (by our very own Mel and Jeremy). It drew a parallel between the small, apparently benign technology choices we make today as consumers, and the future of the human species. Who imagined that buying an iPhone represented a leap towards a world where individual identity would be reduced to one login, one identity, one self, the scary simplicity of this system ultimately leading to totalitarianism? It’s removed, but not far-fetched.
Tim O’Reilly, in his fantastic “Create More Value than you Capture” discussion with Andrew Mcafee, made a powerful case for embedding social good and genuine value(s) in all businesses. He pointed to a brilliantly obvious truth: it’s enthusiasm and passion that fuel creativity, not greed. For the sake of the social equilibrium that it depends upon, the objective of a business can not simply be profit, it has to create value for society at large, as well as for itself.
Ben Silbermann (CEO and co-founder of Pinterest) took part in a Q&A session with Christopher Dixon and kept surprising us with disarmingly candid answers to “hard-nosed” questions. When asked what product feature he was most excited about developing, he answered it was his team, because “your team should be the most interesting product you’re building”. A few minutes later, brushing away a question about whether he was concerned by the various attempts to copy or rip off Pinterest, he explained that their effort went into improving the product and making it the best it could be, not preventing others to imitate it. In his eyes, success comes from putting all your efforts into making your product and experience brilliant, and if others copy you, it probably means you’ve got it right.
And finally, against a backdrop of high risk, economic worries and general breakdown, I was surprised at how optimistically confused Bruce Sterling’s Ultimate talk left us all. He forecasted a move away from the chaotic “internet” and towards vertical stacks or platforms like Google, Amazon, or Facebook (more organized, less messy – an echo to the Skynet vs. Mad Max talk and its crowd-sourced prediction of Skynet’s victory)… but also the ulterior demise of stacks.
He didn’t say what they would be replaced with, but this legendary cynic seemed pretty optimistic about the ability of the interactive community to make sense of the “augmented, ubiquitous, post-stack future”.
In building this uncertain “new world”, we might find inspiration in community-based, generous value creation models like Kickstarter, Airbnb, or Task Rabbit (which were unanimously praised as the most inspirational things to have happened in the last 5 years).
But there is still a lot of work at hand, especially for our industry, in translating the inspiration from Geektopia into actionable ethics for the world of brands…
In the spirit of starting small, here are three things I’m going to start or do more of:
- 1. Get rid of any obsession with single-mindedness, and make sure to respect people’s intelligence by recognizing that “There is not one You”, as Christopher Poole pointed out
- 2. Broaden the definition of “Business objective” to entail the creation of value and values for consumers and society at large, not just profit for the company
- 3. Behave more generously everyday, by building great teams and empowering them to create and make even greater things
6th March 12
Posted in Uncategorized
Three days to go until the geek world descends on Austin for SXSW Interactive which if the ‘super grid‘ is anything to go by, will be more overwhelming than anything that has gone before. With marketeers, developers and Googler’s pouring into Texas in unprecedented numbers, we can’t hope to give more than the briefest taste of what we’re looking forward to. Our mission, as in previous years, is to learn, to re-engage and to discover – Labs will be out in numbers speaking, interacting and seeking whatever edge SXSW has left to offer.
SXSW is a great opportunity to connect with likeminded friends from around the world and meet other likeminds previously only known on twitter, google+ or blog comment threads. We’re excited to see Amber Case keynote an event of this scale, looking forward seeing old friends consider intent and the social web and we’ll be be queuing in the corridors to make sure we get a front seat at a stellar curation panel featuring Percolate, Longform and Maria Popova.
The great thing about SXSW is that there is something for everyone – whether your appetite is for The New Aesthetic, architecture or even Nick Denton, you’re covered. The Panel Committee were strict on submissions from Labs this year, but we’re thrilled with what slipped through their net of rigour. We’d humbly suggest that Mad Max Vs Skynet: The Battle for the Future, presented by our very own Mel Exon and Google Creative Lab’s Tom Uglow, is a must see. Labs will also be represented in Austin with the launch of our on-the-ground project, Homeless Hotspots.
As for Austin nights, it’s hard to know what level of blagging skills or extreme patience will be necessary to crash the numerous SXSW parties this year. This nice survival guide from GSD&M gives plenty of good tips, while we’ve enjoyed nights out at the Fray Cafe in years gone by. Great nights have been spent chewing the fat at a table next to one of Austin’s plentiful taco vans, and if things get weird, you can always head for the hills.
