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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles >  Agency Profile: BBH New York

Agency Profile: BBH New York

Posted on August 9, 2007 and read 10,362 times

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During ihaveanidea’s trip to the Big Apple, I found it difficult to discern where one famous neighborhood ended and the next one began. Where’s the eastern border of the West Village? Is Little Italy in Chinatown or vice versa? And forget trying to find an available cab in this town and have its driver relieve those ‘where the hell am I?’ anxieties. They’re harder to come by than a Black Pencil.

My best guess as to the location of the New York office of Bartle Bogle Hegarty was originally the south end of SoHo, until I started to notice all these signs plastered everywhere for some TriBeCa dating service. Although I didn’t run into Robert De Niro to confirm, I ascertained that BBH was to be found in this trendy neighborhood of lofts, parks and the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey (two out three isn’t bad.)

One of the first things I notice when stepping off the elevator and onto the 19th floor at BBH is how open and bright the agency felt. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was until it was pointed out to me. BBH has no ‘corner offices’ or any other rooms that make use of the building’s exterior windows. The entire perimeter of the agency is open to everybody, allowing lots of natural light to permeate the office, as well as giving everybody – from the president down to the most junior creative – a full 360 degree view of New York City. Especially titillating is the excellent view of the famous SoHo Grand Hotel. I suggest that if you’re staying there, refrain from trying on your latex bondage gear in the window or you might wind up as inspiration for the next Axe campaign.

Prominently painted on one of the walls are BBH’s ten well-known beliefs (Americanized for the New York office so that ‘organisation’ is spelled with a ‘Z’) “These are the principles that guide BBH,” says William Gelner, former Group Creative Director*, as we take a tour around the agency. “They’re the same here as they are in London, as they are in Singapore, and all our other offices. John Bartle, Nigel Bogle & John Hegarty created them, and have expected us to follow them.”

Many agencies claim to be creative-driven, and some indeed are… to a fault. In such places, the creative directors have all the say in what the creative should be, and the account person is only there to get that creative sold. In other instances, the idea comes first and the planners are left scrambling to backpedal the idea into a strategy that didn’t exist before. I’m assured that this is not the way at BBH. “Here, the strategy is the bedrock,” says William, “and our planners are honestly some of the smartest people you will meet, smarter than just about anybody in the creative department. Our account people are driven by the work and have strong understanding of their crucial role in the business. If all they wanted to do was to sell whatever work the creative department threw at them, they would probably leave and make more money at a bigger agency doing just that. But here, everyone is committed to doing the best job possible. And that commitment breaks down the barriers that sometimes exist between creatives and the rest of an agency.”

William also laments that the people who have the most difficult time adjusting to BBH’s model are senior creatives coming from other agencies. “If you’re used to an agency that doesn’t have a strong bond between the creatives and planners and account people, your first instinct here will be ‘who are all these people weighing in on my work?’ I always be brutally honest with people looking to work here, and I tell them if they’re unsure if that’s the way things should be, then perhaps this shop isn’t the right fit for you.”

Now before you creatives reading this get a little nervous thinking that process outweighs creativity here at BBH New York, be reminded of the agency’s creative track record. “Make no bones about it, at the end of the day this is a creatively driven shop, and the creative director has the final say,” William reassures. “The difference is we listen to the knowledge and opinions of our planners and account people before we make our ultimate choices.”

BBH New York is a relatively small agency for the Big Apple, with a staff of just under 200 and no more than a dozen creative teams. While the teams have the traditional junior/intermediate/senior titles you find at most agencies, being a junior doesn’t mean you’ll get stuck with all the assignments nobody wants. This couldn’t be more evident than with the groundbreaking Gamekillers campaign for Axe antiperspirant. “Gamekillers was everything,” says William. “It was a TV show for MTV, there were television commercials, there were print ads, there was 63 individual pieces of communication, websites, ringtones, door hangers for dorms, a comedy tour. You name it, we did everything that you could think of, and on almost every piece there was just one team, a junior team who never done an ad before.”

