Creative Enemy Number One

John Dillinger arrest photo courtesy of FBI

John Dillinger arrest photo courtesy of FBI

Ask yourself this: Who is Creative Enemy Number One? Is it short-termism? Is it quantitative pretesting? Is it globalisation? Or the algorithm? Is it ‘matching luggage’ integration? Or the commoditising effect of procurement? Is it category conventions, client conservatism, consensus driven committees? Is it marketing manuals or professional processes? Is it norms, traffic lights and benchmarks? Is it the decline of expertise or the rise of empowerment? Is it old school hierarchies or new school anarchy? Is it VI? Or UGC? Is it having too little time? Or too much?

Well all of these have a case to answer. But I would argue there's another more sinister villain stalking the corridors of any creative business.

When I reflect back on some of BBH's past successes, its golden greats so to speak, I can't help noticing that they are all in some way or another flawed or imperfect. The Levi's campaign that ran through the late '80s and '90s was a huge creative and commercial success. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, I can't ignore how quite a few of the films focus on a product, Shrink-to-Fit 501 jeans, that represented less than 1% of sales (poor commercial judgement surely); in one key film the hero abandons the product at the end of the drama (we really shouldn't have let that go); in others we feature heroes that were probably unaspirational to the core male target (elementary error). With the benefit of hindsight, in a more disciplined, logical world, one has to conclude that many of these films should not have been made. Indeed, that whole Levi's campaign traded on heritage, which we know is the last thing to interest young people. Maybe it was all a terrible mistake.

In those distant days we also created a very successful campaign for Olivio, a healthy olive-oil based spread. It featured the adventures of a group of happy elderly Italians, but as I look at it now I'm more than conscious that a health brand should really be identifying itself with youthful vitality. So maybe that should have been a non-starter too. We developed a campaign for a beer brand, Boddingtons, that associated its taste with things like shaving cream and sun cream. If you have ever worked in the food sector you'll know you shouldn't compare the edible with the inedible. And then there's the longstanding Audi endline,‘Vorsprung durch Technik’. It was written in German, a language the vast majority of the audience couldn't understand. A more intelligent recommendation would surely have been something that conveyed the same meaning in English. ‘Progress Through Technology’ perhaps.

More recently we've told British Airways customers not to fly during the Olympics and we've launched a female variant of a deodorant brand that is wholeheartedly male. Neither of these seems a smart commercial move.

The more I look back on our proudest moments of the near and distant past, the more I see campaigns that do not stand up to scrutiny of strategy and execution. There appear to be very sound, robust reasons why much of this work should never have seen the light of day. And yet, it was all highly creative, award winning communication that delivered significant returns on investment. This is not the narrative we generally encounter in case studies or marketing text books.

You can try this exercise yourselves at home. Think of the most creative and successful campaigns that you've worked on or that you personally admire. Then apply your left brain: Identify the critical flaw that means that execution or campaign should never have been made. Don't worry. I can assure you there will be one there.

The more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to conclude that all the best communication is flawed; that being strategically or executionally flawed is a prerequisite for great work.

So what's going on here? I suspect Creative Enemy Number One is our own intelligence. It's our own ability to identify shortcomings in ideas. Because smart, intelligent people can always find a reason not to proceed; and the smarter you are, the greater will be your capacity to see problems, to cause complexity. Creative Enemy Number One may be looking at you in the mirror every morning.

When you think about it, ordinary work is actually the intelligent choice. Because ordinary work tends to translate the brief directly, it observes sector conventions, it uses familiar reference points. And, critically, it achieves low levels of misunderstanding or rejection in research. By contrast extraordinary work often correlates less directly with the brief, it breaks sector conventions and it uses unfamiliar reference points. Consequently, it often precipitates a certain amount of misunderstanding and rejection in research. Extraordinary work is ordinarily very easy to reject.

Inevitably, behind every great piece of communication you'll find clients who were brave enough to see beyond the flaws; clients who could control the whispering voice of reason telling them “it's good, but it's flawed”, clients who were happy to stop making sense.

In nearly all aspects of business, intelligence represents a blessing, a competitive advantage. But in the judgement of creativity it can represent a curse, a competitive disadvantage. We must be mindful that there are always very sound reasons to reject great communications ideas. But the existence of a good reason to reject something doesn't mean that you should.

