Bits to Blogs to Bots – Goodbye from @Melex

A few weeks ago Mel Exon (yes, that @melex), BBH Labs co-founder and BBH London MD, broke the news that she was leaving the Black Sheep pastures for, er, pastures new. It’s taken us a while to get over the trauma but we’ve managed to prise this piece from her, covering Labs, nineteen years at BBH (yes, 19!) and some typically righteous thoughts about advertising culture. So get yourself a cup of tea (or perhaps a perfect manhattan in tribute to Mel), sit back and enjoy. 

Thank you Mel, and keep on keepin’ on.


19 years' worth of career detritus

19 years’ worth of career detritus


It’s something of a tradition at BBH Labs to ask a leaver to write a farewell post as they depart. As co-founder of Labs, I’ll admit this feels a little weird. Not least because a hell of a lot of water has passed under the bridge since that day:

No-one asks what’s all the fuss about any longer.

“Innovation” and “digital transformation” are words that are used a lot and not delivered upon nearly as often as anyone would like to admit.

We’ve made new agency models and then we’ve revised them.

The blogosphere morphed into the social web which made everyone a publisher now, goddammit. Or, in fact, a bot.

Over the past decade, Moore’s Law died and software is eating the world as the social web, mobile and the cloud between them change, well, everything.

And if that weren’t enough, AI is the new mobile. Boy, have we been waiting for this. Like, really waiting.

But when we founded Labs it wasn’t so. The Turing Test had not been passed. No Whatsapp, no Snapchat, no Instagram, Facebook had barely stepped out of college dorms and YouTube had launched just a couple of years previously.

There were so few people on Twitter we actually went to tweet-ups to meet other users IRL. Over the years we were lucky to get to know the people connected to creativity, technology and media who were brave enough and stupid enough to put their heads above the parapet; to voice their thoughts and opinions, to test and put stuff into the wild. I refuse to call this a ‘community’, but this is a group Labs and I are indebted to, whether they know it or not. A particular hat tip to @malbonster and every single member of the @madebymany crew, @brainpicker, @markcridge, @cindygallop, @cdixon, @saraewilliams, @anjali28, @sprinzette, @faris, @bud_caddell, @conradlisco, @danlight, @amelia_torode, @katylindemann, @garethk, @thaz, @edwardboches, @soulkat, @ivanovitch, @lenkendall, @teaellu, @caseorganic, @neilperkin, @katiedreke, @jemimakiss, @aleksk, @inakiescudero, @cotton, @sandoz, @mikearauz, @hellokinsella, @adliterate, @iboy, @r2rothenberg, @hondanhon, @willsh @jtwinsor, @iaintait, @nickfarnhill, @nikroope, @jessgreenwood, @slavin, @utku, @heyitsnoah, @brianjeremy, @uberblond, @ladygeek aka @belindapalmer, @tobybarnes, @kathrynparsons, @rickliebling @nicoleyershon and to my BBH Labs comrades-in-arms over the years, @glickglick, @patsmc, @endofu, @marcowens, @benshaw, @helenium, @jamescmitchell, @saneel, @jeremyet and of course Labs co-founder, @malbonnington, who wrote his own farewell post here, still well worth the read.

In setting up BBH Labs towards the end of 2007, Ben and I wrote a business plan heavily inspired by the principles behind Lockheed Martin’s skunkworks. But the truth is our plan bore little resemblance to what Labs then became. In fact I’m fairly certain that BBH Labs has survived thus far because of – not despite – a liminal, ever-evolving and gossamer-thin definition of its goals.

Its purpose was simple though. To think and experiment with emerging stuff (read: new behaviours and new technologies), in the hope we’d develop other stuff (read: prototype processes, products and agency models) that might prove useful down the road. Later, when the word “innovation” became so overused it started to lose meaning, we called ourselves a “marketing R&D unit” instead. Not sexy, but broad enough to let us do our thing.

