Dance Lessons

Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London

Asphodel Meadows, choreographed by Liam Scarlett

I attended a talk by the top Royal Ballet choreographer and dancer, Liam Scarlett. He is only 26, but he has already choreographed two exceptional ballets for the main stage at Covent Garden. And he still finds time to dance in the company.

Scarlett was discussing how he approached creating his 2011 work, Asphodel Meadows, around a particular piece of music, Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto. One could be intimidated, he said, by the scale and complexity of the Concerto. Where to start? How to break into the task? Whereas with narrative ballet there is a natural sequencing to follow, with an abstract work there is no obvious entry point. He explained that his own process was first to identify the ‘epicentre’ of the music, its emotional core. He knew that if he could just design the pas de deux around a particular romantic passage in the second movement, everything else would follow. Having got to the emotional heart of the music, he could work outwards to the rest of the piece.

I am often in meetings nowadays when a Client demands an idea that is media neutral, that extends across every channel, region, product and form of engagement. All the colours, in all the sizes.  Such a panoramic demand can be rather intimidating. And I have found that telling the Creative Department we need to cover the walls with ideas is not entirely helpful.

I suspect that, following Scarlett’s lead, the key to cracking this kind of challenge is not to consider it in its totality or in the abstract. Ideas tend to be born in the specific. The key is to find the epicentre of the task, to find its emotional heart. (more…)

Commercial Karma

Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London

Memories light the corners of my mind
Misty,water colored memories
Of the way we were.

~ Barbra Streisand, The Way We Were

Barbara Streisland, image:

I attended the Damien Hirst show at the Tate Modern. Flies and fags, butterflies and bling, spin and spots, drugs and death… There. You don’t need to see it now.

I walked away somewhat hollow. I felt a pang of guilt and recognition. Guilt because Hirst was in many ways the adman’s artist. Art that came with a nudge, a wink and a knowing punchline. Art as quick hit, shiny bright, paper thin. Recognition because, yes, that was Britain in the ’90s. Spin doctors and Spice Girls, boy bands and man bags, heroin chic and Shabba Ranks, lads and Loaded, puffas and Prozac, Wonderbra and Wonderwall, alcopops and Posh & Becks. Fool Britannia…. There was no god, no beauty, no other. Just money and death and irony. Things could only get worse…

I’m not sure I blame Damien Hirst. I suspect he’s a very good artist. He was very effectively holding a mirror up to us and our values. Or lack of them. And I suspect each generation gets the art it deserves. Flies and fags was maybe all we were good for in the ’90s.

Don’t you also think that we get the advertising we deserve? As an Agency, as a Client, as a culture ? When we hark back to a golden hued, bygone age of celestial communication, are we not condemning our own failure to create greatness now? When the disappointed Client fires the disappointing Agency, isn’t he or she shirking personal responsibility? When we rail against cruel fate and happenstance, when we bemoan the recession, or reach for the blame gun, shouldn’t we be looking in the mirror first?

I believe in commercial karma. That, broadly speaking, in advertising as in life, we reap what we sow. That what goes around comes around. Not for some spiritual, counter cultural, gaia-type reason. But because, though it seems trite to say it, in the long run, smart, open minded Clients, working with intelligent, lateral Agencies, for honest, worthwhile brands, will make better, more effective work. And vice versa.

I guess I have witnessed exceptions to this. The craven creative, the malevolent marketing director, the bullying business director have on occasion won the day. But overall in my experience fakes are found out, charlatans are shopped. Good prevails.

Instant karma’s gonna get you
Gonna knock you right on the head
You better get yourself together
Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead

~ John Lennon, Instant Karma

John Lennon, image:

Of course in the past one had to wait for hubris to be followed by inevitable nemesis. Nowadays the social web has created a kind of instant karma. Because the courtroom of public opinion is so immediate and all seeing. It shines an unforgiving,instantaneous light on the ill conceived and poorly executed. It likewise rewards the virtuous with currency and value.

I had always believed that Corporate Social Responsibility was exactly that: a responsibility that a business owed to the communities it served. I wasn’t so enamoured of more fashionable phrases like social investment because I didn’t feel ethics needed commercial justification.  And I wasn’t convinced CSR had a role in marketing or brand.

