A new agency wants to help brands have a credible place in culture

Berners Bowie Lee's model is based on looking outside of the advertising bubble to help brands get ahead of trends and shifts.
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Berners Bowie Lee’s name is meant to evoke the “name on the door” convention of years past that agencies seem to have left behind, with a nod to the inventor of the world wide web and the musician.

But the new agency, led by founding partners Devon Williamson, Michael Murray and Matt Cammaert, is built entirely around a new-world approach that aims to ensure clients can be part of shifts in culture, instead of piggybacking on them.

“If you look back to DDB and Bernbach and his VW ad, he made that car a part of culture and that’s why it was so successful,” Murray says. “But what usually happens is agencies jump on trends, and when you’re jumping on trends, you eventually get left behind. But if you find turning points and are there right at the beginning, we can be part of those movements in a credible way, and as a brand you reap the rewards of those shifts.”

Before going freelance in 2016, Murray held top creative roles at Publicis, Blammo and CP+B Canada. Williamson has been freelancing for the better part of the last year, prior to which she was on the creative teams at Cheil Canada and FCB/Six, where she worked on campaigns that earned her a top art director spot on the Creative Report Card. The pair will lead the agency’s creative offering. Cammaert, who is leading the business side of the operation, spent years as president at Cheil Canada before leaving last summer.

BBL aims to put its clients at those cultural turning points through what it calls “Culture Mapping,” tapping people outside of advertising – like academics, journalists and filmmakers – to identify changes in consumer behaviour, values and beliefs, before they become part of the mainstream. The creatives and strategists will come up with a hypothesis based on what they see, but those outside the bubble will talk to people in the world and learn about what is actually happening, adjusting or completely changing that hypothesis based on what they learn.

“Data and research lets you learn about people,” Murray says. “We want to learn from them.”

BBL will engage these outsiders on a freelance basis – as will with the creatives, strategists and other talent it needs to serve the needs of a client or project – and do so in a way they are used to. For example, it has already set up a Medium site to host stories its journalists write about cultural shifts they explore.

What BBL aims to do is less about figuring out what is going on in culture, and more about understanding why those shifts are happening. To illustrate the difference, Murray points to Animal Crossing. The video game’s record-breaking sales and the ability to share customized content and items invited numerous brands the opportunity to organically insert themselves into an environment with a massive audience.

But Murray believes these executions rarely addressed why the game was so popular and what players got out of playing it. Understanding those kinds of things will help BBL’s clients offer something that is more useful to consumers, he says, giving them a more credible place in culture, as well as keep up with what’s coming next.

“It’s hard for brands to stand out when everyone is jumping on the same trends, and telling similar stories about similar people,” Williamson adds. “This is a tool we’re using to avoid the homogenous work we’re all used to seeing and, frankly, frustrated with.”

The founders also used the Culture Mapping process to develop its agency model, engaging CMOs, tech founders, lawyers and influencers, as well as execs and creatives from other agencies to find what “turning points” are happening within the industry.

Like many agencies in start-up mode, BBL will have a flexible fee structure, based on the project. It is also creating core pods for its clients, each of which will have one of the founders working with freelance talent engaged for their needed skill. But it is also looking outside of its bubble for that talent as well: the project management lead it brought in had no background in advertising, which Williamson says brought in structures, organizational approaches and tools the team had not seen before.

BBL will also not have any account staff, with clients getting direct access to each of the founders.

“We believe, fundamentally, that the world has changed and requires direct access to expertise,” Cammaert says. “If a client wants to talk about creative, then they’re going to talk to Michael and Devon, not wait around to get clarification or feedback. We try to remove those redundant layers.”

Adds Williamson: “We talked to lots of different people who walked into their agency and didn’t know who the people working on their business are. So why can’t we all be a part of that relationship management process?”

BBL will bring in more full-time talent and functions as it scales, but Cammaert says keeping that direct access will be something the agency will “100%” strive to maintain as it grows.

Though its founders could not name them, BBL is currently working with two clients; one is an ecommerce retailer and the other is a CPG company, for which the agency will be working on a new project launch. The agency’s first work is expected in market this fall.