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‘No Magic, Just Hard Work and Preparation’: BBDO’s Strategy for Global Victory


BBDO is the only company in the world to be recognised in each of The Immortal Awards’ regional competitions - global CEO Andrew Robertson and global CCO David Lubars discuss their approach for global creative success with LBB's Addison Capper

‘No Magic, Just Hard Work and Preparation’: BBDO’s Strategy for Global Victory
Some time ago - long enough ago for cubicles to be a thing in BBDO’s New York office - the agency was working on a potential Mountain Dew commercial with the magician David Blaine. He was hanging outside the office of global CCO David Lubars with a small crowd of BBDOers around him hoping for a glimpse of some magic. Just as Andrew Robertson, BBDO’s global CEO, walked past, Blaine’s feet came off the ground as he levitated. 

“Come on, man,” Andrew said to Blaine. “You’ve got to tell me. What’s the magic?”

“There is no magic,” Blaine replied. “Just hard work and preparation.”

Andrew is recalling this anecdote on a Zoom call alongside David (Lubars, not Blaine) in response to a question about BBDO’s consistently strong creative performance on a global scale. BBDO is the only company in the entire world to have a campaign recognised as a Finalist in each of the five regional Immortal Awards competitions. In North America, BBDO New York’s ‘Back to School Essentials’ for Sandy Hook Promise was chosen. In Europe, AMV BBDO and its client Libresse have been recognised for a third consecutive year in the Immortal Awards with ‘Womb Stories’ - the only client-agency partnership to achieve such a feat. Repping in Asia Pacific is Clemenger BBDO Wellington with ‘Belted Survivors’ for the New Zealand Transport Agency, while Brazilian agency AlmapBBDO is flying the flag for Latin America with ‘It’s Between You’, a stunning short film for WhatsApp. In the Middle East and Africa, Impact BBDO Dubai has two pieces of work selected as a Finalist: ‘Hunger Insurance’ for Snickers and ‘The New National Anthem Edition’ for An Nahar Newspaper. 

“Those two particular pieces of work [out of the Middle East] are really illustrative of exactly what we’d hope to deliver,” says Andrew. “Hyper local brilliance in the case of the newspaper and then a really innovative, creative execution of a 10-year-old global creative platform in the case of Snickers. Being able to do both of those things to produce really brilliant work for a very local client and really brilliant work that leverages a global platform that's 10 years old speaks volumes to me about the commitment of the agency teams, and is just what you'd hope for.”

“It also says that we're good at growing our own,” says David. “We don't bring in mercenaries from other places, a lot of our best leaders, including me, came from a younger stage. There's a certain way we do things to pursue and create a path for people to run through and be their best. You get to see how good you are when you come here. Ali [Rez, Impact BBDO] is a fantastic example. Luiz [Sanches, AlmapBBDO] started as a kid with Almap. The people who did Libresse were young.”

An-Nahar 'The New National Anthem Edition' - Impact BBDO

Snickers 'Hunger Insurance' - Impact BBDO

And so, aside from the hard work and preparation as displayed by David Blaine, what are elements that come together to ensure the type of success seen at BBDO in the Middle East is possible across the entire world? David, fully admitting that what he is saying sounds somewhat like a soundbite, thinks that it’s in part down to the network’s ability to think and act like “a global boutique” - something that he believes sets the business apart from any other. “That sounds like a soundbite but it's true,” he says. “Andrew, me and all the people on down, most of us came from boutiques and have a boutique background, which is edgy, it's faster, it's nimble, agile, quick, responsive. We wanted to come and see if we could do that kind of work and that kind of culture on a bigger canvas, in a hotter spotlight. Sometimes we fail, but we succeed more often with work that is like that. But we have the depth and we have the long arms to wrap ourselves around a planet.

“I think that puts us in a category of one,” he adds. “There are boutiques and big dinosaur networks. We're neither - though we're big enough and nimble enough to do both. That boutiquey, edgy culture exists around the world [for BBDO]. There's a Japanese proverb that goes something like 'fall down seven times stand up eight’. That's what it takes to do brilliant creative. All our clients know why they come here - they come for the creative. But agreeing on what really creative is? We don't stop till we get there.”

One of the great challenges of running any global business is that, in Andrew and David’s case as global CEO and CCO, they can’t be involved in anywhere near all of the decisions that happen each day to keep the train going in the right direction. One of the moves that BBDO has made to ensure those decisions are made in the right way is to “institutionalise culture”, as Andrew puts it. Instead of building out that culture intuitively, as most businesses do, BBDO has codified it into 11 principles that make up the characteristics of the people who do best in BBDO agencies and best for their clients. “They help make the work better,” he says. “Their clients love them - not respect or like, love. They present well. They are radiators, not drains. They are ‘we’ not ‘me’. They're hand-raisers not finger pointers. They pick themselves up fast - this is a business where you take knocks, you can't avoid them, you've just gotta get up from them. They're closers - this is a business that is full of people who get through meetings, we'd much rather have people who can get to a fast yes or fast no. They have healthy paranoia - and if we have to choose between no paranoia and unhealthy paranoia, we'll go with unhealthy paranoia. And they do the right thing. They actively seek out different.”