Now I have been persuaded that ethics are more than a responsibility. They are fundamental to a brand’s sustainability in a transparent, socialised world. Because increasingly consumers are unwilling to buy good products from bad people. Because in a world of commercial karma only the good Clients, good admen and good brands can win.

That’s Entertainment: #wywo online films

(click above image to view them all now)

Earlier this month we released a nifty little iPhone specific web app for the connected set. While we were off building it, (you see what we did there) we decided to produce some quirky promotional films to support the app’s launch.

We crafted short narratives that extended the comedic tone of the application, and helped explain the usefulness of While You Were Off through a series of possible situations may have kept you offline and away from the glorious Internet. Watch them all on our Youtube Channel.

I Feel For You

Jules et Jim (1962, Francois Truffaut)

Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London

I was watching the splendid Truffault film, Jules et Jim. There’s a scene in which Jules, courting the mercurial Catherine, endeavours to impress her.

‘Catherine, I understand you’, he says.

Catherine replies,’ But I don’t want to be understood.’

I paused for thought. Don’t we spend our lives trying to understand consumers? What if, like Catherine, they don’t want to be understood? Understanding implies explanation, logic, rationality. And, critically, it suggests control. Which is precisely, I suspect, why Catherine didn’t want to be understood.

As a young Planner I’m not sure I completely understood the behaviour, ethics and attitudes of British consumers. But I did feel a strong sense of empathy with them. I felt for them in a way. I wonder now whether I’ve lost some of that natural, instinctive judgement. I wonder whether, in a data fuelled world, we have a diminished regard for feelings in our engagement with consumers.

A friend of mine occasionally dismisses films she did not enjoy with the simple assertion that she ‘did not feel it’. As an Anglo Saxon I was originally somewhat nonplussed. Surely a fuller explanation would help? Similarly we were always taught to grill Clients on their responses to work, to demand that they account for their instinctive immediate reactions. Now I wonder whether I have been wrong on both counts: in the way I expect my friends to assess movies and my Clients to judge work.

Shouldn’t  feelings always trump understanding? Shouldn’t feelings suffice?

Do you ever find it a little sinister when modern marketers promise to translate data into knowledge, and knowledge into sales? I do. I confess ‘hidden persuasion’ has never been my bag. I don’t aspire to that level of control.Of course we all want the web to be all-knowing, but should I want it to know all about me? Personally I don’t want the web to know me; I want it to feel me. And I find the prospect of an empathetic, all-feeling web increasingly attractive. Who am I to talk? I’m generally uncomfortable with unfiltered emotional expression. I shudder at the prospect of corporate hugs. Nonetheless, I return to work with a modest resolution: in 2012 I want to base more of my judgements on empathy and feeling, rather than on logic and understanding. And I’d like the web to do the same please.

Chaka was, as ever, right all along. ‘I feel for you’…

Missing Texture

Wouldn’t it be nice to smell the internet? Well, thanks to the clever chaps at Mint Foundry this might soon be possible.Their concept product, the punningly named Olly (details at!) will convert tweets, checkins, likes or other digital notifications and blast out an arduino-powered whiff across your keyboard. So now every William Gibson tweet can smell like a long-chain monomer and every checkin at a Starbucks  like fresh roasted coffee. Sadly you will need two Olly’s to experience the double hit of Testosterone and Smug released whenever Piers Morgan tweets @Simon Cowell.

The interesting thing about the Olly is that it is an attempt to add texture to wholly digital experiences. A decent proportion of my last job was spent arguing with people about page-turning animations in ebooks – I felt that they were a legacy metaphor and had no place in a purely digital experience. There are definitely things about the physicality of a book that would be great to transfer to an ebook. For example, knowing when you are nearing the end of a book by the distribution of weight in your hands feels different from the knowledge that you are on page 1324 of 1346. Such additions would add both context and texture to the ereading experience, wheras the page-turning animation is texture without context.


Brett Victor’s much-discussed rant (his word) on the ubiquity of the finger-swipe in visions of future interfaces suggests a disquiet with what is being sacrificed in the quest for frictionless interaction. As touchscreens increasingly become our interface to the web it is healthy that there are those out there documenting what we are losing whilst everyone else, including us at BBH Labs of course, celebrates the gains. Will the sound of an optical drive go the way of the rotary phone dial or an analogue tape rewinding or these other disappearing noises?

