BBH Labs

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Author, Jeremy Ettinghausen, Innovation Director, BBH Labs & BBH London

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Reading back over my very first Labs post, written a couple of weeks after I joined, I’m struck by how incredibly green I was. I knew so little about advertising, so little about the culture and history of BBH and so little about the expectations placed on everyone who works here by colleagues, clients and the wider advertising community.

Knowing that I came from outside the industry, BBH eased me in gently – my first assignment was to babysit a Google radio ad for Romania on behalf of a vacationing CD. I had to listen to two voice samples and decide (the power!) which one was more Googley. I can do this, I thought to myself.

If only it was always that easy.

Six years later, writing my last Labs post, there’s a bit of me that wishes I’d managed to stay an ingénue a little longer. But it’s hard to do that when you’ve got so much experience and so many great teachers to learn from. 

So, thanks to the people who got me into BBH, shared the BBH Labs spirit and got me thinking harder, faster, better, stronger than I believed possible. Thanks also to everyone *out there* for their thinking, doing, talking, making and oh-so-generously sharing; There are too many of you to name and you already know who you are – see Mel’s leaving post if you need their twitter handles. But I do want to say particular thanks to my Labs partners in crime, @melex and @agatheg – it was truly a blast. I’m leaving Labs in the safe hands of Achim Schauerte and look forward to seeing what comes next.

Working at BBH and being given the space to consider the challenges and opportunities that lie at the intersection of technology, culture and brand has been an absolute privilege. I leave with the desire to take everything I’ve learned here from everyone I’ve learned from and try and find opportunities to make the internet a little better. Better for the people who make internet things and better for everyone who uses internet things.

See you around the web.


Bits to Blogs to Bots – Goodbye from @Melex

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

Thank you Mel, and keep on keepin’ on.


19 years' worth of career detritus

19 years’ worth of career detritus


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is this: culture is strategy.

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

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

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

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

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

and Conservatism.

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

and Compassion.

Starting with CARE.

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

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

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

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

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

Onto my second ‘C’… CURIOSITY.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads me, finally, to COMPASSION.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>melex sys.exit<


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


A Year of Linking Dangerously

Angie & Me, by Eric Pickersgill, from the series 'Removed'

Wow. That was a year. Below a month-by-month selection of the linking and thinking that kept us ticking in 2015. Thanks, as always for reading and sharing so generously and thanks in particular to the many many thinkers, makers and doers who have inspired us this year. Happy Holidays.


January kicked off with some predictions and questions for the year ahead. We learned that brands should be wary of saying BAE and that new media continued to attract emigres from bastions of ‘old’ media. Our ‘media diet’ (in Mark Zuckerberg’s words) included a novel made of gifsa choose your own adventure story on twitter and an ad for facebook from 1995.

February was all about the numbers. 1000 chrome experiments. Buzzfeed’s big, big day. A tinder bot made 21 matches, we learned that 15% of the half billion daily searches were new to google and that a five second film could make a jolly good 3 minute pop video.

In March, SXSW happened again. Disney nailed user experience, Tinder got into the surge pricing business, General Electric digitized BBQ-ing, Argos got on the 3D Printing wagon and best of all, Jim Carroll started a blog!

A quiet month, April, apart from esports discovering performance enhancing drugs, the algorithmic bots reading our tweets for stock tips, the first brand story told on Whatsapp, the unveiling of Windows Holographic, this history of Rube Goldberg machines and a fitness tracker that generates bitcoin from your exercise.

Millenials stopped to dance on the beach in May and the rumblings of the content wars that would last the rest of the year were first heard. Delta meme-ified their flight safety film, Slack thought about the sound of emoji, Yahoo! told us to use filters if we want our pics liked, and GIPHY RELEASED A GMAIL GIFIFICATION CHROME EXTENSION!!!! And lastly, Mad Men finally got with the programme.

‘People didn’t really like anything about our product’ read one entry in this directory of failed startups. Then, a GoPro ‘fell’ from space, algorithms got into art criticism, HoloLens + Minecraft = awesome, Taylor Swift got on and got off a royalty high horse and then all our afternoons disappeared watching TumblrTV. June. Quite a month, eh?