There is indeed a fine line between stupid and clever.

First published in YCN Magazine 24/01/2014

No. 30

Chips & The Barking Creek Crisis


It was a long, long time ago. My brother Martin and I would accompany our ageing grandfather and his tortoise-shell bull terrier Chips, for walks by Barking Creek. This was a windswept, desolate place. We could play freely in the derelict gun emplacements, throw sticks for Chips to fetch, and cast messages-in-bottles out into the brackish water.

Chips was our widowed grandfather's soulmate. They went everywhere together.

Boy Running

One day by the Creek, Chips began scampering off into the distance and we chased after him. He kept running and we kept following. Soon our grandfather was left far behind, unable to keep up, and Chips kept running, and we kept following.

It seemed that Chips was on a break for freedom. Our grandfather would soon be bereft of his fondest companion. Martin and I began to panic.

I turned around and shouted to grandfather, now way back in the distance. "Grandpa, Chips is running away. What do we do?" ''Stop running," he cried. And we did. And Chips stopped too.

I guess the Barking Creek Crisis taught my brother and me a lesson about cause and effect. We thought Chips' running was the cause of our running. In fact the reverse was true.

It was a useful lesson. In life we often unwittingly confuse cause and effect. When we look at the world around us, we rage against what we imagine to be the causes of our problems, but frequently they are just the effects of them. And when we look at ourselves, we imagine we are at the centre of our own universes, influencing events, determining our futures. We tend to see ourselves as causes, when in fact we are effects. Because for most of us, most of the time, our behaviours, and even our beliefs, are the effects of other people's habits, tastes and preferences, of extraneous events, of conditioning, custom and convention.

It's a melancholy truth, but perhaps inertia is the driving force in much of our personal and work lives: the endless repetition of patterns that were laid down by others years before; theme and variation played out with infinite variety.

Working in a creative business we may think we are different; that we are the ultimate paradigms of free expression, that we are causing change on a daily basis. It's in the job title. But often much of a creative agency's activity entails translating, transplanting, adopting and adapting. Responding to events, to competitive action, to the predispositions of clients and customers, to the conventions established by our seniors and forebears. Executing the strategy, extending the campaign, evolving the idea. Much of the time we're just keeping the train on the tracks.

You might imagine our clients would wish for more than this. But often their primary focus is the management of consistent delivery and performance across time, geography, platform and outlet. They don't want to change the world. They're not looking for a New England. They’re just looking for another year of steady, incremental growth.

Now you may find these observations a little depressing. But I don't. For me they serve to illuminate the fact that genuine, original, creative thought is a rare and precious thing. Pure creativity, the kind that rewrites rules, reinvents language, changes minds and precipitates new behaviours, is not called into play very often, even in a creative industry. But when it is, there are few people and few businesses that can deliver it. Creativity's value is enhanced, not diminished, by its rarity.

Indeed, although much of commercial life is driven by conformity and consistency, systems and processes, creativity is becoming more, not less, important. Because, in a more confident economy, CEOs and shareholders are less and less satisfied with modest, incremental growth rates. They are setting more ambitious plans for the future. They are asking for step change innovation. Inevitably the strategies and behaviours that deliver steady, incremental growth are not fit for dramatic step change. And the people who are suited to keeping a train on the tracks are rarely capable of laying new lines.

As one of our founders, Nigel Bogle, has expressed it, 'growth needs space'. And to discover new space you need a pioneering spirit, a very particular combination of original thought, persuasive skill and mental stamina. Pure creativity is not just the best answer; it is the only answer.

If you're pursuing a creative career, you may be intimidated by the scale and congestion of the creative industry. But fear not. If you genuinely have the ability to ignore convention, to set aside case studies and best demonstrated practice; if you can find a way of changing the behaviour and belief of individuals, and thereby communities and cultures, you'll go far. Because there aren't many people like you around: People who dare to be different; to be a cause, not just an effect.

