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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.”
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.
*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.”