The creative department at BBH is also not too fond of the proverbial gangbang. “ We prefer assigning one team to an assignment to see if they can crack it, only bringing in help if they need it,” exclaims William. “BBH has a policy where we don’t take multiple campaigns to clients and pitches. We only pitch with one idea, and usually one team is sufficient to get that one idea to crack. I never like to pit people against each other in gangbangs, because that can be very demoralizing. Instead I’d rather see somebody come up with a big idea and have others jump in and make that same idea even better. To that end, many people in our creative department share their ideas in order to make them better. In a true gangbang, you tend to hide your ideas, and that’s not good. ”

So what are the hours like at BBH New York? Are the creatives keeping the same hours as the ones on the agency’s recorded message, or are they continually burning the midnight oil? “Our London office is a big part of our culture, and in British agencies are very much about arriving at 8 or 9 AM, getting your work done by 6 PM and getting out the office,” says William. “Here in New York, we’re not dogmatic about hours, we’re dogmatic about work. There are guys here from our British office from other UK agencies that are very much ‘in at 9, out at 6,’ and there are other guys who come in at 10:30 or 11 AM and then they roll out at midnight. But as long as good work is being done, we’re happy.”

BBH New York frequently likes to take their creatives out of the agency and on retreats and off-sites. For instance, there was once a field trip to a Yankees game, where they arrived long before game time in order to get a good look at Yankee Stadium and brainstorm ideas about how to bring the Johnnie Walker brand to life in that environment (Johnnie Walker is a sponsor of the Yankees.) Other cool traditions include a Friday movie contest; every week the agency receives passes to a new movie, and they dole them out to whoever can come up with the most creative email responses as to why they should see that film. BBH’s creative department is also small enough that everybody gets to know each other well, and often hangs out outside of work hours and structured work events.

The BBH office also has a gift for fostering artistic talent. A number of agencies adorn their walls with artwork from local artists, but BBH goes even more local, and encourages staff to create and display their own works of art throughout the office. Even if you think you don’t have a creative bone in your body, you’re at least expected to contribute to BBH’s wall of black sheep, where everyone places their own rendition of BBH’s famous symbol.

Another unique artistic feature to the BBH New York office are the structural pillars that literally hold the building together. “When we moved into this space, we wanted every pillar in the office to be painted or illustrated by an artist, the coolest artists that we could find,” explains William. “Basically we would fly them in from wherever they live, they come in and take a pillar and do whatever they want with it. We won’t censor what they do, they just do it. This has resulted in some fascinating work.” This ongoing project also helps BBH’s art buyers and production people to get the creative department to look closely at up and coming artists and illustrators.

Ask anybody about what things inspire them, what words cause their imaginations to run wild, and you’re sure to get a sizeable list, particularly from a bunch of ad industry people. You’re also bound to discover that each list is quite different from the next. When moving into their office space, the gang at BBH was asked to come up with their own lists of inspiring words. These list were then combined and formed into a single line of words, an inch or so wide, which now meanders through the entire office. So whenever you’re looking for a spot of inspiration all you need to do is look up.

When all is said and done, BBH New York is a breeding ground for great ideas that get turned into great ads. But what happens if your great idea isn’t for an ad? For that BBH has Zag, a company within BBH designed to create brands and products of their own. It’s so motivating to hear people say ‘well I have always had this great idea for this sort of product’ and to actually make steps towards making that product a reality,” exclaims William. “You’re not only working on ads, you’re getting assignments to come up with brands or ideas for products or services. And if they are good enough, and if it comes to market and takes off, you get a piece of the success. What’s really nice about Zag is it teaches creative how to think on a business level, much like our clients do every single day.”

Now if only Zag and BBH New York can invent something that’ll help someone hail a cab here in Manhattan. They’d make a mint for sure.

Thanks to everyone at BBH New York for letting us take a peek behind their doors.

*NOTE: ihaveanidea’s agency visit took place before William Gelner was appointed Exec. Creative Director of 180 LA in late May, 2007.

Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer/SBN2




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