The launch of Apple music dominated the first week of July – could radio be about to make an unlikely comeback? And in other music news, some guy made a whole album in an Apple store, the Youtubers climbed abord the rock’n’roll tour bus. And while we experienced the joy of deep-dreamify-ing stock photography, the rest of the month was filled with a sense of loss, ennui and ‘exponential despair‘. So much for summer.


An obituary for Google+, Jack’s Baa-aaa-aack (well, on his way back), hipsters on fixies confuse Google’s self-driving cars, google became alphabet, adblocking became ‘a thing’ worthy of serious consideration, Vanity Fair laid the blame for the ‘dating apocalypse’ at the door of Tinder and the Ashley Madison hack rattled nerves. Befuddled by all of August’s ‘news’, we sought solace in nostalgia, reveling in this history of the Space Jam website and relishing Cameron’s World, a paean to simpler, more wholesome times.

Is productivity really all there is? Was flash really so bad? What can pollsters learn from social media experts? Is advertising trapped in a vicious Immodium/Ex-lax downward spiral? Do we really want a web without ads? How do Pixar tug on our heartstrings so? Was Minority Report a documentary? Can too much TV be a bad thing? Oh September, always with the questions.

Labs’ October was bookended by a couple of highlights – firstly the welcome return of Labs crush Jonathan Harris whose long overdue new work, Network Effect, made us ask ourselves the question ‘Did we make the Internet better today?‘. And at the end of the month, we helped with the third incarnation of SXW1, BBH London’s digital expo, inspired this year by it’s TOTALLY coincidental simultaneity with Back to the Future day.

MORE MORE MORE, from Network Effects, used with permission of the artist.

MORE MORE MORE, from Network Effects, used with permission of the artist.

In November, we picked a fight with advertising legend Dave Trott. We wrung our hands in anguish over signs that we live in a post-literate society. We fretted about what Facebook’s content push meant for traditional publishers. We asked how many of our media colleagues were slacking. We broke the internet, on purpose. And we mentally prepared ourselves for the awakening of the Force.

Nearly there now. The best Twitter bots of the year. The economics of social media fame. A working cellphone in Minecraft! The appeal of VR. And the potential problem of VR’s appeal. People are naming their babies after instagram filters. Yes, really. And last but not least, ‘Advertising is thankless. Morally dubious. Usually pointless. Shockingly dysfunctional … There’s no education like it in the world.’

So, thanks, advertising. Let’s do it again in 2016, ok?


Medium Well Done

Photo by Dustin Lee

Photo by Dustin Lee

A little over a month ago we published our first post on Medium, the first platform we are testing out in our Publishing Laboratory. Since that first piece a further five have been added, for a grand total of 23 minutes of reading as calculated by Medium’s proprietary algorithm.

All combined, our stories have received 3187 views and 1625 reads, with a read ratio of a touch over 53% which strikes us as pretty acceptable. Our most recommended story received 28 recommends, our least popular was liked just eight times, and we got the odd comment and highlight here and there.

Over the same period we’ve published five posts on our trusty stalwart, the BBH Labs blog, a couple of them versions of the Medium posts and three unique to the blog. 4,372 users spent an average of 1.31 minutes on the blog, over 5201 sessions. We had a couple of trackbacks, no comments and, of course, no likes, since this isn’t a metric that we register or measure on the blog.

So, if my shaky maths is correct, people spent a little over 37,ooo minutes reading our posts on Medium as opposed to just under 8000 minutes on the Labs blog. Of course we don’t know whether the time spent on the Labs blog was spent pouring over every em dash and colon – for all we know the blog might have been open in another browser tab while our visitor looked at cat videos on facebook.

What can we take away from this? Well, firstly Medium is a lovely, clean writing platform, a real pleasure to use. It brings a simple (but limited) interface together with an immersive writing experience that does encourage the words to flow. And clearly, Medium is a platform where people come to read – both desktop and mobile versions are optimised for absorbing text, as opposed to imagery or video or audio.

Medium is also most definitely a good platform for sharing content in our area of interest – the intersection of culture and technology and brands. But we have to ask ourselves whether Michael Wolff’s observation about twitter – that it’s a forum for media people to talk about media – is also true of Medium, right now. Maybe Medium is simply a nicer place for our twitter followers to read on, than a platform we can use to reach a new audience with new content.