So, are we adding textures such as smells and page-turning animations because digital is less sensuous than the physical world? When we create new digital experiences should we think about adding textured UX as well as intelligent UI? And as brands transition more and more to digital marketing initiatives, should we worry about what sensory experiences they and we are losing, out here in meatspace?

Update 9 jan 2012: If you want your workstation to smell like teen spirit every time @justinbieber presses ‘send’ then you should head over to kickstarter where there’s a month left to back the project to make the dream reality!

99% Attitude

Kotka @ Club Re, Krakow

Author: Nicky Vita (@stellavita), Strategy Director, BBH London

A few weeks ago, I was at the Temple Synagogue in Krakow’s historical Jewish district, Kazimeirz. It was the closing night for Unsound, an avant-garde music festival with the central theme of “Future Shock”.

As a whole, Unsound deliberately defies expectations – about how music should sound, how music genres should/ shouldn’t fit together, who should be collaborating, whom we expect to create modern music or art and even what ‘modern music’ actually means.

This – along with the music – got me thinking about a project I’ve been working on for client of ours, around ‘the lofty subject of human progress’ and what this means today. In a recent international survey, 96% of respondents agreed that‘It is important for me to continually improve as a person’. Ordinary people wanting to do extraordinary things.

While the desire to move forward is not new, the context or the approach required to achieve this has shifted radically. In the past, the key ingredients were focus, stamina and the wherewithal to keep slogging until the finish line. Tow the line.

And now? Well, there may not be a clearly defined ‘there’ or final end goal. There are fewer linear paths, one-way ladders and singular directions. The “tried & trusted” is no longer appropriate and all the rulebooks have been ripped up. Seemingly more than ever, people want to advance themselves. Technology is an especially great enabler. However, what you actually need to do to achieve this progress is less clear than ever before.

At a global level, this thought is either hugely terrifying or massively exciting. And what emerges is that the key to ‘success’ today is having the right attitude. Glancing at modern role models and entrepreneurs across the world, it isattitude that they have in common. No rules means you can try anything, explore everything, break things up and put them together in completely different ways.

Much of what I saw at Unsound reflected this attitude, so I thought I’d outline a few underlining principles for progressing in today’s modern world…

Retain a youthful mindset.

1960s pioneer Morton Subotnick & 1980s synth performers Chris & Cosey (ex-Throbbing Gristle) belonged at the festival as much as young, incoming acts such as Pontone (Poland) and Laurel Halo (USA). Curiosity, creativity and experimentation do not age.

Keep it open.

Music genres don’t sit in boxes. Or rather, amazing things can happen when you don’t assume that they should. Hype Williams threw together R & B, techno and dark ambient, coupled with constant strobe lights, to create a visceral, challenging performance. Trying different things and putting them together in unusual ways can create something special.

Lantern Awareness.
A wonderful term I picked up from Google’s Tom Uglow a while ago, speaking passionately about the wonderful things that could happen if we stopped focusing & opened up our awareness to the things going on around us. Every artist had taken a deliberate step away from his or her known individual sound and had nicked, borrowed or repurposed from the experiences around them. To capture this spirit, we’ve created team ‘Lantern Sessions’, as simple as a quick chat about the things that are exciting us or a good excuse to get out of the office and to an exhibition. Less focus creates more enhanced encounters.

Be bold.

With experimentation and exploration comes inherent risk. Some of what I saw and heard was massively improvised. Leyland Kirby’s mad video of his life on the road, wrapped up by a mimed rendition of Elton John’s ‘Can you feel the love tonight?” could have gone horribly wrong. It didn’t. Trying new things means allowing yourself to be at least a little open to potential failure.

Live in the moment.

For me, the entire festival was an immersive, immediate experience. This may sound obvious (being a music festival), but I came back feeling more excited about life because I’d allowed myself to be completely absorbed in an experience. If everyone there came away with this same feeling, you can feel confident that this will soon be manifested in a future performance, track or video. Soak up every encounter.

Go with your gut.

