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.

What Platform, Which Brand?

Author: Damola Timeyin, Social Strategist BBH London

Every year arrives with a glut of predictions about which technologies will experience ‘hockey stick growth’, which will ‘jump the shark’ and how brands will exploit these ‘new frontiers’. We as marketers we are as guilty as anyone of creating more questions about how brands should approach the opportunities, than we provide coherent answers. The result is a mixed bag of bold attempts, questionable executions and the occasional triumph.

The cynic in every marketer will argue just because a brand can, doesn’t mean they should, it’s haloed consumer space after all. The pragmatist, may accept the new order of things, acknowledge the potential and recognize the shift in consumer attitudes towards brands in these spaces.

Whether a cynic or pragmatist, before making the leap, a commitment should be made to apply better judgement when deciding where and how to proceed. Not just for the sake of the brand, but for the sake of the consumer on the receiving end of our communications.


Consumers are more likely to embrace brands who bring something complimentary to the party, whether that’s content or an experience, delivered in a way that reflects the consumer’s behaviour on that platform.

Platforms themselves are making it easier for brands to add value, Snapchat being a recent example of a platform that quickly embraced branded content and experiences, by building a non intrusive means for brands to communicate with users, through “Snapchat Discover”.

Whilst there’s an app for everything, there isn’t yet an emoji for every feeling. So recently Mentos made an appearance in messaging platforms by creating branded emoticons, which helped people to express these feelings in conversations in this space. Not only did these ‘Ementicons’ meet a need in a way that was in keeping with platform norms, it helped the brand to communicate with an audience on a platform where it’s difficult to cut through.

BBH’s latest campaign for Clarks’, ‘From Rats To Rudeboys: The story of the Clarks Desert Boot’ is an example of an idea with cultural relevance with a clear purpose; to re-establish the connection between the brand and an iconic shoe.

The cynic in us may see the campaign’s use of WhatsApp*, as an opportunistic choice, borne from the desire to connect with ‘millennials’ rather than the best way to deliver documentary content.

However the pragmatist considers the core of the idea; cultural stories from the past told from first person perspective today. Assess its components; stories told in film, audio, copy, photo and music formats over a fixed period. And crucially evaluates the audience behaviour, young individuals predominantly consume information about culturally significant events from peers and trusted news sources via mobile platforms.

Taking these factors into account, the experience of receiving a narrative of real life events, by the people who were there, would be diminished if there was no sense of immediacy. The user journey would be fragmented if content for a single narrative was distributed through multiple channels. The opportunity to personalise the experience lost, if there was no means to communicate directly with thousands at once. Using a platform a platform like WhatsApp, allows the brand to create immediacy, deliver a seamless and direct user experience, with mass personalisation that no other platform could facilitate.

What platform is right for what brand? As with most questions, the answer is of course, it depends. In this case it depends on the what the brand wants to do.

*To experience the final instalment of the ‘From Rats to Rudeboys’ experience, WhatsApp Jamaican Dj and Clarks Desert Boot trader, Major Stitch, on 07481495645 to hear his story.


21st Century Strategy, or the Art of Travelling without a Map

A couple of weeks back, I was invited to speak at the APG’s first Noisy Thinking event of 2015, inaugurating a series of talks on the subject of 21st Century Strategy. I was speaking alongside Neil Perkin of Only Dead Fish, Google Firestarters and soon Fraggl Fame, and Giles Rhys Jones from the start up revolutionising the world of location, What 3 Words.

Here’s a 2 minute summary of what I talked about. Or if you’ve got the luxury of a full 20 minutes, you can watch a video of the talk here and access other talks in the series, too!

1. In the 20th century, creative strategy was akin to (and often called) ‘planning’. It was about long-term, carefully thought-out and crafted, brand centric narratives. It left little room for experimentation, and failure wasn’t an option. In the world of military strategy, it was Napoleonian. Strategy was about establishing detailed battle plans – ahead of the battle. And in the world of navigation, it meant crafting itineraries ahead of every journey, detailing every twist and turn on the basis of a good map. It was often robust and visionary, but often also slow and heavy.

