Inspired in Austin

Authors; a crack team of roving reporters, on the ground in Austin, Tx

SXSW isn’t just about tacos, BBQ and Shiner and to ensure that the lucky BBHers who were out there knew that, we asked them to send us a quick note about the best thing they saw and heard in Austin. These are those brief, barely edited, dispatches from SXSW 2015.


So one of my favourite things about SXSW so far was not a talk, it was a dog. A St. Bernard in fact. When your phone battery was on its last legs, which let’s face it was all the f**king time, you could tweet the Saint Bernard and he would come find you. Damn, he didn’t bring brandy. Sad face. Instead, he brought a selection of phone chargers, adorably strapped around his neck. While your phone charged, you were fully licensed to pet his face off. Amazing.

Marc Rayson, Creative


I went to this great talk yesterday from a guy who has created Mogees, a new instrument lets users make music out of any object. He had the idea from thinking about how musicians have always ‘hacked’ their instruments. Think ‘scratching’ vinyls on turntables and using distortion through electric guitars – these things were never meant to be a function of the instrument but have become synonymous with dj-ng and made rock n roll.

So he created an instrument without any defined user experience so that the user could make up how they would like to play it, like a blank canvas. Watch some of the videos on his site of ways different people have used it. The kid ‘playing his stove’ is brilliant.

Samuel Bowden, Producer


Last night I saw a film called Hot Sugar’s Cold World which was a music doc about a guy called Hot Sugar who obsessively records every sound around him (even recording the silence at a funeral) and then makes them into sick tunes – he also talks about musical instruments becoming defunct and instead uses the outside world and his synth to make music.

Vaia Ikonomou, Assistant Producer


Four amazing men. Four poor life choices (by their own admission). Four stories about turning your life around. They all share one thing in common, which is that they have spent the majority of their early adult lives in prison. In the US there is little support for people in their position when they come out. The world had moved on, especially the world of technology that we take for granted. These men didn’t let that stop them becoming leaders of their community, businessmen, writers and mentors. Hearing how they motivated themselves to change and to teach others how to avoid their situation was one of the most moving moments of SXSW.
Search #Cut50 for more

Mark Whiteside, Global Operations Lead


I’ve just listened to Dan Pfeiffer, President Obama’s former Senior Advisor discuss the White House’s comms strategy with legendary news anchor Dan Rather.  They both predicted that in 10 years time Snapchat will still be going strong but the nightly news will cease to exist.

The proliferation of media means the president today has to work harder than ever to reach his audience, and it’s only going to get more difficult.

The next presidential campaign is forecast to cost $4 billion and it will look very different to before. There’s always a new technology that rules every election. In 2008 it was Facebook, 2012 was Twitter, and in 2016 there’s a good chance it will be Meerkat!

Isobel Barnes, Team Director


From Marc Goodman I learned that as technology gets better and better it becomes more invasive in our lives. But this means that criminals have more and more ways to commit crimes, and bigger crimes too. Crimes used to be one on one acts, committed in a dark alley. Now it’s one on one million, committed in dark parts of the web. So as technology becomes ever more part of our lives we need to remember that means our lives are ever more accessible to criminals. Technology can also become party to a crime. In the future we’re going to have ‘Siri & Clyde’ as technology is asked questions it doesn’t have the conscience not to give an answer to, like ‘where do I bury a body’. So we need someone to step up and make security a more accessible, user friendly system to navigate. We need a Jonny Ives of security.

Sara Watson, Creative


The Unseen describe themselves as ‘an exploration collective’ who combine science with art, design and performance. Their talk was hosted by the collective’s founder, an English woman called Lauren Bowker, who believes that technology is magic and strives to create a world of seamlessly captivating science through exquisite couture and luxury products.

The most awe-inspiring product she shared with us was ‘Air’ (above) – a series of colour-changing hand crafted leather garments that change colour in response to environmental changes such as touch and wind.

