BBH sticking to rebellious ‘black sheep’ stance despite ‘tough time for business’

The famous Levi’s black sheep ad from 1981

Iconic creative shop Bartle Bogle Hegarty is retaining its rebellious ‘black sheep’ stance despite the tough business conditions that are putting financial pressure on all the ad agency networks, the BBH worldwide chief creative officer has told Mumbrella.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Adweek Asia conference in Tokyo this week, Pelle Sjoenell suggested that while it was “a great time for innovation, it was a tough time for business”.

Sjoenell says BBH will stand its ground on ‘black sheep’ approach

Owned by the Publicis network, but operating autonomously, BBH has seven offices around the world. Sjoenell said that new offices had previously been opened in new markets – including China, Singapore and India – at the request of clients like Unilever and Diageo.

However, he said the agency “was not in expansion mode” anymore and was unlikely to open anywhere else in the near future. He also admitted that the agency was “not growing as much as we want to”.

Despite the market pressures, BBH still rejected clients if they were not aligned with the ‘black sheep’ mentality – according to Sjoenell.

“We do turn clients down,” he said. “We have to work with someone who values creativity. That means looking at what everyone else is doing and then doing the opposite.

“In general, advertising is annoying and something we all want to avoid so empathy in the work is important. The brands that connect us and make us feel human, with a message, are important

“Truth is hugely important for brands now. We all know what they are up to because of all the transparency. Emotion in advertising is really underrated.” 

Earlier, Sjoenell had given a keynote at the event where he outlined the unique ‘black sheep’ DNA that still existed at BBH and had led to standout work for the likes of Google, Nike, Tinder, Netflix and Playstation.

“Art is a different way of thinking,” he told delegates. “Advertising all looks the same. We all get the same data and the same influences thanks to globalisation.

“That’s where the white sheep are, watching Game of Thrones. The Kardashians reach 700 million people, more than The New York Times or the BBC.

“You have to move to a different space to everyone else, otherwise you just end up in a price war. The way we work is quite simple, we follow the formula for difference.

“Difference works for business like nothing else when it comes to communication. This does work, it’s real.”

That said, he did acknowledge to Mumbrella that it was “super difficult” to maintain the BBH principles in markets where budgets were lower or clients were more risk-averse, as was sometimes the case in parts of Asia.

Sjoenell will this year sit on the jury at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, having previously won a Titanium at the show himself. A happening he said helped to change his career and open up new opportunities.

Asked about the issue of scam work winning at awards shows though, he said: “I don’t think awards are that important, but it’s important to celebrate creativity and I am happy to be part of that. But scam work is just a shameful part of the business; it’s when we are at our worst.

“We shouldn’t devalue awards for our cohort, because it makes our jobs feel real every once in a while [to have real work recognised by awards juries].”

Sjoenell also took the opportunity to reiterate that he believed that China was way ahead of the West in terms of technology in the media and marketing space.

“WeChat is better than anything in the West in every way,” he said. “China has swung ahead of us, there has been a great shift.

“The East is ahead in most ways and it’s changing so fast. We got lazy in other parts of the world.”


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