First Published: YCN Magazine 10/07/2014

No. 29

She Knew She Was Right

               Cassandra by Anthony Frederick Sandys

               Cassandra by Anthony Frederick Sandys

I once shared an office with a young planner who was fiercely intelligent, but a little socially awkward. I would overhear her conversations with assorted colleagues, discussing strategies, briefs and work. I noticed that she consistently held the more insightful, interesting, authoritative opinions. But, equally consistently, she failed to persuade her partners of the rightness of those opinions.

She was like Cassandra who, according to Greek myth, was gifted with prophetic skills but cursed never to be believed. Poor Cassandra. Her entirely accurate predictions were endlessly rebuffed by her fellow Trojans and, ultimately, she failed to convince them that there were Greeks hiding in the Trojan Horse. It’s a failure that led to the fall of Troy. It must all have been very irritating for her.

I became aware that the young planner was getting a little frustrated herself. She knew she was right. And she couldn’t understand why her colleagues didn’t see what was just so very obvious to her. I had to take her to one side and explain: it’s not enough to be right; you need to persuade others that you are right.

This is not an uncommon problem. On any given working day, one encounters many intelligent people equipped with their own right answers. Being intelligent, or even being right, does not guarantee any kind of success.

We work in the persuasion business. And before we can begin to persuade consumers, we need to persuade each other. Often the people that thrive in our industry are just very good at getting people on board with an idea, building a shared argument, evolving its articulation, accommodating other points of view. They mould a plan until they have built consensus and momentum. Persuasion is an art which is every bit as precious as the analysis and creativity that we so often celebrate.

Persuasion begins, of course, with a distinctive personal gift: charisma. Most people are persuaded because they are charmed by the persuader.

Persuasion is also a two-way process. You’ll never persuade anyone if you don’t listen to them: listen to their ideas, to their responses, to what they don’t say as well as to what they do. As Robert Mitchum says in the definitive film noir, Out of the Past, “I never found out much listening to myself.”

And persuasion is much more difficult when it seeks to establish absolute, definitive truth. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate and interrogated. He tells Pilate that: “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate simply replies: “What is truth?” It’s a fabulously elusive response. Is Pilate genuinely inquisitive, sceptical, cynical or just world-weary?

Perhaps part of the young planner’s problem was that she believed there was only one answer, that there was only one truth. In fact, in communications at least, there are many answers, many truths. The challenge is to find an answer that everyone, colleagues, clients and consumers alike, can agree on.

Inevitably, Cassandra suffered a wretched end. Hauled off to Mycenae as a spoil of war by the victorious Greek King Agamemnon, she was murdered by Agamemnon’s resentful wife and her lover. I’m happy to report that things turned out a little more favourably for the young planner. Many years after she left BBH, I discovered that she had settled in the States and established herself on a very successful career in strategy. She knew she’d been right all along.

First published: YCN Magazine 08/12/2014  

No. 28


Watching You Watching Me

Photo: Marina Coric

Photo: Marina Coric

'I've been watching you watching me.
I've been liking you baby liking me.'
David Grant, Watching You, Watching Me

Have you seen Gogglebox on Channel 4? The TV show where you can watch people watching TV. It's a kind of real life Royle Family and further proof that pop culture will eat itself. It's also my guilty pleasure. 

In Gogglebox we observe the British public commentating on random encounters with the previous week's TV schedule. We see them at their most relaxed, in the comfort of their own homes, in their own Eziglide recliners, eating their own favourite takeaways, with their own infuriating families. It's reassuring, exasperating, entertaining. People are funny, stupid, clever, eccentric, absurd. All at the same time.

'He's lost weight hasn't he? Or has he put it on?'

Many years ago Weiden's brilliant creative leaders, Kim and Tony, worked at BBH. Tony had a habit of rejecting ideas because they were 'too ad-y'. 'But Tony', we cried, 'we are planning to make an advertisement.' Of course we knew what he meant.  So much commercial communication inhabits an unreal world of staged conversation and telegraphed gags. Speech patterns are pedestrian, contexts are cliched. Sometimes it feels like we're creating an industrial strength tribute to Terry and June.

It takes considerable observational skill to capture people as they truly are, rather than how they should or could be. Harold Pinter was often mocked for his pauses, but real speech, like real people, is often hesitant and flawed. And authenticity is worth working at. Because when it comes to ad effectiveness I've consistently found that truth is stronger than fiction. 