Raphael Bitner, Strategist

For those about to rock

Author: Mel Exon, Managing Director BBH London and Co-Founder, BBH Labs

Keep Austin Weird … is a phrase you are probably going to see and hear a lot once you get to Texas.

In several lucky years of going to South By, it’s the best bit of advice that has stuck with me: Austin prides itself on being an island of culture, creativity and difference in an otherwise very conservative part of the USA. As a visitor, it’s your responsibility to avoid everything you recognise and dive into the stuff you don’t.

So it’s really tempting to hang out with loads of UK agency folk, get press ganged into drinks with your brethren, attend loads of talks about advertising, but I’d ditch all of that and go see a talk by an astro-physicist or a roboticist, eat pancakes, ribs and tacos exclusively*, go find a karaoke club in an underground car park, place a bet on Chicken Shit Bingo … and make sure you head to the Lustre Pearl for beers and shots, not the Hilton. Except maybe your first night when it’s just nice to see some familiar faces and hear what’s happened that day.

(*You can get vegetables when you’re back in England.)

My second bit of advice relates to choice, or rather the over supply of choice. SXSW has been a massive conference for years and years.. several floors of several rooms all showing talks and workshops simultaneously, now in several different locations all around Austin. It takes some getting used to, take a minute on the flight over to look at the whole schedule and pick some stuff you want to see.

Over the past few years the Interactive bit of SXSW, neatly sandwiched between Film and Music, has got incredibly popular with the UK marketing industry, but that doesn’t mean it’s got tame or lame, you’ve just got to work a bit harder to find stuff that’s genuinely different and worthwhile… BUT perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, I would avoid trucking all round Austin when it comes to going to talks, it takes ages and you waste tons of time shuttling between locations: only do that for something you hear is going to be amazing. The best talks are often under your nose in the main conference centre. Apart from seeking out the things you know nothing about, there are major keynotes not to miss every day, which often make headlines – for good or for bad – and are worth hearing. Bruce Sterling usually does a great closing keynote. If you don’t like a talk ten minutes in, you can get up and leave and try another one. Use Twitter to find out what people are enjoying most at any given time, most people tweet using #sxsw and #sxswi. If you’ve not done so already, make sure you set up a Whatsapp group IMMEDIATELY. Obviously.

Try to orientate yourself quickly around the conference centre early because it makes everything easier and don’t be afraid to ask for directions if you get lost (everyone gets lost, the whole time, this is normal).

Carry as little as possible. Get one of those mobile chargers for your phone. And use the abundant free wifi, or face the wrath of  your office manager.

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 11.38.40

The Baconator!

Eat from taco trucks as often as possible. Go to Salt Lick if you can arrange a bus out of town, or book a table at the Broken Spoke for line dancing and chicken in an odd white sauce. If you’re brave and your religion permits it, try a Baconator in a cone. Get a proper cocktail at The Driskill hotel. Old school.

I think that’s it. As you can tell, I’m two parts jealous and eight parts excited for you.

Have a whole load of fun, stay safe and come back with stories to share please.

A tech boy in Austin

Author: Alex Matthews, Head of Creative Technology, BBH London


As a tech boy I am always less interested in marketing per se than I am in marketing through services – solving problems and creating something useful –  and this is what I was hoping to find on my first visit to SXSW. Initially though I found myself in a Comedy in Technology talk where the little fella above did five minutes of standup – he’s been created as part of the drive to make robots more human, using comedy as a barometer for their humanness – pretty impressive, but still some work to do.

The Beyond Mobile talk was a great example of what I hope is a trend towards a “less is more” mentality, suggesting we need to stop making everything ‘smart’ and instead have one or two smart devices and create many interfaces into them. Also suggesting that devices need to get ‘dumber’ is right up my street. The best solutions are not always the ones that add a million buttons and an Android OS to your microwave – instead just make your microwave remember the time after a power outage (after all, for 99% of the time we only use out microwaves as a clock).

In the same vein was a talk by Golden Krishna (who recently joined Samsung) about his premise that The best interface is no interface. In his paper he discusses the 13 steps that are demanded by car-door unlocking apps now coming to market. Is this really a more efficient system than a key? Or a better system than the non-app solution developed by Mercedes ten years ago?