Andrew set aside half a day for him and a team to work on those principles but it took them just 40 minutes to finalise them, which is how he knew they were right, he says. “If you can really build that culture, define it and then build it, then it's really not about me or David getting in and making decisions for people, they're making them themselves every single day whenever they're faced with a particular choice in a manner which we hope moves the ball forward.” 

WhatsApp 'It’s Between You' - AlmapBBDO

Bodyform/Libresse - #wombstories

Bringing the conversation back to The Immortal Awards, Andrew highlights the actual execution of all of those original ideas. “None of those pieces of work would be as good without the attention that was paid to casting, editing, music, lighting, all of those elements, that when you add them all together, go to make up something really breathtakingly good,” he says. “All of those are little examples of little decisions where you could go this way or that way. And you have to go the way you think is going to make it great. There are literally thousands and thousands of decisions being made. The culture that we've tried to build is one that is in pursuit of the great.”

One undoubted success story in that pursuit of the great is AMV BBDO’s relationship with female hygiene brand Libresse (also known as Bodyform in certain markets). Owned by Essity, the brand is already the winner of two Immortal Awards (2018 and 2019), which is an incredible achievement considering that only eight have been handed out ever. This year’s campaign, ‘Womb Stories’, has been named a European regional Finalist ahead of the upcoming global competition. Andrew and David tell me that the client is a “David in a permanent battle with Goliaths” and the “ultimate challenger brand” due to the fact that their core competition are the rather large entities of Procter & Gamble and Kimberly Clark. “We took the view with them that unless we do something that is going to make some people really, really, really happy and some people really, really, really mad, we have no way of breaking through the barrage of activity from these other Goliaths,” Andrew adds. “But when they do, and they have time and time again, the result is that they grow their share significantly for them. It may not cripple Kimberly Clark or P&G, but it's enough to make a big difference to do Essity's business. I think that's the only way you can play in that position.”

David likens the consistency of the Libresse work to the long-standing Snickers platform ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’, which is the foundation of the Impact BBDO campaign that’s gone through as a Finalist. “When that Snickers campaign began around 11 years ago, the brand was a distant seven. Now it’s a distant number one. It’s the same product, we just revealed the magic of it in a magical way.”

“The simple truth as well is that most advertising that doesn't work, doesn't work not because it's off strategy or trying to do the wrong thing,” adds Andrew. “It doesn't work because nobody notices it in the first place. That's the reason most work that doesn't work doesn't work. The biggest single risk you can have is of nobody noticing what you're doing. It really is. If there isn't something that is going to stop people, grab their attention, make other people talk about it, all of those things, then you really are taking risks.”

Sandy Hook Promise 'Back to School Essentials' - BBDO New York

Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency - Belted Survivors 

When pressed on other offices around the world that are performing particularly well at the moment, both Andrew and David remain enthused about the Middle East. Under that managerial remit is BBDO Pakistan, which is an office that has been exciting us internally at LBB in recent years. “Fatima Ansari, the creative leader there, is brilliant and young,” David says. “She’s really coming into her own and it’s a good example of our culture and people who can stand up and really make their way.”

“They are proving exactly what we tell all of our agencies,” adds Andrew. “When it comes to direct impact on our business, obviously the big accounts and the big agencies are going to make the biggest difference by definition, but when a piece of work is sitting being looked at by a jury, all work is created equal. Our expectation and hope is that all of the agencies in the network can contribute some kind of brilliance to prove our promise. I think it's absolutely fantastic what BBDO Pakistan has been doing over the last three or four years because they're getting recognised, not just in the context of Pakistan or the Middle East, but globally they've been recognised as producing some of the best work in the world. I'm very proud of them.”

Clemenger BBDO Wellington, also recognised as an Immortal Award Finalist this year, is also singled out for producing such a high standard of work in a city where 90% of projects are for government departments. “If you look at New Zealand, Colenso BBDO from Auckland has one of the greatest credit records on the planet,” says Andrew. “Clemenger BBDO Wellington has been a little bit in the shadow but they do truly extraordinary, behaviour changing work, it just doesn't always get the recognition that I think it deserves. I'm glad to see it getting that.”

They also note the positives in having certain agencies that they can predict will come up with something great every year, but equally so the virtues in being surprised by certain markets in particular years. “I like the fact that we depend on the smaller agencies that not everybody knows as well to bring forth brilliance,” says Andrew. “And they absolutely do.

“I don't think it's a secret, I don't think there's a secret formula and I don't think there's anything that's too hard to figure out,” he adds, returning to the overarching question of how to actually make all of this stuff happen. “It's just an absolute commitment. 

“Our mantra is The Work. The Work. The Work. Our goal is to create the world's most compelling, commercial content. And it is absolutely an act of conviction for the network, its agencies, and all the people that that is the right thing for us to be focused on, because that's the thing that has a chance of driving disproportionate results for our clients. All of the data, wherever you look, backs up that position. And then once you've absolutely committed to that, it's then all about execution. 

“And that is basically making all of your decisions, taking all of the steps that you take, not just the big ones, but the thousands and thousands of little ones that are taken every day in pursuit of that. And and if you do that consistently and persistently enough, you end up with the work that we end up with.”

Global winners of The Immortal Awards will be announced the week of the 30th November. Further information will be published on Little Black Book’s channels in the coming weeks. 


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LBB Editorial, Thu, 19 Nov 2020 17:27:02 GMT