2. Then the digital revolution happened. Which meant two things. Firstly, the digitisation of every day life and purchase habits gives us an abundance of real-time data on what people actually do and what choices they make, and how initiatives are performing. Secondly, well, it’s a revolution – an on-going transformation of the consumer culture, economy, and media, which renders most previous knowledge of the terrain obsolete. We move from Napoleon battle plans to drone combat strategy – precise, short-term, reactive, ‘customer-centric’. The trusted A to Z becomes less relevant – as the geography is constantly changing, and we have new tools that enable us to orientate ourselves in the field.

3. But at which point does 21st Century Strategy become so tactical that it’s not even strategy any more? Some argue Big Data leads to total Un-Planning. If we know exactly what users do and want, and we have the ability to respond and optimise activity immediately and in market, what is the need for intermediaries? Well, maybe I’m just trying to justify my job title here – but that need is a need for purpose – vision, foresight, ambition. I agree with Alistair Croll’s diagnosis: an optimised life can just mean an average life. Ultimately, ‘relevant’ cannot trump ‘interesting’.  And so there is still a role for 21st Century Strategy to fill in the gap between planning and tactics.

4. Technology and data have changed the way in which we do strategy, just like Citymapper changes the way people navigate cities. But as Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat would say (I think), ‘if you don’t know where you want to do, Google Maps will be of no use to you’. And arguably, a fast-changing, responsive working culture makes the need for purpose and direction even more poignant. When decisions are taken quickly, it’s crucial that everyone is very clear on what motivates them. In Basset and Partners’ documentary Briefly, released last year, Frank Gehry talks about the importance of the brief as ‘clarity of purpose’. You could substitute ‘brief’ for ‘strategy’ throughout the entire video, and it works.

5. An over-reliance on data is dangerous. If you never look up from your phone or develop a sense of direction, you will definitely end up lost at some point, and you will probably have missed out on a lot of interesting sights along the way. Without context, a data point is just a data point – and you don’t know where you are.  More than ever, we need to be able to orientate ourselves in the wild. To maintain focus in times of changes. The more short term, fast paced and messy our environment becomes, the more we will need a framework to tell us where we are and where we are going.

6. So maybe 21st Century Strategy is the art of travelling without a map. It’s technical – using complex navigation instruments and diverse sets of information – AND instinctive at the same time. Strategists don’t like the word ‘AND’ – we like to sacrifice and focus. But in this instance, I don’t think we can chose any more. Nick Kendall recently argued  for the importance of bigger, not smaller ideas in a world that would have us believe that brands have run out of juice. Similarly, I believe that the real strategic challenge today, is to hold the holistic view of the brand, the one that reconciles a granular, data-led, tactical view, with the visionary, brand-led, transformative one.

7. Travelling without a map requires you to maintain a sense of direction above and beyond individual changes and movements. It is the ability to piece together a multitude of isolated, sometimes ambiguous or contradictory tacks into one purposeful journey. Finally – and this is very important, if you ever find yourself in the actual wild without a map – 21st Century Strategy is the calm in the storm. Everyone’s initial reflex, at being somewhere new and confusing, or maybe in a place that resists mapping, will be to panic. Business people don’t naturally like risk, uncertainty or ambiguity, which is surprising because real people are full of it. So ultimately, the role of the strategist is to provide a sense of confidence and steadiness. Because 21st century strategy may not always know how it’s going to get there, but it knows exactly where it’s trying to go.


BBH will be represented again at the next event in April, dedicated to young creative people and what excites them about our industry, so expect to read more from BBH youths on the subject of 21st Century Strategy here.

The Man That Didn’t Blink

Author, Jim Carroll, Chairman BBH London
First published in Advertising Week Europe supplement

Egon Schiele- Portrait of Albert Paris von Gutersloh
I knew a man who never blinked. It was quite discomfiting. I’d not considered blinking that important until confronted with its absence. This chap just seemed a bit odd, a little lacking in emotion. Was he perhaps an android? When talking to him I couldn’t avoid the impression that he was unnaturally certain of his own opinions. And that that blind certainty was what I was finding unattractive. I realised that, whilst I like the self-assured, absolute certainty can be troubling, alienating, disturbing.