The Robot in your pocket: AI powered applications talk from Gravity‘s Amit Kapur and Xobni‘s Jeff Bonforte also ran on a similar theme (and is well worth listening to here). Phones have 14 sensors typically – all of this data is available to us and to developers and yet we are still not using it to its full potential. For example, asking Siri to “call Chris” pulls up a list of the Chris’s in your address book. With your behavioural data at its disposal, surely Apple should know that most evenings at 6pm the Chris I call is Chris Smith as I try and organise a quick beer after work?

Although there were quite a few relatively pointless apps on the trade stands I must big up one app that I found – Speakerfy – it allows you to simultaneously and synchronously play a song from your phone or laptop to multiple devices that also have the app. Basically, it creates a multi-speaker system on your and your friend’s phones. It’s going to make bus journeys with school kids even more noisy I’m sure.

Finally, I have to mention the Google Glass presentation in which they live-demoed Glass and launched their Mirror API. The API seems quite open, simple and developer friendly using all the usual standard technologies, though they’re not sure yet how people are going to subscribe to apps for their Glass headset. Aside from the big question which is “will any normal person actually want to wear these?” and the fact that we’re all already entrenched in a behaviour pattern of checking updates on our phones, the demos they gave (New York Times, email, photo, sharing etc) were not all that amazing.

Personally, I think Google is in a limbo state with Glass at the moment – they’re getting people interested, providing APIs but there’s no way for the masses to try out Glass, which does leave that “will anyone really do this” question rather open. There’s a lot of talk and hype from futurology types about Glass, but I’m not convinced they’re going to change the world overnight – going back to my original points, you have to ask the question “what is the business or user problem that Glass is trying to solve?”.


Through the Looking Glass: Reflections on SXSW 2013


Having spent nearly a decade as a judge, panelist, or an attendee at SXSW I have witnessed massive sweeping changes in the size, scope, and tone of this festival.

My earliest experiences at South by Southwest were fueled by conversations with futurists, digital pioneers, and creative folks exploring a new medium. The festival was small, unknown, and very personal. It stayed that way, and became the annual vehicle for meeting up with the community in real life. It was where we could hear what everyone was thinking, doing, and more importantly what they were feeling. It was about those people and how they were helping shape the Web.

A few short years later the advertising agencies began to take note of SXSW and began attending in force. The first wave was of course the recruiters, hungry for “Digital Talent”. The next wave was comprised of creative, planners, strategists, and account people. There were agency parties, panels, and booths. The festival became too large to curate by a group of people who for the last few years were all on a first name basis. Enter the “Panel Picker”.

There is of course something admirable to be said about allowing the public to decide upon the content of next year’s festival, however the “public” had shifted from this group of connected people helping to shape the Web to a network of agencies, corporations, top-tier brands, and holding corps. This without doubt, was going to impact the tone of the festival. And it did.

SXSW panel content began to drift away from personal reflections of the past year and projections of the years to come. They became a platform for agencies and brands to build a presence within the interactive community. A large percentage of the conversations became pitches and the passionate thinking about the future went silent.

This year felt different. There was a visible shift. This year there was another generation emerging from within the festival. The maker’s movement had arrived and they took on many forms. Elon Musk gave an extremely illuminating talk. There were 3D scanners and printers that created our century’s first glimpse at the idea of teleportation. There were also production shops like Deep Local best know for Nike’s Chalk bot talking about the path of his company from Punk Rock to CEO. There was definitely a something new in the air. The festival subconsciously rebooted and began focusing on the future again.

“No one wants PCs” – Bruce Sterling

This year during Bruce Sterling’s closing remarks, he made clear the circle of life in technology. For every innovation and advancement we embrace, the previous piece of technology it replaces dies. He explained the importance of recognizing and owning that. Bruce also went on to talk about focusing on the people behind the tech, and the importance of the thinkers and makers vs. the end product. It was during this talk that made the turning point evident. We need to embrace the idea of making, but making in such a way that we were aware of what we are replacing. The only constants in the equation are the individuals behind the advancements.