So whatever your thing, you’ll find it in Austin and we’re looking forward to seeing you there. Let us know where you’ll be, what time to meet up at Lego Corner, what you’re looking forward to and, most importantly, where we can find the best breakfast burrito.
10th February 12
Posted in Insight
Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London
When I went to school there were the Sports Guys and the Music Guys.
The Sports Guys liked doing circuit training, spraying Ralgex and making noises with their studs in the shower. The Music Guys wore heavy tweed overcoats, pored over the NME crossword and argued about the relative merits of Joy Division and Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King. I liked both categories, but fundamentally I guess I was a Music Guy.
I went to college equipped with Country Born hair gel, ‘fu shoes and Radio London mix tapes. I covered my walls with album covers from Wah, Defunkt and Echo and the Bunnymen. I danced all night to James Brown and Washington Go Go. (Mine was an awkward, heavy-shoe shuffle that alienated girls more than it attracted them.)
I confess I became somewhat pretentious. But I imagine it was an innocent sort of pretentiousness. A love of words and ideas and debate. Of music, books and film.
Obviously pretentiousness is somewhat silly and self-important, but that’s part of its charm. Look at Salvator Rosa in the self portrait above from the National Gallery. He’s painted himself as a sensitive, brooding philosopher , braving a dark, stormy world. He’s carrying a Latin inscription (natch) that reads ‘Keep silent unless you have something more important to say than silence’. How absurd, how pretentious, how cool…
Last summer I visited Charleston, the Sussex country home and social hub of the Bloomsbury art set between the wars. They painted the walls and furniture, they painted each other, they discussed pacifism, ballet and the global financial crisis. They made a show of drinking coffee rather than tea. To be honest I didn’t love all the decorative artwork and I wasn’t too sure about their sleeping arrangements. But I had to admire the fact that they had a view about the world, a design for living.
When I left college I fell into advertising as I thought it was one of the few professions where we Music Guys were welcome. Advertising is an art not a science, it’s creative persuasion, lateral thought. Advertising folk cultivated curious facial hair, absurd spectacles and MA1 Flight Jackets. I felt at home.
In the ’90s our Agency produced the Levi’s campaign and I recall it referencing Ansel Adams, Hunter S Thompson, Rodchenko, Bill Brandt, Burt Lancaster and more besides. Pretentious perhaps, but also bracing stuff.
Now let’s be clear. I’m certainly not a subscriber to the view that advertising is art. At its best it’s creativity applied to a commercial end. But I do believe that creativity needs to be inspired, catalysed and nourished by a broader set of cultural references and ideas.
Of late I’ve begun to wonder whether we Music Guys have lost our way and our voice a little. I’m concerned that there may not be enough people discussing arthouse movies, German dance troupes, experimental theatre. Shouldn’t the Agency be abuzz with fevered debate about Hockney and Hirst? Shouldn’t creative reviews be inspired by more than YouTube? I worry in fact that we have become less pretentious.
Perhaps people work so hard nowadays they don’t have time to develop what Denis Healey called a ‘hinterland’. Maybe it’s straitened times. We want to be seen as sensible, rational, commercial. Maybe it’s Anglo Saxon reserve. We apply a blanket pejorative to anything slightly outside the norms of conversation and thought. Perhaps it’s British anti-intellectualism. Our TV is dominated by unreality shows, costume anti-dramas, middle brow mundanity (what Simon Schama recently labelled ‘cultural necrophilia’). Our Queen prefers Lambourn to Glyndebourne. Our Prime Minister prefers tennis to Tennyson. And his favourite read is a cook book. Maybe we’re just too busy jogging.
Whatever the source of the problem, l’ve come to rue this loss of pretentiousness. I wish people more often cited the marginal and the maddening, the absurd and the abstruse from the world of art, academia and literature. Not just because it’s interesting, challenging, funny. But because today’s obscure eccentric is tomorrow’s bright young thing. Because creativity’s favourite bedfellows are difference and diversity.
So I’ve determined that I’m going to be pretentious in 2012. And I’ll encourage everyone else to do the same.
Honi soit qui mal y pense…