I guess that’s why I’ve always responded better to leaders who, though boundlessly confident, exhibit a sensitivity to risk and doubt, a consciousness of paths not taken. I’m rarely convinced by absolute conviction.

For similar reasons I feel certainty in advertising has always been fool’s gold. Claude Hopkins wrote Advertising Science back in the 1920s. And science has given us analytical tools and techniques that have dramatically enhanced our understanding of consumers and our ability to communicate effectively. But, however much we may wish it, science has never given us certainty.

I recently attended a stage adaptation of the great Henry Fonda movie, 12 Angry Men. At its heart it’s a celebration of reasonable doubt, and an indictment of the unreasonable certainty that so many people carry around with them. I was struck by the idea that reasonable doubt is a force for good in society. Because life is an ongoing navigation of trade-offs, dilemmas and contrary preferences. Life isn’t about certainty.

In our business I’ve seen how, many a time and oft’, the quest for unreasonable certainty has actually fostered doubt and indecision. The pursuit of total proof can close windows of opportunity and analysis paralysis can inhibit bold leaps forward.

Recently we have all been redesigning the marketing model. We have embraced the vision of a customer engagement system that is more connected, more targeted, more knowing and less wasteful. Something that learns, creates, adapts and distributes in real time. But we should not imagine that any new model will deliver unreasonable certainty. All models need ideas to animate them. And the best ideas occur at the intersection of logic and magic, at the meeting point of rationality and emotion.

What is exciting about the modern age of marketing is the opportunity it affords us to explore this happy interaction between art and science. At BBH we’ve been talking a lot about High Performance Creativity. We believe that technology enables a more intimate relationship between creativity and performance, and that that intimacy will generate better, more effective work. We believe that data should not just be big; it should be strategically insightful and creatively inspiring. We believe that performance measures should not be backward looking proofs, but live, forward-facing guides. We believe that, while High Performance Creativity cannot promise certainty, it can deliver incredible potency.

I’m reasonably certain about this.

When Everyone Talks and No-One Listens

Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London
First Published in Hall&Partners magazine, Matters.

Max Schodl - Still Life with Samovar and Chinese Teacup

It’s often said of the characters in Anton Chekhov’s plays that ‘everyone talks,but no one listens.’ The cast of feckless aristocrats inhabit a troubled world of melancholy, loss and ennui. They speak endlessly at each other of their dreams and disappointments, but they rarely pause to listen. Their relationships seem compromised by their own emotional deafness, their solipsism. They live lives of empty chat and listless languor, punctuated only by another trip to the samovar.

I wonder has the world of brand marketing something in common with Chekhov’s? Could modern brands be accused of speaking without listening? Talking loud, but saying nothing? Always on project, never on receive? Do they sometimes come across as egocentric and emotionally needy?

Sign up, sign in, sign on. Check in, check out. Like me, friend me, share me. Blipp me, bookmark me. Rate me, recommend me. QR code me. Upload me, download me. Facebook me, fan me. Tweet me, re-tweet me. Hashtag why?

There’s a tremendous assumption in much current marketing that consumers have infinite time and attention to dedicate to brands, regardless of the category they represent or the content they serve up for them. With a wealth of new media channels available to us, it’s often easy to confuse talking with conversation, to mistake interaction for a relationship. And as long ago as the nineteenth century the writer HD Thoreau was observing,’We have more and more ways to communicate, but less and less to say.’

In my experience strong relationships tend to start with a little humility and self knowledge. The best advice for brands seeking a relationship might be: don’t talk too much and only talk when you have something to say.
But can contemporary brands really be accused of not listening? Surely all serious players nowadays manage substantial research and insight programmes. Surely we’re endlessly soliciting feedback, measurement and learning?

Well, yes, but are brands engaged in the right kind of listening?