The festival left me thinking that next year would mark a return to that original “futurist spirit”. Sure there will be a huge brand presence, but the content, the core of the SXSW will once again be about the future through the lens of technology and more importantly through the voices of those leading the charge.

Homeless Hotspots: Where We Go From Here

When we started planning for SXSW, we could not have anticipated that our idea for a four-day philanthropic project to update the street newspaper model would spark such a widespread debate.  The volume of the response to this program has reinforced our ongoing commitment to this issue, and the feedback has helped us explore the ways in which we can draw attention to it, support it, and effect change.

Homeless Hotspots has connected us with representatives of some of the nation’s leading advocacy groups and street newspaper organizations with whom we are beginning to have conversations about the challenges facing the current street newspaper model and ideas for overcoming these challenges with technology and innovation.  In many ways, we owe these connections and the future of this program to those at front lines of this issue, like Mitchell Gibbs at Front Steps in Austin, Mark Horvath of, and writer Becky Blanton who spoke at TED about her time being homeless.

Where we go from here is directly tied to how we wrestle with some complicated issues that any street newspaper attempting to deploy change will have to answer for themselves – issues we’ve come to sharply appreciate amidst all the debate. Our aim is to partner closely with these groups to utilize the lessons and best practices learned from this experience. Based on conversations to date, our shared goal is a sustainable model that continues to bring homeless people entrepreneurial opportunities that challenge stereotypes, derive purpose and create meaningful interactions with society.

While street newspapers are facing the same challenges as many other traditional media outlets, there are a number of more complicated issues that need to be addressed.  We’ve outlined the salient ones below.

1. Quantifying an acceptable level of provocation in the name of the cause. One of the big discussion points from Homeless Hotspots was the line “I’m a hotspot” on the t-shirts, a line we too debated internally before and during the program.  The goal of the t-shirt was to create a marketing material that was provocative enough to get message-bombarded festival attendees to actually stop and speak with a homeless person – to spark a human connection and a conversation with a person who is often treated as invisible.  Thus, the humanity of the project lived in the actual conversation between the Hotspot Manager and their customer. But what about the potentially negative reaction to that message by some that didn’t stop (or who simply weighed in from afar via the web)? It was many in this group that created a wave of negative sentiment online. While the participants in the program saw the shirts as an ideal social lubricant on the streets, the message took on new meaning when it spread online.

Any entrepreneurial sales venture for the homeless must be carefully designed.  The newspaper organization basically works like a franchisor responsible for distributing materials to franchisees, but it must also work like a social service. This balance varies widely from organization to organization and is a complicated role for social enterprise. You want to help homeless participants (i.e., the franchisees), but you don’t want to do so at the expense of the cause itself.

2. Understanding the potential for partnership with a profit-driven company or brand. Because BBH is in the business of marketing and advertising, it was assumed early on that Homeless Hotspots was endorsed by a marketer. We fully funded the initiative and purchased the pocket-sized MiFi devices from Verizon just as any customer would, yet the reaction to the false reports of brand endorsement is an important one to explore.  Many found the idea that a brand would employ homeless individuals to be offensive, while others said they’d support a brand initiative if it provided an employment opportunity. Of course, when people realized the partner was actually a local homeless shelter and that proceeds went directly to the individual Hotspot Manager, the sentiment was widely positive.

Before SXSW, we talked about how the long-term viability of a program like Homeless Hotspots would require bringing on a partner that could help financially support it. The costs of the technology and data usage for a program of this nature are significant, making the model difficult to scale beyond a short festival.  A brand partner would have the resources to underwrite the costs of an ongoing effort, incentivized by the promotion of its technology; meanwhile, a social enterprise would have stronger public endorsement, but would be challenged to fund such a venture. The potential problem we saw was that when a social enterprise brings on a corporate partner, perceptions change. Emotionally, the social enterprise simply becomes enterprise for some. For others, the opposite is true.  Street newspapers and homeless entrepreneurial efforts looking to share costs will have to decide where they fall on that spectrum and choose any partners wisely.