Everyone at Unsound was passionate about music. Not in a rational ‘let’s think about why this works’ way. It was much more of an emotional ‘how the music makes you feel’ way. Things were being put together in ways that were intuitive and based on gut impulses. Great things can happen when you go with the rhyme instead of the reason.

It’s about substance.

There were few ‘big names’ and while many of the artists were successful in their own right, at Unsound they were respected for their spirit, energy & experimentation in the moment. What you do matters more than what you have.

Act like an entrepreneur.

What makes an entrepreneur great is a bit of charisma. While many artists were there to perform, they were also there to create opportunities for future collaborations & endeavours, to show a difference side to themselves. Curiosity and a ‘can do, will do’ attitude is what made them interesting. Not so difficult is it?

The closing down party…

None of this might strike you as particularly groundbreaking. Steve Jobs spoke openly about the importance of connections, of being allowed to fail, of the opportunities that come up when you’ve tried different things. Einstein believed in experimentation and playfulness. Tom Uglow wondered what could happen if we all quit our jobs, played more and got closer to the edges. What is striking for me is that this attitude is shifting the way people think about progress at a universal level. This is not about the super elite, the super eclectic, the technologists at Google or Facebook or Labs, even. Sure, I am referencing some edgy artists, playing at a festival you’ve never have heard of. But we’re also talking about ordinary people wanting to apply this attitude to create extraordinary things.

I think it’s tremendously exhilarating. Can you even begin to imagine the great things that would happen, the progress that would come about if we all lived this way?

I ♥ the echo chamber


We regularly fear living in an echo chamber (this is especially true for us because our blog serves as a feedback forum from regular participants, even if many of the inputs driving its content originate from industries unrelated to marketing). In fact, the foolish, mutual reassurance of ad folks is one of the most common criticisms of our industry. But recently a study came out that got me to reexamine the so-called echo chamber.

The report was authored by Sinan Aral (NYU, Stern School of Business) and Marshall Van Alstyne (Boston University, School of Management) and ran in the American Journal of Sociology. It can be downloaded here.

The historical thinking around how one gets new, diverse information via their networks has placed a tremendous amount of emphasis on “weak ties,” those people you don’t know very well and don’t speak to very often. The most often cited study in this work is by Mark Granovetter and was done in 1973, before the invention of the web and digital social networks. Letting an outdated study drive our thinking in this space is an issue, as it assumes technology is simply facilitating what was previously true about relationships, rather than evolving it.

What’s more modern and practical about Aral and Van Alstyne’s study is that it accounts for bandwidth. In a world of unprecedented connectivity and content generation, the format of information shared (say 140 characters of text) and the frequency with which it’s consumed have to be accounted for. It seems ridiculous this day and age to think the depth of my relationship with people is the determining factor of getting new information from them. Aral and Van Alstyne ask a more contemporary question than simply where new information comes from. They ask “where does one find the most novel information per unit time?” In other words, they’re accounting for bandwidth. You talk to closer ties more often and distant ties less often, a critical issue neglected in the previous thinking about the value of weak ties. Bandwidth is simply too important a factor to ignore in a world where contact across miles, economic classes, and belief systems is easier than ever—especially when said contact is frequently asynchronous.

Aral and Van Alstyne also discuss a point about strong ties I found interesting: those who know you well know what type of information is novel for you. That’s a filtering mechanism we know most readers of this blog employ regularly (just glance at how community members caveat and source what they share back to us as the managers of the blog).

This natural filtering is what’s really the heart of the matter because it addresses homophily (the idea that we surround ourselves with like-minded people, or more colloquially, “birds of a feather flock together”). People who think like us, seek out our blog. We do the same, following twitter accounts, listening to speakers, taking meetings with those we think are similar to us. Thus, the echo chamber, right? We all just tell each other what we want to hear, limiting our new thinking.

Wait a minute. As someone who has a core job responsibility of innovation (i.e., “the introduction of something new”—in this case to BBH), I should fear an echo chamber more than anyone. Instead, I’ve found this supposed echo chamber is inhabited by people that are my most efficient means of learning something new. When I find time to be in the stream, I’m inundated with novel information. That’s partially because I’m forced to filter people based on how frequently I expect to be engaged (“I want to hear anything she says, but she says so much I have to tune her out”—efficiency decisions relating to bandwidth). Simultaneously, the very people I choose to listen to are filtering for people like them (or should I say “us”?), wanting to avoid saying something they can only assume I know—otherwise I may just have to filter them.