Labs was not, and is not a gadget shop, a future trends report factory, nor a conference, although we have always attempted to give back to the conferences where we’ve learned the most over the years.

Labs has made money, but it is not a money-making endeavour held to a commercial target every year. If anything, it’s been a mistake-making machine. And boy, have we made mistakes, infuriating an entire industry and occasionally sparking outrage despite our best intentions.

The real purpose has always been to learn, publicly and privately. Openly exposing our thinking (and our ignorance) outside the walls of BBH directly increased our velocity and improved our output. Giving our ideas away meant others repaid us ten times over with their feedback and their own ideas about how to make the work better. Despite years of hearing the opposite, we learned that openness doesn’t make you weak, it makes you strong.

Back then, it felt like we were working in an industry culture that seemed trapped in a box of its own making, chasing its tail and chewing on its nails with a mix of boredom and tamped down disquiet.

So we also wanted to rediscover some of the stubborn, deep irreverence of this industry’s past and learn to love a steep learning curve again.

A cycle began to emerge, where we would then attempt to apply the useful learnings before heading out in discovery mode again, rinse and repeat. The ad industry certainly had some (un)conscious knowledge and skill gaps, but we knew those were gaps that could be closed. The much more fundamental issue was cultural: which companies were prepared to evolve, which people wanted to adapt?

In fact if there is one, overriding thought I take with me now, it isn’t an ill-advised soundbite about the future of marketing or a breathless observation about technology (although there are at least eleven, bona fide reasons to be excited about that).

It is this: culture is strategy.

I joined a place like BBH for the work, I stayed for the culture.

Back in 2007, I was lucky to be part of a company that was prepared to take risks. To let a few people remove themselves from the lucrative commercial food chain that was the ad business and “to cut the apron strings’ with the mother ship…or else you won’t bring back anything useful” (Gwyn Jones). A culture unapologetically obsessed with creativity and difference, and with making the work better.

Just like brand strategies, the strongest organisational cultures are both distinct and consistent. Basecamp’s Jason Fried puts this much better than I can:

“You don’t create a culture. Culture happens. It’s the by-product of consistent behaviour..the result of action, reaction, and truth…real culture is patina.”
~ Jason Fried, ‘You don’t create a culture’, 2008

As an expression of culture, one of the three founders of BBH, John Bartle, gave a speech when he left the agency in December 1999 which has stayed with me. He spoke about the enemies of creativity, or “the 3 ‘C’s”, as he called them:

and Conservatism.

Thinking about what I’ve learned about culture from everyone I’ve worked with, I want to add another 3 ‘C’s to John’s list, three allies of creativity:

and Compassion.

Starting with CARE.

“People know when something has been made with care or carelessness.”
~ Jony Ive

It’s often seen as not cool to look like you care, but I’d urge us all to stop giving a sh*t about that.

I’m not the first person to acknowledge the inconvenient truth that almost nothing great is won easily. But then ease isn’t the goal, excellence is.  The writer Kate Mosse, when repeatedly asked what makes her successful, says she replies along these lines:

“It’s almost embarrassingly simple. I work hard. At first it’s about completing the famous 10,000 hours that make you competent at something – you don’t just start running a marathon or become a concert pianist overnight. But it’s also about the time you spend in the moment, rewriting and rewriting the sentence in front of you until it’s perfect.”

I distinctly remember joining BBH in 1997 and being told in my first week that the agency was “definitely over”. But the thing about companies like BBH is that they never give up. Wherever we end up working, for the work to stay great over decades not days, we have to care: stay hungry, stay positive and Do. Not. Drop.The. Bar. For. Anyone.

Onto my second ‘C’… CURIOSITY.

Dustin: “I have a science question. Do you know anything about sensory deprivation tanks, specifically how to build one?”

Mr Clarke: “Erm…why don’t we talk about it Monday, after school, okay?”