3. Determining the importance of content creation by participants. Where Homeless Hotspots differed most from an actual street paper is that the participants were not selling content they created (although it’s commonly misunderstood just how few of the homeless individuals that sell the papers actually create the content). Serving original content to a user upon log-in to a MiFi device is surprisingly complicated if you don’t manufacture the device yourself (thus we directed users to for further information upon activating a connection).

There is an opportunity to create a more content-rich model for street newspapers and homeless entrepreneurs moving forward, especially as it relates to drawing attention to the causes of homelessness and prevailing stereotypes.  For example, Hotspot Manager Jonathan is a talented musician, and there could be an opportunity to use the personal and web connectivity to draw attention to his talent, such as directing customers to a site promoting his music.  The Hotspot Managers were also full of local expertise that could add more value to their conversations and connections (John Bird sees this as the future of street newspapers, which he invented when he founded The Big Issue). The absence of such content leaves a void.

The question remains whether or not consumers of the product value that content though. Looking at our own data (difficult to extrapolate from due to the extraordinarily large number of media impressions Homeless Hotspots received, which led to a disproportionate number of donations from non-users), it’s unclear how much the utility of the service vs. philanthropic impulse drove purchase. This is hard to come to terms with if you are a commercial enterprise. How can a business be a degree removed from its product? That sounds potentially negative, but we’ve left with mixed opinions on the matter. After all, the Hotspot Managers were still able to raise almost $4,000, even though the first 2 days of sales were extremely depressed by rain. If purchases were only about actual connectivity, the rain would have made Homeless Hotspots a financial failure for the participants.

What’s important is that the model moving forward must balance entrepreneurial opportunity, with supporting meaningful content and fostering personal interactions.  Our data implies it was hearing an individual’s story (many times not even first-hand) that led to someone donating. This particular phenomenon in Underheard in NY already got us to rethink non-profits last year, and it’s especially important for social enterprise. Non-profits fighting homelessness don’t just want to help homeless populations, they want to stop homelessness altogether.  But in many cases, customers of street newspapers seem solely focused on helping the individual in front of them. In a world where a homeless person sells a product without content, the one-on-one social interactions are their only opportunities for expression. Luckily, those conversations help overcome stereotypes (the 13 Homeless Hotspots participants had hundreds of conversations in just four days), but only if someone is provoked to stop and listen. Which brings us right back to issue #1.

We’ll keep everyone updated once we’ve identified which partner(s) we’ll be working with in future developments. We’re genuinely excited by the amount of interest from street papers around the world to collaborate on addressing the digitization of media. In the meantime, we can only hope the conversation around homelessness doesn’t step back into the darkness as the media circus winds down. You can certainly do your part by supporting organizations like our partner Front Steps. Even small donations can go a long way in helping them overcome their daily challenges long after conference attendees have left.

UPDATE (April 30, 2012): We are working with StreetWise, the largest street paper in the US deal with numerous modernization issues, including many of those outlined above. For more details, you can read the follow-up post.

Dreams from the land of Geektopia


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. 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. 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. 3. Behave more generously everyday, by building great teams and empowering them to create and make even greater things

Skynet vs Mad Max: Battle For The Future

Thanks to everyone who came to our talk at SXSWi last week. For anyone interested, you can find our slides and our speech below (we talk fast, so there’s plenty of it!) and please check out #sxbattle on Twitter to follow the commentary on the day. As the hashtag suggests, we pitched the benefits of two alternate futures as a battle, along the way inviting the audience to vote for the one they thought most likely to become a reality. We had a lot of fun doing it, thanks again to everyone who joined us.

[slideshare id=12037668&doc=skynetvsmadmax-battleforthefuturesxsw2012sxbattle-120316125442-phpapp02]

Let’s start by stating the obvious, a disclaimer if you will.

