In Focus: Simon Sherwood, BBH

With a one-way ticket, a small suitcase and a Filofax, Simon Sherwood arrived in Singapore to set up what would eventually become one of the most successful ad agencies on the island: BBH. Vipanchi gets insights from BBH’s Global Group Chairman.

By Vipanchi Dinavahi

BBH’s mantra is “When the world zigs, zag.” How did BBH “zag” into Asia?
We took an interesting decision to come here when we decided to open our second office in the mid-1990s. Most agencies were heading to North America but we didn’t. We decided to come to Asia. We thought, perhaps naively, that one office in Asia would cover the whole region. We didn’t really know what “region” was. We’ve been working with clients who had regional headquarters here. They helped us define a region that went from India to across Japan and down to Australia. So, roughly the middle was Singapore. But there were some discussions around where we should set up our office. I figured that if we’re only going to have one office, it should be somewhere that is easy to get in and out of. So Singapore it was.
How did you go about setting up the office?
I was running the London office then and I flew down on a one-way ticket, a suitcase, a Filofax and a strategy. That was it. That was absolutely what we had. There was nothing at all. I moved into a service apartment, a building called The Ascott along Scotts Road then. In the morning, I used to stick a little sign on the front of BBH and, in the evening, I’d take it down. I hired a full-timer and a part-timer initially. My team and I worked there all day and after they left, I’d go to the other room and that was it. That was my office and my home for the first three months.
During that time, we did some hiring and found our first office space at Duxton Hill. It was a very nice shophouse which we rented a part of. In the end, we took over the whole place obviously. So that was how it started. That was in 1996, a long time ago.
Compared to then, how has the advertising industry transformed?
When I started working in this business 35 years ago, ad agencies did everything for their clients. So we did all the research for them, we did new product development for them, we made their ads, we placed the media, we did all the kinds of analysis as to whether the advertising was working or not – we did the whole thing. And then it got separated into specialist industries and categories, and now it’s coming together again. So, to me it is almost an unrecognisable business. The essence remains the same: brands need to communicate through the expression of ideas that people can relate to. 
But you know, back in those days and beyond, it was a simpler business. I mean, there weren’t many choices of media channels. So we either made print ads or made films for our clients, and then you sit down in the beginning of the year and agreed to what needed to be done. That was it.
I used to make an ad film and then, three months after it aired, you’d work out whether it worked or not. Now you can work out in about three minutes whether it’s working and change it if need be.
We now need different kinds of skills and different kinds of people. Multiple channels, different kinds of real-time adjustments, analytics and data have become critical. What is your take on new media and access to data?
We don’t have that data. We don’t own it, we don’t collect it and we don’t manage it. But we need to be able to interpret it in order to make it useful as a basis for establishing creative platforms for the brands we work with.
Today, media companies are the ones who own large amounts of data. There’s a huge value in that data and this is what clients are buying. Since traditional agencies like ours don’t have access to this data, they tend to be excluded in parts of the journey. But the key thing to note is that media companies are trying to move towards us because, having gone through this period of massive segmentation, consolidation is taking place. So we need to make sure that we have the ability to understand, interpret and use that kind of data.
What then will help creative agencies stay competitive in today’s market?
It’s a land grab out there because everyone is competing for the available revenue and everyone is trying to get a share of your competitors’ revenue. What clients have done is divide up their revenue pie to ever smaller slices, and the slices we get are getting smaller. We are therefore competing with shrinking revenue and, just for economic survival, agencies tend to operate in the adjacent segments as well as the one we’re in.
That said, I still believe that if you have ideas that make brands powerful and desirable, you can weather the changing markets and economy.
How do brands typically react to recession?
We are talking about an industry that is only about 60 or 70 years old since the advent of commercial television, which is something that happened in the middle of the 20th century. So through the recessions in the last 60 or 70 years, of which I’ve worked for 35 years, I have been through three or four. Clients have learnt that actually reducing their investment in their brand is not necessarily good for their long-term health. And yes, you can take short-term measures, you can pull back your funds, you can cancel your support. However, big multi-national companies like Unilever actually go, “This is the time to invest more” because we can really steal a march in our competition.
Comapre to MNCs, how do SMEs regard advertising and branding?
Most companies of that nature that I have come across have been very entrepreneurial. They are normally founded by people who have an idea to set up a business and have a very strong point of view about their idea and their business. Also, they provide the kind of inspiration for the business and the leadership. However, they can be quite difficult to work with or collaborate with because they don’t necessarily want to hear about the direction someone else thinks they should go and what they would do. But other times, they would take on external input and advice.
As a global head of an organisation that sells ideas, how do you channel and streamline all the creativity that spews in different tangents?
A lot of creativity exists in the company, but only some of it is used to create advertising ideas for clients. So that’s part of the inefficiency of our business. It’s the people who think the way you think or creative people think. A lot of that energy in creativity is wasted. The challenge is to find different ways of applying it. We have tried in the past to be entrepreneurial about how we run a business in order to capture more of that kind of value that we can create. It’s always a challenge to work in an environment where power of the idea is the most important thing. However, our business is changing, and supporting ideas, keeping them alive and creating an environment that can contribute to more ideas is really challenging in a creative business. Yes, it can be a bit chaotic, but we have quite a lot of processes in place that are there to try and channel those ideas the right way.
What was your first campaign that you worked on?
When I started working, I joined an agency in London called DDB in 1979. The first client I worked on was Volkswagen. Someone dug up this little fact on how Volkswagen was the number one imported car in Japan. At the time, Japan was exporting most of their cars and they were flooding European markets. Everyone was buying Nissans and Toyotas. In essence, Japan imported very few cars and Volkswagen was number one.
So this was the first commercial I worked on, which later became a very famous piece of advertising that existed in the late 1970s early 1980s. The commercial had a Japanese presenter talking about how the reason why Volkswagen is the number one imported car is because they are so tough. And from the top of the screen, a Volkswagen Golf would drop onto the ground, and he would get in it and drive it off. This became a very famous piece of advertising in the UK, and that was the first thing I worked on.
Share with us your recent campaigns.
One really interesting and innovative campaign we did last year was for Axe Apollo. It was based on the idea that girls can’t resist astronauts. It was a competition to send people into space –“leave a man, come back a hero” We won tons of prizes apart from the coveted Cannes effectiveness Grand Prix.
This multi-channel campaign generated a large-scale awareness with over one million views and more than half a million people participating in more than 50 markets. So in terms of scale, numbers and the sheer audaciousness the idea that a body spray will actually end up sending a man into space was a big thing.
What is your favourite part about building a campaign?
There are two high points when you develop a campaign. The first is when you actually present it and the idea is to climb. And they go, “Love it, let’s do it.” You can’t beat that as a kind of high you get from this business. And the second thing is it takes quite a long time to create something and when you actually see it finished, that’s another kind of “Wow” moment.
Sometimes I forget why I went into this business in the first place and then occasionally you have these moments and you know that’s why.