It may be an echo chamber. But at its core is a virtuous circle.

Is That All There Is?

Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London

‘Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing.
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is.’

Peggy Lee, image via

I remember the first time I heard Peggy Lee singing the classic Leiber and Stoller number, ‘Is That All There Is?’. The heroine relates how, through the course of her life, experiences that may initially have been exciting, had in fact turned out rather tiresome. From her home burning down, to going to the circus, to falling in love. It’s a hymn to disappointment and apathy. Like most teenagers I had spent large chunks of my short time on the planet lying in my room being incredibly bored. In amongst the bubble gum pop and dinosaur rock of Radio 1, a song that celebrated ennui was a rare and precious thing.

I remember the first time I heard the Clash sing ‘I’m So Bored with the USA’. I was simultaneously shocked and excited. Could one really so publicly proclaim disappointment with the home of rock’n’roll, the land of the free, the country that had given us Barry Manilow, Boz Scaggs and The Sound Of Bread? Was that acceptable? Was that legal?

I remember the first time I saw the painting Ennui by Walter Sickert. The bored couple cannot be bothered to look at each other. One stares into space and the other at the wall. The blank generation. Tedium in oils. And yet so utterly compelling.

Ennui, by Walter Sickert

It’s a curious thing. Apathy, boredom and tedium seem such dull, passive, inert qualities. Yet they can be exciting, inspiring, disruptive.

And I wonder whether this particular truth is lost on us and our world. We claim to be consumer experts. But are we not in denial of the fact that most consumers, most of the time are just not that into our brand or category? They just don’t care. We sustain a myth that the primary communication challenge is lack of attention, when really, more often than not, it’s lack of interest. (more…)

The Birds That Sing At Night

'Blackbird singing in the dead of night' (image by Dia, via Flickr)

Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London

Sometimes recently I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and there have been birds singing in the street outside. Two or three o’clock in the morning, well before sunrise and they’re chirping away, casually, confidently.

I’m no ornithologist, but shouldn’t they be saving it for the dawn chorus?

Inevitably one is troubled by the abnormal. My initial concern was that their singing portended some dark event, an omen of impending doom.

But the world didn’t implode.

I wondered was I witnessing some form of ecological fallout? Was the nocturnal bird song an unnatural response to an unnatural environment?

The bird authorities’ website reassured me that our feathered friends sing primarily ‘to attract a mate and defend territory’ and that some species are just  happy to do these things at night.

I prefer to imagine that the birds outside my window are adapting to the modern world. Working, socialising, eating and courting on a more fluid, 24 hour, ‘always on’ basis.

Perhaps the collective unconscious of London sparrows has connected with humanity’s accelerating metabolism. Perhaps they’re embracing deconstructed social norms, flexible working, speed dating. Maybe this also explains the migrant foxes that have long since given up the tedium and conservatism of rural life for the bright lights and diversity of the metropolis.

I have always liked the idea that change is a social, collective thing. That we like to change together, that we are reassured by community even when that community is evolving in different directions.

I have sadly found it frustrating to entertain philosophies to which my Clients do not yet subscribe.

As a student I was taught that a society in some respects behaves like an orchestra. It assigns ‘in tune-ness’  to behaviours that are consistent with everyone else and it rejects abnormal behaviour as ‘out of tune’.

This of course has its downsides. But it’s reassuring to consider that, as we run at the future, we may be taking the the wildlife with us…

Can brands shift from co-presenting to co-viewing?

For those who don’t live in the UK or haven’t heard of it, Skins is a scripted show that promises a real depiction of Teen lives including the drugs, sex and rock-n-roll. This was a very popular show with Millenials 18-24 in the U.K. and appears to be just as popular here in the States. I’ve been fascinated by the advertisers who are scrambling to remove themselves from the MTV version of Skins due to the lack of ‘brand fit’ and backlash from Parent groups.

These Parent groups are calling the advertisers who are running ads in Skins sponsors, or co-presenters of ‘filth’. Let’s be honest, very few brands have values that would align with the values of the show. It’s easy for marketers to make a case not to place an ad in programming like this, even when the eyeballs are there.