We’re not really here to talk about Skynet and Mad Max. They’re both works of fiction, each film set after an apocalyptic event. We thought about trying to re-title this talk – “how an apocalypse might affect your business…” but we settled for this disclaimer instead.

They’re just an analogy. One we’d like to use to tell a story. Everyone in this room is a storyteller,  it’s what we do. We tell stories to effect results. Here, it’s fair to say, both films paint insanely dystopian, radically different visions of the future, yet they are also classic narratives. Control vs chaos. A totalitarian state vs total anarchy. A closed network vs an open network. (more…)

Would Anyone Miss You: A Transmedia SXSW Experience

As our herd of black sheep makes its way to Austin from various BBH offices in anticipation of some great events, it’s the other experiences we’re discovering that are especially interesting. When we heard about a particular transmedia experience that the folks at Hide & Seek created, we asked the founder of the UK games design studio to tell us a bit more about it. As it happens, engaging in the experience and utilizing Homeless Hotspots go hand-in-hand, one of many unexpected uses for our charitable innovation experiment.

Emotional transmedia at SXSW Interactive (image: Lottie Davies)

Author: Alex Fleetwood, Founder & Director, Hide & Seek

This year at SXSW, we launch Would Anyone Miss You, a new live game we’ve developed to ensure that festival goers have conversations they’ve never had before, with people they’ve never met before.

The game begins when a stranger, somewhere in Austin, presses a sheet of stickers into your hand. You’ll be asked to seek out people of special and particular kinds – Your Newest Friend, maybe, or someone Tall Dark and Handsome – and ask them a question. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll interact with the game online and receive a personal reward. For those that play all the way to the end, there’s something a bit special.

We’re doing this to support Carol Morley’s incredible documentary, Dreams Of A Life, which receives its US premiere at SXSW on Saturday 10 March. Nobody noticed when thirty-eight year old Joyce Vincent died in her bedsit above a shopping mall in North London in 2003.  When her skeleton was discovered three years later, her heating and her television were still on.  Newspaper reports offered few details of Joyce’s life – not even a photograph.  Who was Joyce Vincent?  And how could this happen to someone in our day and age – the so-called age of communication?  Dreams of a Life is Carol Morley’s quest to discover who Joyce was and how she came to be so forgotten.

So what’s the connection between our game and Carol’s film? My hope is that there’s an emotional one. Transmedia projects tend to extend the storyworld of a film – the characters, the history – into new platforms. With our work on this project (we also created a purely digital experience to accompany the UK release) we’ve taken the emotional impact of Joyce’s story as the starting point. Partly this is because Carol’s film is such a coherent, fully formed whole, and partly it’s because we wanted to do something with the feelings that Joyce’s story evokes – to make use of them.

SXSW is a crowded marketplace of ideas, powered by entrepreneurial zeal and hot air. Dreams of A Life is a a film about urban lives, contemporary life, and how, like Joyce, we are all different things to different people. It’s our belief that, for all the buzz, festivals can be pretty lonely places sometimes. We hope that our game will provoke moments of connection and reflection, and that in those moments, you’ll want to seek out the film that inspired them.

Homeless Hotspots: a charitable experiment at SXSWi

A charitable innovation experiment at SXSWi 2012

There has been an enormous amount of coverage of this project, and unfortunately there has been a good deal of inaccuracies around the payment system and objectives of the program in general. Please follow this link that clarifies these points.

UPDATE: Obviously, there’s an insane amount of chatter about this, which although certainly villianizes us, in many ways is very good for the homeless people we’re trying to help: homelessness is actually a subject being discussed at SXSW and these people are no longer invisible. It’s unfortunate how much information being shared is incorrect (an unresearched story by ReadWriteWeb, which has now been updated is the epicenter of that misinformation). So, without being defensive (we welcome the educated critiques), we wanted to share a few key facts:

+ We are not selling anything. There is no brand involved. There is no commercial benefit whatsoever.