Lastly, during the course of this first phase of our publishing experiment, Medium underwent a major rehaul of its writing tools, logo and feature set (custom domains!). This is again a reminder that when you are publishing on someone else’s platform you are a guest in their home, using their tools at their whim and as they allow. Medium is lovely to write and read on, and for the dozens of new followers who are joining us there each day we will continue to add to our presence there, but again we are reminded of the importance of having somewhere on the world wide web that we can call home.

Update: Periscope is our new jam and over the next few weeks we’ll be streaming live on occasion over there – make sure you’re following us on twitter to catch the stream as it goes out.

The Open Wallet Experiment is live

A few weeks ago we blogged about our recommitment to Labs experiments and our new ‘hit-and-run’ approach to experimentation. And now we’re pleased to say that our first experiment is now live, though there were, of course, some hurdles and hiccups on the way.

If you’ve been following the progress of this experiment on you’ll know that we decided to make bitcoin the subject of our first field test. This subject came with certain technical and epistemological issues – it’s not all that easy to get hold of bitcoins even assuming you’ve understood what they are for and what you can do with them.

But we are interested in whether the very nature of cryptocurrency transactions – anonymous, underground, based on algorithmic trust rather than human relationships – leads to behaviours that can be best described as, er, shady. Or whether given the chance, perhaps the bitcoin community will prove itself as wholesome as a troop of Boy Scouts.

So we’ve set up bitcoin wallet (address and QR code below) into which anyone can make a payment.. We’re going to leave this wallet up and open until midday on sunday (assuming that all goes well!) and at the end of that time, everything in the wallet will be converted into ‘real money’ and donated to the Disaster Emergency Committee.

Wallet address – 19xnfvdAHitNErAGEhVnfkeBSTL8VVv8yV

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 10.52.24

But we’re also going to do something possibly very ill advised and release the key for this wallet into the wild, meaning that anyone with the wallet address (ie anyone) and the key (ie anyone!) can both donate and withdraw money to and from the wallet. No-one should try this at home!

We’ll be posting frequent stats on activity in the wallet and while we can’t identify individuals, we can identify wallet addresses. So we’ll see how many donations are coming in, how many are leaving and we’ll be able to hero addresses giving generously and identify those wallet addresses taking advantage of this open experiment.

Bitcoin wallet key – 2G6uK7QwKRPntaS7drFSUVsUf24ZVmEaK8gET2K2Uj4w

So, let’s go – the wallet is open and so is the key. We’re not sure what’s going to happen next, but we’re looking forward to finding out.

UPDATE: This post went live at 16.24 and we tweeted about it at 16.27. It took less than 30mins for the 0.01 bitcoin (just over $5) to be withdrawn by a user with the wallet address 1NYR7RF4pdc1i923qGhnkkakCqDLL9dd45. Thanks for taking part :-/

Change is Good. CentUp is Here.


Today you might notice we have added something new to the blog. A tiny little detail that has the ability to make a much larger impact.

At the bottom of this post and in fact at the bottom of every post, you will find the newly added CentUp button. If you remember we first spoke to Len Kendall about CentUp in an post earlier this year. CentUp encourages us all to donate to content creators and charities at the click of a button.

In short CentUp is here to help make the Internet a better place. So, if you are reading something you like here and you appreciate the content we provide, consider giving the CentUp button a click, and make a change for good. CentUp is in beta at the moment, but BBH Labs readers can request a fast-track invitation by clicking on this link. And lastly, all proceeds from CentUp donations on this blog will benefit charities that are dear to our hearts.

Festivus for the Rest of Us – our favourite posts from 2012

Since the days of yore [2009], according to a tradition the origin of which has been long forgotten [Ben Malbon started it] we’ve used the last post of the year to look back over the previous 12 months of bloggery, not in a spirit of wistful nostalgia but in a spirit of enquiry. We look to see what our preoccupations were, what topics or technologies regularly bubbled to the the surface, what themes emerged from what has, like all the other years, been a hectic hurtle down the marketing superhighway.

This is also an opportunity for us to say thank you – for reading, for commenting, for debating, for sharing, for writing on our blog and letting us write on yours. This blog isn’t our personal journalling site – openness and transparency are key Labs’ tenets – and every contribution you all make adds value, helping all of us think harder and smarter. Gracias.