To my mind much of modern research practice could be deemed ‘submissive listening’. ’Hello. What do you think of me? What do you think of how I look and what I do?  How would you like me to behave? Do you like what I’m planning to say to you? What would you like me to say?’

Is this the stuff of a healthy relationship? Surely brands’ engagement with consumers should begin from a position of equality and mutual respect, not submission and deference.

Au Pairs - Playing with a Different Sex

You’re equal but different. 
You’re equal but different
It’s obvious.
So obvious.

Au Pairs, It’s Obvious.

We could also categorise much of our research  as ‘reflective listening’: recording what people say, wear, like and do, so that brands can play it back later to them in communication. There’s an underlying assumption that consumers empathise with brands that share their values and outlook on life. I’m sure they do. But one man’s insight is another man’s cliche. And reflective listening, interpreted literally, often produces communication that is curiously unrewarding. Because dialogue is more than elegant repetition and relationships are more than an exercise in mimicry.

Surely listening and talking should exist in close proximity and dynamic relation to each other. It’s called a conversation. And you’ll find spontaneous, instinctive, organic conversations at the heart of any healthy, happy relationship.

Of course, the hyper-connected, real time world of the social web affords us an opportunity. It’s the opportunity to demolish the distance between listening and talking; to inspire conversations between brands and consumers; and thereby to create vibrant, enduring, sustainable relationships. It’s now possible for listening to drive brands’ thought and action, tempo and timing and we we should all be striving to put it back at the centre of our communication models.

There is, nonetheless, a nightmare scenario. What if brands continue to propel their mindless chatter through the infinite arteries of the electronic age, without respecting our audience’s limited time and attention? What if our attempts to listen continue to betray a submissive and reflective orientation towards consumers?

At the end of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, twenty year old Irina decides to give up on love before love gives up on her.

I’ve never loved anyone. I dreamed about it for a very long time – day and night – but my heart is like a piano that’s been locked up and the key is lost.

It’s one of the saddest lines in theatre. I worry that if we don’t start listening properly to consumers, then consumers will stop listening to us.

Talk Like a Tech Brand

Authors: Jim Carroll, Chairman & Nick Fell, Strategy Director, BBH London


From Art Game, by Leo Caillard

The Marketing World is in awe of tech brands.

It has visited the Valley, gathered at the Googleplex. It has listened to their leadership and consumed their case studies. It has invited them in for partnerships, hangouts and huddles. It has adopted their products, processes, principles and patter. It has acquired their interior design, appropriated their casual clobber.

But has the Marketing World learned how to talk like a tech brand? Is there an underlying assumption that tech brands can teach us how to behave, but not how to communicate? An ongoing suspicion that the engineer-led cultures of tech brands don’t quite ‘get’ communication?

We suspect the Marketing World has a long held, deep rooted belief that tech brands obsess too much about their own product and experiences; that they’re introverted.

Tech brands may make cool products, but they’re not so hot on insights and benefits, emotions and humanity. They don’t understand empathy. And whilst tech brands revel in the complex, coded and arcane, they’re not schooled in single-mindedness and sacrifice. They don’t know how to drill down or ladder up. They may get big data, but they don’t get big ideas.

So for all their many virtues, there’s not much the Tech World can teach the Marketing World about communication. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.

But conventional wisdom may actually be an albatross around our necks. This same wisdom tends to create a convergent mush of mood board marketing, a farrago of facile insights and shallow lifestyle posturing. Modern brands from all sectors would do well to look properly, not just at how tech brands behave, but at how they communicate.

Let’s consider a few themes.

1. Pride in product

Tech brands spend the vast majority of their time and energy in the pursuit of innovation; creating astounding products is their main obsession. There is always something new to say, whether it’s a big breakthrough or a modest upgrade. Which is why their communications are so firmly rooted in product truth.

This might be considered old-fashioned in a world of purpose-led brand building. But it provides a refreshing break from the pseudo-insights, hyperbole and overly-elaborate ideas which fill much of today’s communications landscape.

2. UX meets advertising

User experience has been defined as “the totality of an end-users’ perceptions as they interact with a product or service” (Kuniavsky, 2010).