Dustin: “You always say we should never stop being curious, to always open any curiosity door we find.. (shouts) WHY ARE YOU KEEPING THIS CURIOSITY DOOR LOCKED?!”~ Stranger Things, Series 1, Chapter 8 “The Upside Down” (Netflix)

I’m fairly sure that simple curiosity was at the root of why we started Labs. Dissatisfaction and discomfort with the status quo had a hell of a lot to do with it too, but wasting our breath dissing the old – or the new for that matter – wasn’t going to get us very far.

Instead stubborn, relentless curiosity turns out to be the single best way to break new ground. Although genuinely ‘new ground’ rarely looks particularly pretty or, for that matter, easy to reach. Nor is it popular. One of the phrases I’ve held onto grimly is borrowed wholesale from an old BBH endline for Levi’s – Originals never fit. (It’s also a critical reminder that having a like-minded client like Kenny Wilson makes life a lot better and easier).

Curiosity also helped us deal with change. Being curious meant embracing new technologies at their gawky teenager stage, getting to know them before their rough edges were chamfered away and they grew to become our titanic overlords. We simply learned more that way. Under a decade ago the social web was being laughed at, mobile was still dismissed, VR and AR were initially ignored, not to mention the fact that many of us are faintly scared of Artificial Intelligence right now…. But let’s not shy away. In the words of Nigel Bogle: run at the future, not away from it.

Not least because user behaviours inexorably change and evolve. Irregularly, sometimes frustratingly slowly, sometimes so quickly it takes your breath away. But they always change.

So far, so obvious. But I suspect it follows that “change programs” are inherently foolish endeavours. By the time one is completed, a new one’s needed. If we have to subject ourselves to a training program, let’s coach ourselves to be adaptive instead. To help us cope with the fear of looking stupid and learn to love learning again. As my friend Pelle puts it, “the agency of the future is one that can change.”

To get inspired, I highly recommend reading science fiction like Alice Sola Kim’s (thank you to Lenny Letter for that tip).

And listening to podcasts that explore the edges. There will be at least a grain of truth to nibble on and hell, if it’s a little weird or tangential, roll with it. Our minds are elastic: they like being stretched.

As I write this, I can sense the tension between two thoughts here: on the one hand, the consistent behaviours that create real company cultures and, on the other, the need for those same companies to be adaptive. My simplistic answer is to add them together: a strong culture is consistently adaptive. Let’s hope so.*

A curious mindset will also make you want to listen to and debate with different voices. If you’re lucky, a little while later, surrounded by a team of skilled, different-in-every-way and collaborative people you may feel you’ve formed the creative equivalent of Voltron. Super cool.

Certainly, people who don’t look like me or sound like me have done the most to help me see new corners of the universe, they have made the work better and the process of getting there way more exciting.

Which leads me, finally, to COMPASSION.

Look up the definition of compassion and it can sound passive, pitying. Even, god forbid, patronising coming from someone who’s grown up as a white, cis, middle class English girl. Instead, I’d rather define compassion as the urgent need to keep looking outside of ourselves.

At its most business-like – putting the human, egalitarian aspect of diversity to one side for a second – excellence and difference in output demands real diversity of input.

So it’s shameful that we still work in an industry where we have to keep correcting for the biases women face, the biases anyone of colour, anyone LGBT+ and anyone not born with a silver spoon in their mouth faces every single day until we reach equality.

But we do. If you’re still not sure how to act now, you can start by following these simple actions courtesy of Laura JB, Nadya, Karen and everyone who took part in the Great British Diversity Experiment.

And if you run a company, just do it already.

Then, once your own house is in order, it’s time to look outside. In 1965, Jackie DeShannon sang:

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love,

No, not just for some, but for everyone.”

Those lyrics may sound like a romantic hippy ideal, but 1965 was the year Malcolm X was assassinated and US combat troops were sent to Vietnam. Right now, with everything that’s going backwards politically and socially around the world and right on our own doorstep, let’s take those lyrics to our hearts.