+ This is a test program that was always scheduled to end today (there’s no 2-week payment cycle)

+ Each of the Hotspot Managers keeps all of the money they earn. The more they sell their own access, the more they as individuals make (it’s not a collected pot to be shared unless people choose to donate generally).

+ Underheard in NY is NOT becoming a reality TV show. The confidential plans are much more akin to an interactive documentary. Regardless of what happens, it will stay true to the original idea: to give homeless people an unedited voice so people can understand their lives.

+ The biggest criticism (which we agree with actually) is that Street Newspapers allow for content creation by the homeless (we encourage those to research this a bit more as it certainly does not work exactly as you would assume). This is definitely a part of the vision of the program but alas we could not afford to create a custom log-in page because it’s through a device we didn’t make. However, we’d really like to see iterations of the program in which this media channel of hotspots is owned by the homeless organizations and used as a platform for them to create content. We are doing this because we believe in the model of street newspapers.

UPDATE 2: Thank you to everyone here for your comments, criticism, feedback and support. We can’t respond to every comment here, but we will be responding in the coming days.

Update 3: Another bit of information being reported inaccurately relates to the finances of the homeless individuals participating. To clarify: These volunteers were guaranteed make at least $50/day, for a maximum of 6 hours work. This amount equates to more than the Texas state minimum wage of $7.25/hr for the same number hours. Based on donations already received, we know their earnings will be higher than $50 for each of them – as was our intention. What’s been misunderstood is the break-out of money in cash per day vs. what’s received after the program ends. BBH provides a $20 cash “stipend” to the volunteers each day regardless of their own sales. This is the cash amount that was handed to them each day while the program was live (it ended yesterday) and was advised specifically by our friends at Front Steps shelter, who are conscious of the responsibility that comes with handing cash to someone facing financial challenges daily, but who still needs to work toward a long-term solution for housing and employment. The additional money raised by each Hotspot Manager will be delivered via money order from the shelter where they have a program in place that helps the participants save about 2/3’s toward their employment and housing goals. Again, this has all been built based on input from the shelter and the participants’ case managers in a way that’s best for the participants.

UPDATE 4: This isn’t quite an update as it’s reflected in the post below, but we wanted to clarify the latest bit of misinformation. The program was not “canceled;” it was always intended as a 4 day program.  In fact, as the debate heated, it was the homeless volunteers themselves who insisted on seeing through the last day as an opportunity to share their side of the story.  Thus we saw the program through as planned. We’ll be reporting on success metrics shortly but can confirm our friends at Front Steps Shelter in Austin consider it a great success for themselves. Read their reactions at (or any of the media coverage they’ve received globally), and please consider a donation to one of the Hotspot Managers as we wrap things up via

UPDATE 5 (April 30, 2012): We are working with StreetWise, the largest street paper in the US deal with numerous modernization issues, including many of those outlined in our post of learning points from this program. For more details, you can read the follow-up post.

****Original Pre-SXSW Post Below****

As always this time of year, we’re abuzz in anticipation of SXSW Interactive. Whether it’s talks we’re attending, or the talks we’re giving, SXSW is a consistent growth opportunity for the team. This year though, we’re also trying a bit of charitable innovation.

As you may know, we created Underheard in NY last year via our Barn intern program. The premise was simple: give homeless individuals a voice via Twitter. The program was so successful that you’ll be seeing an update on its unexpected future at some point soon.

Since then, we’ve stayed interested in the homeless issue. One particular aspect we find intriguing is Street Newspapers, which are print publications created and sold by homeless populations as a form of entrepreneurial employment. The model has proven successful enough to be adopted in cities spanning 30 countries. The issue however, is that like any print publication, these newspapers are under duress from the proliferation of digital media. How often do you see someone “buy” a paper, only to let the homeless individual keep it? This not only prevents the paper from serving as a tool for the individual to avoid begging, but it proves how little value people actually place on the publication itself. Yet the model isn’t inherently broken. It’s simply the output that’s archaic in the smartphone age.

So we decided to modernize it.