Tech brands employ user experience design to create products which we love to use, but the influence of UX is also clear to see in how tech brands talk.

Thinking in terms of “end-users”, not audiences, means the usability of the communication is given primary importance. The result is often a visual language which is clean, precise and with plenty of white space (more on the rise of “flat design” in Adam’s post here). Tech brands also use as few words as possible to meaningfully make the point. This type of communication is disruptive precisely because it respects our desire for space and time.

3. Narrative through product

Tech brands cannot rely exclusively on the elegant delivery of product truth to succeed.

As in all other categories, communications which evoke an emotional response help brands to create affinity and preference. However, tech brands do not treat emotional and rational approaches to communications as mutually-exclusive, like oil and water. Instead they intimately combine the two; using the product as a medium to weave rich and emotionally-engaging narratives.

For example, telling the story of a teenager building a media empire through interactions on a web browser in BBH’s Google Chrome campaign or showing a dramatic rescue through a GoPro camera attached to a fireman’s helmet.

4. Cultural collaboration

Conventionally, brands employ celebrities as a means to gain attention and credibility. These are often one-dimensional, transactional relationships.

Tech brands, on the other hand, enter into genuine partnerships with individual and institutional players in culture with the aim of creating something fresh and interesting for the world to explore. Google and Arcade Fire, Samsung and David Bailey and Intel and Vice are all examples of this.

In these relationships, both parties have a part to play; the cultural collaborator is the “cool kid” to the tech brand’s “geek” persona, bringing creativity and humanity to code and hardware.

When the most innovative tech brands work with the foremost tastemakers, the result can be an irresistible combination of science and art, left brain and right brain, intelligence and magic.

5. Built-in marketing

With the previous themes, we have considered the unique way in which tech brands talk in their marketing communications.

But tech brands are also highly skilled at building marketing directly into their products. When we use Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and SnapChat, we also promote them. For example, to access my friend’s pictures on WhatsApp, I have to download the app. This built-in network effect means that WhatsApp has grown to over 350m unique monthly users, with 400m photos being shared every day. All of this without any significant marketing investment.

So, let’s not just admire the Tech World’s innovative culture, agile processes and beautiful products. Let’s embrace their very particular perspective on communication. It’s a perspective that could perhaps lead us out of some of the cul de sacs of contemporary marketing. Whatever business we’re working with, in whatever sector, shouldn’t we all consider talking like a tech brand?

Bring me fools and geniuses

Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London

Like many people I was amused by Rory Sutherland’s recent piece in The Spectator, in which he suggested it might be a smart strategy for Agencies to recruit graduates with lower class degrees.

Sutherland argues that there is no evidence that ‘recruits with first-class degrees turn into better employees than those with thirds’. Graduates with lower class degrees are in fact undervalued by the market and as a result they’re less expensive and more loyal.

I thought I might contribute my own perspective to the debate and indeed my own trusty Recruitment Tool:

Screen Shot 2013-08-02 at 17.29.16
In my many years of working with Strategists, I have established that very smart people can reduce highly complex conundra into quite simple challenges. In this respect they have something in common with the less-than-intelligent, who see the world simply despite its many sophistications.
I have also observed that those with moderate-to-medium levels of intelligence can perceive complexity in every aspect of every problem.

This has led me to conclude that the only useful Strategists are fools or geniuses….

Not Doctors, But Psychoanalysts

Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London
This is an edited version of a piece I wrote a while back for the APG. Reprinted with permission. 
Image: Sigmund Freud (AP Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