And particularly our hearts in fact. The atomic unit of a creative business is an idea. A well expressed idea, big or small. We have this incredible super power: creativity that can move people to act, to persuade, to make them laugh and cry.

Let’s use that super power. Keep caring about the work, be curious, become urgently more compassionate. Be part of real cultures that make us proud.

To borrow shamelessly from Queen Bey herself: let’s get in formation.

>melex sys.exit<


*As I get older, I notice the intrinsic duality to life more and more. The ongoing crop of opposing ideas and opinions, not to mention the ambiguities we have to navigate en route to getting something useful into the wild. Trying to do this without quietly losing your mind is the new normal, so let’s take comfort in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words: “The test of a first rate intelligence is to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”


Common Sense, Dancing

Author, Agathe Guerrier, Head of Strategy, BBH Labs and BBH London

What happens when you cram the Crème de la Crème of contemporary marketing thinking into the RSA, in front of an audience of senior agency planners (and a few clients)?

Heated intellectual debate and a widespread sense of existential industry angst, that’s what.

On the 2nd September 2015, the IPA gathered Byron Sharp, Russell Davies, Les Binet, Paul Feldwick and more for a day of intense marketing “Unlearning”. It was like condensing the half dozen most influential books recently published on the subject of brand strategy, into a single day. And then I’ve just condensed that day into a succession of little one-sliders, one for each speaker (see slides 4 to 33). You’re welcome.

(For more books you won’t need to read, follow Matt Boffey’s excellent weekly Booknotes in the Drum)

It was a really fun, inspiring and brilliant day – but I couldn’t help thinking that we (= the planning community) were making it all sound more complicated and dramatic than it needs to be.

Here’s what I took out of the event:

  • There isn’t a “silver bullet strategy” – a single solution that works every time. The best strategists are those who are fluent in all the various theories and approaches, and based on whatever problem they’re faced with, use a mix of logic and imagination to pick one, combine a few, or even make up their own.
  • Each of the “theories” that were presented and debated on the day, tends to lend itself particularly well to a specific type of brand or issue (again see slides 4 to 33, and thanks to Dare’s Toby Horry who suggested this simple trick on the day).
  • The debate between people who see brand building as an art, and those who see it as a science, has gone on for years. It’s been exacerbated in the recent years by the parallel rise of Data + Behavioural Economics + Digital transformation – but it’s not new.
  • All the evidence points to the fact that it’s actually a mix of both emotional/ long-term/ brand building and rational/ short-term/ sales driving strategies that drives the best results.

So, how do we help brands grow?

By doing two things in combination:

  1. Remove barriers to usage or purchase by ensuring the product/ service works very well and is widely available. Think hard about whether new entrants could seriously disrupt the brand’s route to consumers by removing barriers that were thought of as immovable.
  2. Make the product or service really sticky mentally, emotionally and functionally by creating memorable assets/ features that are distinctive and salient.

So… There you go. Having basically cracked “strategy” (with a little help from my friends), now feels like a good moment to bow out. I’m leaving BBH and BBH Labs this week. I’m off to do new and different things that will still probably remain connected to brands, people, and technology’s ability to impact our lives.

It’s been a wonderfully ride, and I’m hugely honoured to have been heading up Labs for the last 3 years. I leave you in the safe hands of Jeremy and the BBH crew. Please stay in touch.

Transform and Roll Out

And so, it is with major regret that we see our very own Optimus Prime, @saneel, leave the Lab and BBH. Happily he’ll be staying in the extended family, launching a soon-to-be-announced innovation offering being incubated at VivaKi. So I guess he has a new world to call home.

Personally, I’m going to miss the magic mix of insanely high-speed processing, megawatt brain and heart, motor mouth and deeply droll, bone-dry sense of humour that is Mr Saneel Radia. There aren’t many people who give such volume, value and velocity, whilst staying ice cool under pressure. He’ll hate me for saying this, but his final post here shares some useful lessons that demonstrate all of the above.