So below, in no particular order are the posts that to us seem to represent nodes of thinking or at the very least, nodes of writing activity. In an astonishing breach of protocol, this year we’re going to present them by theme – enjoy, comment, disagree and share, and see you in 2013.

Happy holidays

Mel, Jeremy, Saneel, Tim and Griffin



The uproar regarding the changes to Instagram’s Terms of Service – and continued debate about how web services treat users and the content they upload – demonstrates that discussions about openness and control are only going to get more empassioned as more users are exposed to the fact that, if they’re not paying for a service, they are the product being sold. Openness has featured regularly in Labs posts, and we debated this subject with some vigour at SXSW in our SkyNet Vs Mad Max talk, co-authored with our friend Tom Uglow (at Google Creative Lab, Sydney). Clients are also appreciating that openness can be as much of an asset as a quality – The Guardian making it the key reason to believe in the award winning Three Little Pigs. And James Mitchell used this blog to consider ‘truthiness‘ in marketing, the tightrope joining reality and hyperbole that we walk whenever we try to tell a story about a brand. As James writes, balance is not always easy to maintain.


In the year that BBH turned 30 it’s perhaps not surprising that emphasising difference, subverting the norm and, yes, zagging, have been undercurrents on the blog. BBH Asia Pacific Chairman Chas Wrigley (together with Wieden & Kennedy’s Rob Campbell) offered a series of provocations and debunked some flawed notions in their ‘Everything we Know is Wrong‘ presentation – we were particularly struck with their observations on West knowing best. Then, in a series of posts entitled ‘Advertising is Dead: Long Live Advertising‘ Mel made a few predictions about where advertising might be headed over the next 8 years. Check back in 2020 to see how she did. Subversion also produced some startling work this year as highlighted in this smart piece of engagement thinking for Refuge, the domestic abuse charity.  Expecting to see the latest installment of her hugely popular make-up video tutorial, Lauren Luke’s audience were instead shown advice on how to cover up the signs of domestic violence – massive impact created through subversion of expectation, a brave performance and a riveting piece of film.


Great to see experiments coming from around the globe this year. The BBH Barn team in Singapore tackled social media overload with their Social Rehab programme and kit while in New York the Labs team created While You Were Off, a service which kept track of the all important updates that you might miss during those darned inconvenient minutes or hours of Internet downtime. More seriously (and controversially), SXSW saw the launch of Homeless Hotspots, an experimental programme in partnership with a large Austin homeless shelter to see whether street newspaper vending could be updated to be more digitally focussed. After an admittedly rocky start it’s great to see how the issues that the experiment raised might lead to some transformative change as we follow our ongoing attempt to drive innovation for Street Newspapers across the globe.


It’s always a pleasure to get a note from BBH London Chairman Jim Carroll with a new draft post in it and in a particularly rich year for Jim’s elegant reflections it has been hard to shortlist a selection for this round-up. But if you don’t have time to go back and read them all here are a couple we particularly loved. In Laughing Together, Weeping Alone Jim suggests that we underestimate introverts at our peril – in a world that can’t stop talking (and sharing), perhaps its the unspoken, unshared feelings that are most true. In Swimming in the Shallow End Jim raises a toast to modest ambitions, incidental victories and frivolity – not every brand should aspire to sup with sages and kings. Lastly, in this farewell post, Labs’ strategist James Mitchell neatly articulated what for him (and many of us) BBH Labs offers – a place to wander, discover and build.


And so we end this round-up, with Robots. For us, as for Brad Pitt and Chanel No 5, it was inevitableFirst announced in April, was finally birthed this month. We’ve learned a lot on the way – about process, about MVP, about delivering (yes, ‘shipping is everything’), about APIs, about facets of our social media activity that we were not aware of previously. We continue to learn from the excellent feedback we’re receiving and will continue to evolve in the new year. But if there’s one conclusion that we can draw from the experiment so far it is this: you can learn through listening, you can learn from sharing, you can learn from reading, but there’s no learning like the learning you get from doing.

See you all again in 2013. – what Labs are making next, and why.