I went to the Frieze Art Fair last week. An opportunity to survey the cool, moneyed mavens of the global cultural elite. The opposite end of the social spectrum to the stars of Gogglebox perhaps, but if you like looking at people all demographics offer interest. And, whisper it quietly, there may be more pleasure to be had examining the people than the art.

Of course it's rude to stare and more difficult than you might think properly to observe the culture that surrounds us. One of the reasons I enjoy going to the theatre is the chance if affords  to regard other people directly without fear of causing offence. Sometimes when the lights are down I like to turn from the stage and stare at the rapt expressions of the audience around me. It's curiously intimate...

This week we launched the BBH School of Ideas, a one year apprenticeship leading to a full-time job in Strategy or Team Management. Inevitably we'll be seeking people with a flair for ideas, that can solve problems, that can bring diverse experiences and skills to our business. But we'll also be looking for candidates who are observant, who delight in the quirks and inconsistencies of ordinary folk.

I guess we'll be looking for people who like people. It's a shame to have to say it, but this is not a business for misanthropes.

No. 27

Leadership and the Amplified Self

         Alexander Rodchenko photomontage, 1924

         Alexander Rodchenko photomontage, 1924

In the twilight of my Agency career I was asked to articulate my personal understanding of leadership. When I applied myself to the task I realized that, although I’d worked with many compelling CEOs, ECDs, Directors and so forth - and I had myself held some positions of responsibility - I didn’t really have a theory of leadership.

I determined to consider the characteristics of the leaders I’d worked with that I most admired. Surely if I gave due thought to their particular skills and personalities, some consistent themes and patterns would emerge.

First there was the Visionary. He was ardent, emotional and instinctive. He could see the future, and colleagues wanted to join him there. Then there was the Competitor. He was pugnacious, robust and strong. He created a culture of constant improvement and success. Then there was the Motivator, who made all her teams feel special and want to belong. Then there was the Puppet Master, who avoided the spotlight, and elegantly managed her critical relationships behind the scenes. There was the Problem Solver, who had an indifference to rhetoric and a passion for practicality. And finally the Philosopher King. He simply thought more profoundly about Clients, markets and brands than anyone else.

As I pondered my models of great leadership, I was quite struck by the fact that they had so little in common with one another. I considered creating a compendium of leadership skills: Vision, Competitiveness, Motivation, Relationship Management, Practicality and Wisdom. I could perhaps suggest that any aspirant leader exhibits all of these qualities.

But then I realized that none of my real life leaders had all of these skills. None was in any way a perfect paradigm. Indeed each of them was flawed, often in very engaging ways.

As I considered this conundrum, I understood that there was one thing that all my model leaders had in common. Their leadership style was consistently an extension of their own strong, distinctive personalities. The Visionary was indeed a passionate person; the Competitor was a sportsman to the core; the Puppet Master just couldn’t help but be charming. And so forth.

These leaders were authentic. But, critically, they were also larger than life. Their very real virtues had found a louder voice, a larger stage. They were hyperboles of themselves if you like.

This analysis has led me to some relatively straightforward advice for the aspirant leader. Don’t seek to be someone else, or indeed everyone else. As Oscar Wilde observed: ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’

Rather, you need to establish what you’re good at, and do it in a bigger, bolder way. Because leadership, in my opinion, is The Amplified Self.

And yet this is easier said than done. ‘Know thyself’ was inscribed above the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It was a resonant maxim precisely because self-knowledge is so difficult to attain.

So some soul searching is in order. And you may find it worth enlisting the help of your dearest friends and closest colleagues. What are you like at your best? What sets you apart? What makes you you? Look in the mirror. Isolate your truest strengths. And turn those strengths up to eleven.

If you think you have the charisma, stamina, vision and appetite to lead, don’t spend your time reading the textbooks, mimicking your predecessor, emulating your hero. Don’t be someone else’s shadow, their pale imitation. Don’t try to be someone you’re not.

If you want to be a leader, be your own Amplified Self.