We wish him all the best. Go well, friend. (Mel, 29.01.13)

Dear BBH,
Well that was a crazy ride, no? From my first day to my last, we’ve had one of the most unique relationships I can imagine. I should have known I was in for something special when someone I respect as much as Ben recruited me, and about 100 days later said “I have bad news and good news”  (‘I’m leaving’ and ‘you’re in charge’, respectively).

You let me be whoever I wanted to be, and for that I’m eternally grateful. You never questioned me as a strategy lead, an account lead, or a creative lead– even when I kinda questioned myself.What’s most awesome is that I was never forced into a particular bucket, but you made me better at all of them because I was surrounded by people (everyone?) who could do it at a whole different level. I mean, pitching creative ideas to people like John and Pelle? Talking brands with Emma and Sarah? Of course I got better at all of it. It’d be impossible not to.

And thanks for being committed to innovation the way you are. In an industry that should be under arrest for assault based on its treatment of that word, this place continues to be a beacon of hope for people with different ideas. Any company that has someone like Mel around is going to have misfits ringing the doorbell daily. I’m just happy someone answered even though I was dressed in bright colors.

Finally, thanks for all of the lessons I’m taking with me as I move on. It’s impossible to document them all in a post, but these ring most loudly in my ears as I head off:

Small ideas are kinda hot.
I originally came to BBH because I couldn’t think of a place with “bigger” ideas. It turns out my favorite things were the small ideas. Working with interns 10 weeks at a time forces small ideas into greatness. Working with a company like Google, that regularly reminds you how bloated all your shit is (they were right more often than I’d like to admit), forced ideas into their purest form. Or sometimes it’s just not having enough time for anything bigger. Regardless, I fell in love with small. Mainly because of how big it can be. (Special thanks to Tim Nolan for aiding me along in this particular journey.)

The volume of noise isn’t indicative of the sentiment.
Homeless Hotspots was a media frenzy. There was a full cycle of negativity, then acceptance, then full-blown defense on our behalf. Yet from the beginning to the end, nothing but a positive impact on homelessness ever mattered; for the vast majority of people who care about such a thing (and have spent time with the homeless), their support always outweighed the negativity, no matter how loud the noise got. In fact, there was some genuinely productive, well meaning criticism we adopted as our work with the homeless has continued to evolve. It’s easy to see the difference now, but when the volume dial is set quite high, it can be a lot tougher. That’s clarity I’ll always take forward with me.

The greatest disservice one can do to their team is accepting their shitty work.
I’ve seen some really good days, and some really bad days in my 3-or-so years here. Almost unilaterally the bad days were the result of people not speaking up (myself included). When they were just too damn polite, or agreeable. Sure, it’s awkward sometimes. It’s uncomfortable every now and again. And yeah, you have to be able to speak “British” on occasion. But everyone worth a salt would rather make better work than have a good meeting. This is a lesson so many people have learned, but it took being at a place with a culture of mutual, fiery respect for me to truly appreciate it. I’m just glad you would tell me when I was shoveling shit.

With the right carrot, even the weary can be motivated.
It was a weird feeling, helping lead a city-wide effort to recruit LeBron James within weeks of moving here. But there I was, living in corporate housing, bonding with New Yorkers of every socio-economic class to create a movement to bring the world’s greatest athlete to the world’s greatest city. In the end, the goal was to get notoriously jaded New Yorkers to talk about their beloved city, and by that measure, holy smokes it was successful… even if LeBron took his talents to South Beach. The lesson stayed up north though: for all the user participation nonsense from brands, it’s ultimately the right carrot that gets people involved. Keep it simple (and timely), stupid.

Alright, BBH. I won’t drag it on any longer. I certainly could. I’m leaving a better, smarter, more creative person than I arrived. That’s a transformation I’m really excited about.

And all it took were a thousand sleepless nights and my liver….