Author: James Mitchell, Strategist, BBH & BBH Labs

Every once in a while at Labs, we like, no, need to get our hands dirty. Oily, even. We like to make stuff that we can learn from – learn from the making of and learn from the interactions with. is one such experiment. And unlike most of our output, we’re going to share its whole gestation with you. Partly because we’re too excited not to, partly because we want you to shape the product.

Product? Yes. With, we want to put a personal digital robot into the hands of every person who wants one.

Of all the companions you could make, why a robot? Why not a plant, an animal, even a pet rock? Because of the line robots walk (or fly), between the artificial and the human. They are not alive, but in the way the act we try to give them life. And this has bearing on the other half of the project.

Since our first aol email addresses, our first Second Life avatars, our geocities and myspace profiles, our first (and second) anonymous twitter accounts and our weavrs, we’ve been talking about the difference between a person, and an online persona. Is there one? We hope robotify will tell us, because the other trick is this: the characteristics and features of your robot will be determined entirely and exclusively by  your social network data. So if you post lots of pictures on instagram, your robot might grow a telephoto lens in its belly. If you click lots of odd links, you might develop tank tracks – negotiating rough digital terrain, you see.

That’s the simplest version. Gradually we want to progress to a version with a robot that changes and grows as you do – a living marker of your data journey. We’re even hoping that, over time, robots will be able to interact. Robosociety, if you will. But that’s the nature of the agile process we’re using – aside from the vision, there are lots of assumptions layered on top of each other, and we’d like a willing army of beta pioneers to help slice through these assumptions and get to the that you want.

At the same time, we’d like to experiment with a slightly altered way of communicating – so for the 50s radio-style version of the Robotify story, just slip on some headphones and click play.

Hang on. You said something about beta users?

Yes, labs reader. That’s you. We’re making the beta right now – signup at If there’s anything you want to see, anything you’ve always wanted to know about your social data, or anything else you think we should look at, let us know below…

Marching Backwards into 2012

“The past went that-a-way … We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” – Marshall McLuhan

Predictions are a mug’s game. In these uncertain times you won’t find us sticking our heads above the futurology parapet and making some rash pronouncements on the coming this or the tomorrow of that. Instead, at this time of the year, we like to approach the future with a longing gaze in the rear view mirror and a look back at the last 12 months of postings on this blog – 81 of them in all from 35 contributors.

As in previous years, below you’ll find ten of our favourite posts from 2011 – the ones that have provoked us in the learning and writing and our generous readers in the comments. But our self-analysis has also uncovered buried themes, some revisited, others newer, which marked our 2011 and perhaps set a tone for the year to come.

Storytelling and new forms of narrative have always been of interest to us in Labs, but this year we’ve added the growing attention paid to, er, attention to the mix with a couple of guest posts on connected TV and further exploration into storytelling with our Fray Cafe-esque TaleTorrent event for Internet Week. For many, all around the world, 2011 has been a year of grassroot activism and whilst occupying Kingly Street and 32 Avenue of the Americas is our day job, sustainable marketing and creativity for good have also bubbled up as pervasive themes in a number of posts this year. And given the tumultus changes happening within our industry, you won’t be surprised to see industry innovation and reinvention well represented as another theme below. Perhaps more than any other year since Labs was founded in 2008, this has been a year of rolling up sleeves and putting theory into practice.

It might seem that 2011 has not been a stellar year in terms of innovation in the broader technology industry. While our Facebook experience has been timelined, our Googling plussed and our questions quoraed, the space shuttle programme has come to a close, the Higgs Boson remains elusive and so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that this year also saw a number of more reflective rather than reactive posts. BBH London Chairman Jim Carroll set the tone for a theme we’re calling ‘Think While you Make’, with a lovely series of elegiac posts on sleep, ennui and nocturnally abnormal wildlife.

So while we recover over the holidays we look forward to much more thinking and making, talking and doing in 2012. As always we are are astonished by the generosity of everyone who writes for, reads, shares or comments on the blog. It’s been an amazing year. Thanks for taking part, thanks for letting us in and thank you for everything you’ve taught us this year.

We’re already looking forward to the start of the Spring term – see you back at school in the new year.

Mel, Jeremy & Saneel


So, finally, Labs top 10 for ‘11, in mostly chronological order.