This year in Austin, as you wonder between locations murmuring to your coworker about how your connection sucks and you can’t download/stream/tweet/instagram/check-in, you’ll notice strategically positioned individuals wearing “Homeless Hotspot” t-shirts. These are homeless individuals in the Case Management program at Front Steps Shelter. They’re carrying MiFi devices. Introduce yourself, then log on to their 4G network via your phone or tablet for a quick high-quality connection. You pay what you want (ideally via the PayPal link on the site so we can track finances), and whatever you give goes directly to the person that just sold you access. We’re believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity.

We’re using SXSW as our beta test. Hopefully you can help us optimize and validate this platform, which we hope to see adopted on a broader scale. Any and all support is appreciated (including donations from afar).

Visit for more details.

SXSW 2012: What BBH is Planning & Why We Hope We’re Worth A Vote

Photo by @saneel via @instagram, SxSW 2011

Although it seems insanely early every year, it’s time to start voting for panels at SxSW. Instead of spamming our professional and personal feeds with requests for support, we’re continuing a tradition we began last year of consolidating all of our potential panels into a single post.

So, if any of the below seems mildly interesting, we’d greatly appreciate a vote. All of the summaries below click-thru to the appropriate panel picker page at Regardless, we’re quite excited to attend to hear what others have to say. We value the experience every year, and as always we digest everything with the benefit of context you all as the loyal Labs community provide us.

Skynet vs. Mad Max: Battle for the Future

In this session, our own Mel Exon (@melex) and Google’s Tom Uglow (@tomux) will discuss two possible futures of the web:

  1. A highly controlled algorithm-driven web where people and brands are matched perfectly via formula and AI, in a spam-free nirvana.
  2. An ongoing battle of people and brands seeking to be discovered, creating an open web with neutral techn partners and real-world spaces where tech doesn’t penetrate.

Find out more, vote and add your support here.

Chief Innovation Officers Defend Their Titles

The topic of this panel was born of conversation frequently discussed on our blog in 2011: do agencies really need someone to run innovation? In this session four innovation leaders, including our Saneel Radia (@saneel) and Labs founder (now client at Google Creative Lab) Ben Malbon (@malbonnington), will answer hard questions about the value of such a role, what it actually entails, and what makes a good candidate to play the part. The panel also includes Edward Boches of Mullen (@edwardboches), Dave Armano of Edelman (@armano) and David Erixon (@dexodexo), founder of Hyper Island.

Find out more, vote and add your support here.

The South By Shark Tank: Pitch Your Big Idea

This panel features Neil Munn, Global Head of BBH Zag, along with other ad industry investment professionals. In this session, the audience is invited to present their elevator pitches and receive high-level advice on how to prime the proposals for investment. Press coverage for the most attractive investments is built in via our friends at PSFK (@psfk).

Find out more, vote and add your support here.

Game My Brand

BBH planner Tim Jones (@timjonestweet) will outline “gaming brands,” an approach to brand strategy built on gaming principles. This approach represents a fundamental shift from building brands as message transmission devices, to building brands as behaviour change systems. This talk will feature new material built on content Tim previously covered in his TEDx talk of the same name.

Find out more, vote and add your support here.

Your Story Sucks! Saving Story in the Digital Age

In this session, three BBH storytellers (including @jamescmitchell, @writingstudio, and @depechetoad) from different backgrounds share the results of in-field storywriting experiments from standup to novel-writing to radio plays to alternate reality games. They’ve tried it all, and are going to try and explain what works. This is not a panel – think of it as a three-man show. This is a theoretical session, with practical homework.

Find out more, vote and add your support here.

My Mom Plays That: How Women Game-Change Gaming

As women play casual games in ever-increasing numbers, this session will examine what this means for the development of casual and traditional games. It will specifically look at how the psychology of women influences the psychology of game developers. The purpose of this presentation by BBH social media manager Claire Coady (@claire_coady) is to examine how women are influencing the seismic shifts underway across the gaming landscape.

Find out more, vote and add your support here.