A version of this piece was first published in: BBH LABS 28 /07/2014

No. 26

The Man That Didn’t Blink

Albert Paris von Gutersloh by Egon Schiele

Albert Paris von Gutersloh by Egon Schiele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m reasonably certain about this.

First published: BBH LABS 30/05/2014

No. 25

When Everyone Talks and No-One Listens


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Au Pairs

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

Au Pairs, It’s Obvious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Published in Hall & Partners magazine, Matters.


Talk Like a Tech Brand


This is an article authored jointly with Nick Fell - Strategy Director at BBH London

From Art Game, by Leo Caillard

From Art Game, by Leo Caillard

From Art Game, by Leo Caillard

The Marketing World is in awe of tech brands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s consider a few themes.

1. Pride in product

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

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

2. UX meets advertising

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

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

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

3. Narrative through product

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

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

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

4. Cultural collaboration

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

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

The Creators Project

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

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

5. Built-in marketing

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

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

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

First published: BBH LABS 14/11/2013

No. 23

Bring Me Fools and Geniuses



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

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

First published: BBH LABS 02/08/2013

No. 22

Things Fall Apart

                                                                           WB Yeats

                                                                           WB Yeats

‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’

The Second Coming – WB Yeats

For as long as I can remember things have been falling apart. Fragmenting, segmenting, empowering. Devolving, diffusing, decoupling. Subdividing, subcontracting, subbranding. Ever more channels, audiences, tools and platforms. Ever more markets, stakeholders, structures and roles.

I feel that for the entirety of my career we have been seeking coherence in an ever more fragmented world. Endeavouring to establish order in the disorder, to shape the shapeless, to find patterns in the mayhem of modern marketing.

In my early days we were arguing for campaigns not executions, continuity not chaos. Fighting against ‘goldfish advertising’.

Then as channels disbursed, as tasks multiplied, as Clients centralised, we advocated The Big Idea: the conceptual glue that held the brand together, that gave it a collective purpose. In time I also became a convert to the unifying power of the aesthetic, to the harmonising force of visual identity.

Of course the quest for coherence sometimes felt like swimming against the tide. It came with a loss of spontaneity, at a cost to creative freedom, with the risk of regimentation. But I always felt that coherence was worth it. Because I believed in the active, authorial, unitary brand; in a brand that brought more to the table than a willingness to please; in a brand that meant something to everyone, not anything to anyone.

I have occasionally wondered whether we were wrong. Perhaps we should concede that ultimately the centre really cannot hold. Perhaps in the age of the social web we should let go of the tiller, move with the tide, submit the brand to the ebb and flow of consumer needs and desires, whims and passions; liberate it from its corporate shackles to find its own articulation in the mouths of the crowd.

But I think I’m quite a conservative bloke. I can’t relinquish my belief in the unitary brand, however fragmentary its experience. And curiously the social web, with all its wild diversity and anarchic soul, has also given hope to Coherents like me.

Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan

‘Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.’

Marshall McLuhan – Introduction to Understanding Media (1964)

As a young Planner in the early ’90s I read Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, a book written the year I was born. I wanted to learn about the thinking behind such legendary phrases as ‘the medium is the message’ and ‘the global village’. I discovered a whole lot more. It was an ambitious, lyrical, imaginative work. It was brilliantly passionate, fantastical, psychedelic.

I was particularly struck by the image of man in the electronic age extending his central nervous system beyond the constraints of physical form to reach out across the world. Wow! It was pure science fiction, of course, but it was a beautiful thought. Some years later I realised McLuhan had been predicting the arrival of the Internet…

The image of a world wide central nervous system has remained attractive to a lifelong believer in brand coherence. Because it’s an image that can be applied as much to brands as to people and things. It suggests that brands can embrace a glue more powerful than any corporate structure, conceptual definition or visual identity. Modern brands are finally capable of creating their own neural networks, their own central nervous systems.

So of course we should be introducing connectivity to everything we do right now, right the way across the path to purchase. Of course we should all be designing brand ecosystems and ecologies with bold, bright enthusiasm. Because at last we can see the reality of neurally networked brands which are sensitive, responsive and feeling. Brands which learn, think and evolve. And above all brands which are coherent and whole.

Perhaps the centre can hold after all.

First published: BBH LABS 09/07/2013

No. 21