Image: Sigmund Freud (AP Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

It is a melancholy truth that the more expert I have become, the less my expertise is valued. I recognise that this may be because my dusty tales of Levi’s watchpockets,strategic chords and yin yangs lose a little of their lustre with every passing year. And I suspect I’m not pronouncing SXSW with convincing emphasis. But it may also be because Clients no longer come to me for expertise. Or at least not the expertise I imagined I had to offer.
I had always thought that we Planners were akin to strategic doctors. We assessed the patients’ symptoms, we prescribed treatment, we arrived at prognoses. I imagined that sitting in four reviews a day, year after year, gave us a special authority on the anatomy of communication. I’m sure there was a time when my Clients nodded gratefully as we offered sage counsel. The blinding insight, the lyrical proposition, the Damascene conversion…There was, wasn’t there?… But modern Clients are more strategically and creatively confident than ever before. They have their own strategy departments, they’re closer to their own data, they work across more channels than most of us.They go on creative role reversal courses…I’m really not sure they come to us primarily to listen to our opinion. And I have to say sometimes nowadays it’s difficult getting a word in edgeways.
It’s true, I have considered an alternative career as a bus conductor. And when the 25 year old Millward Brown consultant’s opinion carries more weight, I find myself yearning for a passing Routemaster. But advertising people are inherently positive. And so I reconsider…
I am increasingly of the view that Clients don’t come to us for medicine; they come to us for therapy. And I suspect that our value resides, not as strategic doctors, but as strategic psychoanalysts.
Often a successful modern Client engagement is not unlike a session of analysis. Clients begin with problems. They verbalise their thoughts, they make free associations, they express their fantasies and dreams. We listen, we interpret, we consider the unconscious conflicts that are causing their problems. We help them reach solutions through a process of self realisation.
Freud, in addressing the unconscious, talked about the need to ‘unearth buried cities’. This doesn’t sound too alien to brand planning.
I should at this point issue a health warning. I’m a Planner from Romford. Whilst I enjoyed Keira Knightley’s performance in A Dangerous Method, I can’t claim any particular knowledge of psychoanalysis . For me it’s just an illuminating analogy. Besides, if we were too literal about this, we’d never look a Client in the eye. And I suspect that’s a sure fire way to lose business…
Let us nonetheless consider some of the basic principles that would derive from a psychoanalytic approach to Client engagement…
Set out on a quest for meaning, not cure. The answers to most problems reside in the minds of the Client. We are enabling self knowledge,helping them to create their own narratives.
Behave as a participant observer, not a detached expert. Analysis only works if we embark on it together, as willing equals.
Embrace free association. Often we are too quick to impose order on our Clients’ challenges. Bear in mind that fantasies and dreams can illuminate unconscious conflicts.
Remember, everything has meaning. Be attentive to behaviour,body language, choice of words and phrases.
Look for meaningful patterns. Consider consistencies,symmetries,repetition. Probe for the meaning within the pattern.
Our time is up..
I used to believe there was only one correct answer to every problem. Now I believe there are many correct answers. The challenge is to establish the correct answer that best suits the Client’s character and personality. Anais Nin famously once said: ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are’. I’m sure this maxim applies as much to strategy as it does to creative.

Cows in Space: a question of sustainability at #sxswi

The second of series of reports from Austin, by a few lucky BBH SXSW survivors.

Author: Helen Lawrence, Strategist, BBH Labs & BBH London

The most recurring topic of conversation in Austin during SXSW isn’t the future of technology, it isn’t the principles of responsive design and it certainly isn’t what makes something viral. It’s meat. What meat to have in your breakfast taco, what meat to choose for your lunchtime ribs and what meat should top your dinnertime hot dog (I can’t believe Tim didn’t mention this in his SXSW reflections!). This is a town dominated by BBQ joints and smoking shacks. I fear that after five days there I may have the incredibly sexy combination of scurvy and gout:

Helen goes to a rodeo

Helen goes to a rodeo

However, we have a problem. One hundred thousand years ago humans still needed 2000 calories a day to function. Back then, to produce that 2000 calories we’d get through 1800 to find and produce something to nibble on. Fast forward to today’s brisket loving era and it takes 200,000 calories to produce those same 2000 calories. Our food production habits are screwed up. We waste everything: energy, resources and it even the food itself once we’ve got it to that juicy, edible point. It’s not at all sustainable. We’re messing it up, and we’re doing it quickly.

So – who is the obvious person to turn to in order to solve this problem? An astronaut of course. Nothing beats an astronaut. Ahem.

