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New Wave Creatives

"Push work to the edge of madness": Decoding Helen Rhodes

The BBH London ECD is one of a new wave of creative leaders. But how did she get here and what's her mission?

By Olivia Atkins

Ensuring that a campaign is culturally relevant is possibly one of the hardest aspects for creatives to tackle. But a look at the career of Helen Rhodes, the newly-appointed ECD at BBH, proves she has the cultural touch.

Having bounced between agency and client side - she did a two year stint at the BBC's in-house creative team during the pandemic no less - Helen knows what it takes to pull an exceptional idea out of the bag. She's sold a lot of fried chicken while in the USA, created an immersive online exhibition for I May Destroy You which aired stories around sexual assault, and put together a digital zine in collaboration with The Face and Gal-dem to discuss consent, gender and sexuality. All touching on the cultural zeitgeist and resonating with audiences.

And since her appointment at BBH last year, she has focused on diversifying the agency's pool of experience, launching the creative incubator programme Barn to allow more people into the industry.

So what kind of a creative leader is she? We caught up with Helen to find out.

Creative Salon: What does creativity mean to you Helen?

Helen Rhodes: For me, creativity is about creating something new, that's never been done before, that makes people feel something and stays with them. Creativity is also about never settling; always trying to push and do new things; improve at every stage of the of the journey.

CS: What role did creativity play in your childhood?

HR: I loved drawing as a child and my mum was a drama teacher, so she always took us to see plays from a young age. It exposed me to the world of performance, costume and set design and I got very used to watching something for two hours.

CS: What did you want to bring to the creative industry?

HR: I initially did a mixed art and media degree at university when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. While temping with secretarial work, I thought about advertising and went through the Yellow Pages contacting every agency listed. BBH was quite near the top and they had me in for a week's work experience. That's where I found out what creatives do and was instantly taken. I loved that you get to come up with ideas that go out into the world.

I’ve always wanted to do the best work possible and do stuff that hasn't been done before. There were only a few females in that department then; maybe that's something that I've taken with me throughout my career and wanted to prioritise diversifying departments.

Since I joined BBH a year ago, we’ve focused on evolving our placement scheme, The Barn, to reduce the financial and cultural barriers that surround advertising. Tony (Cullingham, pictured below with Helen, who ran the advertising course at Watford College for many years) agreed to be a tutor on the apprenticeship and turn it into a creative incubator. We’ve completed the first iteration, which went really well. We had eight interns with no ad school experience; now they've all got portfolios and one team was even hired by us.

CS: What challenges did you identify at the start of your career?

HR: There were less females coming in; we were definitely the minority. The world is changing. We’re all currently seeking different voices and people from different backgrounds to bring different outlooks to the table and be able to authentically talk about things.

CS: Were there any particularly inspirational people who helped shape your path along the way?

HR: I started out in advertising via the (now defunct) Watford course and studied under Tony Cullingham. That was a pivotal experience; it taught me how to write an ad and I left with a full portfolio. I met my old partner there and we worked together for 14 years, including 10 months at CDD while it was still running as a start-up. It was an amazing experience. They’d made iconic ads like Guinness Surfer and they’re wonderful people to be around. They had such high creative standards. We went to TBWA afterwards and learnt from more inspiring creatives, like Trevor Beattie and Paul Silburn. I learned a lot about humour from Paul. From Danny Brooke Taylor – who eventually took over from Trevor – I learnt what makes a good boss: one that really cares for creatives. And then I went to W+K Portland and continued working with amazing people like the now global CCO, Karl Lieberman.

CS: Do you have a favourite piece of work from your career?

HR: There's a few that standout for different reasons. At the BBC, our piece for the Tokyo Olympics recently won a BAFTA – and that was always a life goal of mine. At Wieden+Kennedy, my work with KFC was so fun; it was a perfect storm where the client wanted to make great work. It also helped me to understand America better. Since joining BBH, I’m really proud of our relaunch for Ribena, Chin up, which took the brand in a whole new direction. It feels good doing funny work in such serious times post-pandemic and during a recession. There's a lot of purposeful stuff in advertising but we can continue to be entertaining.

CS: And what conditions do you need to set your creativity alight?

HR: I try to surround myself with as much culturally interesting stuff as possible - by reading comic books, newspapers and watching films, TV shows and cartoons. I go to the theatre and am forever down online rabbit holes, looking up photographers and illustrators. That’s what makes us good at our jobs - absorbing ourselves in interesting things. It's hard to find time to do that when you have a demanding job and a family, but it does make us better at what we do.

But the most important thing is people and how you bounce off each other. I'm really lucky with my creative teams at BBH.

CS: So what is it about the ad industry that excites you most right now?

HR: It's always changing and there’s a desire to constantly create new things. Creatives working in a creative agency don't want to just do what’s been done before; you want each project to be new, and covering new ground. That's exciting.

The media landscape has changed so much; when I was a kid, we had five TV stations, now there’s Netflix, HBO, Amazon, gaming and social media that’s taking up the audience's attention. So advertising has to be entertaining and play on a similar level to take people's attention away from those things. That's a good challenge. The number of platforms means that the possibilities of doing stuff is more infinite, which can be a bit daunting. But I think the value of a great creative idea hasn't changed, just how we exploit it has.

CS: How would you describe your approach to creative problem solving?

HR: By being prolific, especially in teams. You have to set the conditions so they can do the best work and make sure they have the most fun while doing it. If you enjoy what you do and you put a lot into it, the end result will be better. Encouraging people to speak up and knowing that anything is possible is important. When everyone’s so worried about doing the right thing and not messing up, they’re not going to push the work as far as it can go. I try to encourage creatives to push work to the edge of madness; there’s always going to be people within an agency who can reign it in, but creatives and problem solvers need to go to extreme and unexpected places. You can only do that by trying lots of things and not limiting thinking.

CS: What’s the biggest challenge that you're facing as a creative leader of today?

HR: Too many meetings. The role of creative leader is quite broad and sometimes not everything is connected yet everything affects everything. It’s good to be involved in so many aspects and to have such a broad sweep of the agency, so being a creative leader requires knowing your priorities in order to be able to make sure the work is as good as it can be. And sometimes you can get distracted from that. So I’m trying not to get trapped into so many meetings.

CS: Imagine advertising is banned in 2023. What would you do with the rest of your life?

HR: Wow. I’ve been doing this for 20 years but I'd love to be a painter or some weird recluse. I would also like to write children's books or maybe specialise in some lost art, like basket weaving and bring it back into fashion. I'd like to do something creative. But in advertising, you get to sort of dabble in lots of stuff, which is what keeps it exciting, from directing and making TV ads, to typography and illustration, or learning about the metaverse. It’s hard to then specialize in one thing.

CS: Finally, what are the biggest lessons you've learned throughout your career?

HR: The more you put into a project, the greater the rewards. Giving everything to projects - not to the point of exhaustion - but being connected to the fun of it is vital. A lot of the time, we get so caught up in the destination of finishing something, whereas actually enjoying the process is just as important.


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