Alex Grieve

The Difference "Difference" Makes

BBH's CCO on what turning 40 means for the agency, where the 'real' power of difference lies, and the 'Differently Does It' film competition

By Alex Grieve

BBH is 40 years old. We’ve hit middle age. And for a cutting-edge creative company, in an industry obsessed with youth, that could be a problem. Middle age doesn’t have a great rep: There’s middle-aged spread. You have a mid-life crisis. Sex becomes fair to middling, in middle age memory muddles.  

It’s all about, apparently, reduction. Of curiosity waning; of energy depleting. Of life being on a downward curve. Ogden Nash said, “middle age is Saturday night, and the phone rings and you hope it isn’t for you”. That one is actually true. But in general, it is, of course, all bullshit.  

John Bartle said, “immature with age”.  Sir John Hegarty said, “do interesting things and interesting things will happen to you”. And Sir Nigel Bogle’s take on the middle was this: “Stand in the middle of the road and you’re going to get run over”.

The spirit of our founders has meant that at BBH we always take the road less travelled.

We don’t zig, we zag.  We believe in the power of difference to make a difference.

BBH are 40. But we are not going gently into that good night. We are going to do middle age differently.  

By doubling down on the thing that makes us, us: difference. But also by clarifying what the hell it exactly means.

Just because it sounds simple & obvious & clear doesn’t mean it is. The truth is difference means different things to different people. That’s a strength (every ‘big idea’ needs to have flex) but it’s also a weakness because it can mean everything and nothing.

First things first, doing different work is in our DNA. Because different work cuts through. It is more memorable. It delivers attention. But that’s obvious, right? I doubt there’s a single advertising agency on the planet that wouldn’t sign up to that (whether they deliver is another question for another time). It’s a minimum requirement; it’s hygiene.  

We also start by looking for the difference in our clients' business and then using that to give them a uniquely ownable space that’s, you guessed it, different from all their competitors. This is more ownable. It does lead to greater effectiveness as BBH’s unparalleled track record at IPA et al will testify to. But, let’s be honest, it is hardly revolutionary.  

I believe the real power of power of difference lies not as a philosophy on the work but lies within those who make the work: the people. It’s more about the how than the why.

Put simply, the more different the people - in race, gender, sexual orientation, class, nationality, young or old, introvert or extrovert, right-wing supporter, left-wing activist, chicken wing lover - the more different the work will be.  

That’s why at BBH we are committing to creating an agency that is full of genuinely different people. Of course that necessitates an absolute commitment to DE&I. Through our initiatives with The Barn, Unsigned, Homegrown, and even the short film competition, ‘Differently Does it’ that we launched for our 40th anniversary to promote up-and-coming diverse film-makers we’re doing fair to middling there.

But it’s more than that. It’s understanding that different people operate differently. They have different energy, different work patterns. They deal with pressure differently, they relax differently. They have different world views; different experiences. The trick is to allow all that difference to blend and bubble within a culture that nurtures it and a process that accommodates it.

Do all that and the difference will lead to the same result over and over and over again: great work that works great.

Alex Grieve is the Global and London CCO at BBH


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