The 100 Year Starship project is using the question of interstellar space travel to get to an answer:

“We exist to make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next 100 years. We unreservedly dedicate ourselves to identifying and pushing the radical leaps in knowledge and technology needed to achieve interstellar flight, while pioneering and transforming breakthrough applications that enhance the quality of life for all on Earth.”

If we’re going to have to consider exploration outside of our solar system we’re going to have think a little beyond a simply bigger rocket. One self sustaining pod hurtling through the sky; it has to keep a bunch of humans alive for a century, stop them killing each other and prevent them from getting hungry.

The space race in the 60s was a tangible one: getting to the moon is a challenge that could be imagined and solved. The 100 Year Starship Project wants to set a challenge that trickles down solutions into our own fuzzy planet in the same way. The space race has given us some of the biggest everyday technologies we use now: scratch resistant lenses, GPS and water filters for example. By posing some of the biggest societal and sustainability questions out there and considering how we’d achieve them to last 100 years in space, we can hope for properly realistic solutions to the things we’re messing up at the moment.

Image via 100 Year Starship Project

Image via 100 Year Starship Project

Meat is a big one, clothes are another. It’s a terribly energy intensive hobby. We make too many, we own too many, we wash too many and we don’t recycle nearly enough. 100 years at our current clothing rates would need a lot of wardrobes up on our space ship, not to mention cotton fields, plastics factories and silk worms. We can’t take clothes to space, despite them being such a core part of our creative identity as humans – one solution put forward by the 100 Year Starship project includes reusable sheets that we project clothes onto, allowing us to change them whenever we like.

Back to the bovines. As much as I love the idea of cows in space, wearing little cow shaped astronaut helmets, it just can’t happen. ‘Fake meat’ companies are popping up all over the place, even Twitter co founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams are investing. That’s one possible solution for our 100 Year Spaceship. What else is there?

I like the 100 Year Starship project. It frames a problem into a great story. Mae Jemison, a brilliant astronaut, told the SXSW audience that we should tell better stories, ones that inspire and ones that can bring about social change. The project neatly frames sustainability into something we can picture. There are no cheats when you’re somewhere outside of Alpha Centauri. So many of our so called sustainable solutions aren’t that at all. We feel we’re doing well when actually the problem is just popping up somewhere else. You can’t do that on a spaceship.

This makes me ruminate a bit on brand strategy – we talk a lot here about strategy being the art of sacrifice. What would you sacrifice in your brand armoury if forced to focus on the essentials? And would your brand get a spot on the starship in the first place? Is it ducking and diving, pushing superfluous issues elsewhere? Perhaps not being quite as sustainable or transparent as it could be? Whack it in a bubble and put it in space: it’s a good way to test it.

I’m excited about the 100 Year Spaceship. The hippies and the astronauts are getting it on. And damn, it’s even sexier than gout.

Craft, the Journalist and the Agency Strategist

The Guardian’s Editor, Alan Rusbridger, came into BBH earlier this year and spoke to a group of us about what it takes to deliver open journalism. In particular he described how one of his most awarded journalists, Nick Davies, operates day-to-day. He shared three or four articles Davies had written recently, breaking down the anatomy of each story in meticulous detail. And it properly sank in that “open journalism” doesn’t just mean simply laying the news bare, unfiltered, checked or analysed, nor does it mean opening up a new fire hose of information in the hope someone will make sense of it.

Perhaps the clue is in the phrase “Open Journalism”. As they say at The Guardian, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”. The Guardian staff are information omnivores, analysts, fact checkers and storytellers. And, as Rusbridger put it to us, there are 3 characteristics that define ‘craft’ in journalism. Very few journalists master all three (Nick Davies is perhaps a rare example), but here they are:

1. A relish or hunger to find out new intelligence
2. The intellectual ability to see patterns in that data; see the big picture and understand the facts
3. An ability to write beautifully

It sounded strikingly similar to what makes a truly great Strategist in an agency. Three things a Strategist usefully might aim for, either way.

Good weekends, all.