1. Think While You Make, Make While You Think

Some setting out of the stall in this post which encouraged us to find a balance between action and reflection, to not have too many tabs open at once, and occassionally to leave things alone for a while to let them ripen at their own pace.

2. Collaborative Consumption & Customer Co-creation

It might be a small cheat to bundle these two great posts together in a top ten, but as a pair they make a strong argument for more evolved thinking when it comes to creativity, collaboration and consumption. When audiences are willing to participate in branded activities and business see the benefit of a more transparent and collaborative model, co-creation and collaborative consumption are surely pivotal to the ongoing success of any forward facing brand.

3. The Human OS

A fascinating guest post from Google’s David Bryant on the convergence of computer and human operating systems and the increasing adoption of intuitive physical interactions that provoke a more instinctive than reasoned response.

4. Exploring the Edges

Provoked by a couple of posts on the need (or not) for agencies to employ Chief Innovation Officers this post looks at how to be an innovation unit and what the wider agency can and should demand of those it employs to push the envelope and live on the edge.

5. Creative Direction Vs Creative Selection

‘No one works for a Creative Director. Everyone works for the idea. The idea hires us and we go to work.’ The most popular post of the year from BBH LA’s ECD Pelle Sjoenell on the role of the Creative Director as politician, farmer and assassin.

6. No Tangible Limits

For Labs, meeting Amber Case and learning about Geoloqi, the location sharing startup she is developing with Aaron Parecki, was one of the highlights of SXSW. We’re already looking forward to seeing her keynote in 2012 and catching up with the great concentration of smart people that SXSW attracts. Come and say hello if you’re there.

7. Turning Intelligence into Magic

To mark the launch of Sir John Hegarty’s book, we asked him a series of questions which he answered with a series of sketches, an appropriately witty, incisive and ‘different’ interview celebrating an iconic advertising career.

8. Don’t Forget the I in T

At Labs we celebrate the hybrid, but in this post recognize that a team of hybrids might lack the depth in specific disciplines, might spend too much time agreeing with each other and might only be appropriate to crack certain tasks. As Ben points out in the comments, it’s important for a jack of all trades to be a master of some!

9. Building a New Agency OS

A consideration for a new thinking about what an agency can be, should be and could do as we approach ‘marketing singularity’, the moment the message becomes indistinguishable from the product or service it promotes. Instead of codifying an agency operating system around functions and outputs, we suggest that an agency of the future needs an OS rooted in a culture of collaboration, experimentation and transparency.

10. Keep Aaron Cutting

Lastly, in a year when social media has been both blamed for fuelling the London riots and praised for fuelling the Arab Spring, we can’t have a top ten list without acknowledging the Keep Aaron Cutting project. Thanks to the generosity (there’s that word again) of all the BBH blog and twitter stream readers who used social media to spread the word about an 89-year-old barber from North London who might have lost everything, Aaron’s shop is well on the way to being rebuilt and a nice old guy has had his faith in young people and in technology restored.

More of this next year, please.

Tale Torrent – The Prologue

Author: James Mitchell (@jamescmitchell), Strategist, BBH Labs

Preparations for our night of storytelling for Internet Week Europe are almost complete. And with less than a week to go until Thursday the 10th, we thought we’d share a little preview info of some of our speakers. Tales will include…

Simon Sanders – “Postcards ‘n’ mix-tapes, Skype ‘n’ status updates”
Creative Strategist /

Basheera Khan“Tales from the Crypt-ograph”
UX Architect, EMC Consulting /

Katy Lindemann“Ye olde days of (web)logging: when it still began with a ‘w’ and people thought it would never take off…”
Freelance Strategist /

Rishi Dastidar / Matt Busher“Self Portrait Postcards”
Senior copywriter, archibald ingall stretton… / Designer, mandatory thinking

Claire Burge – “From Mud Pies to Geek Chick”
Photographer /

It’s looking to be a lot of fun. It looks like we’re at capacity, with a heavy waitlist – but there is still one way to get in. We’ve still got space for a few micro-stories: that is, tales of five minutes instead of ten. So, if you have any internet incidents that you think might amuse and enthrall and you want to come, drop me an email at in the next few days.

And if you just can’t make it but want to tune in, watch this space – we’ll try to get a stream up and running on the night, right here.

Until then,