5 Minutes With… Bo Hellberg
It’s been an interesting 12 months for Bo Hellberg. Last October he joined sister agencies Brave and the then-Billington Cartmel. Since then he’s overhauled Billington Cartmel and relaunched it as HeyHuman, had a wild adventure in Detroit and gone to Cannes with magician Dynamo. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with the outspoken Swedish ECD to find out about HeyHuman’s mega-makeover, why agencies need to think smarter when it comes to awards and why he thinks it’s a great time to be in the advertising industry.
LBB> It was fun chatting to you at Cannes this year – though it seems that judging the promo category was particularly gruelling. I know since then you’ve gone on to talk at Creative Social about some of the problems with a lot of the entries at Cannes (e.g. not concise enough, just entered for the sake of it, too many social media stats etc.) – why do you think so many agencies are struggling to get it right with their entries, when a lot of what you’ve said seems (to me) to be common sense? Is it agency egos, confusing categories for awards… ?
BH> A nice answer to your question would be that clients and agency people both tend to fall in love with their own work, without considering if it’s a true creative benchmark.
A less nice answer would be that some haven’t bothered to do their homework.
But you are pointing out something important: there are many awards categories and subcategories, perhaps too many and it is confusing. It takes a lot of time and effort to define which one is the right for your work.
Also, it takes time and diligence to tell the story in a compact two minutes – a craft in itself that shouldn’t be underestimated. You could also argue that a case study is the ultimate test of a great idea; can you tell it in two minutes and convey why and how it’s amazing?
LBB> What are your thoughts on advertising awards more generally? Are they good for the industry?
BH> Yes. Creatives deal with rejection every day, and it is annual recognition of our efforts. On an industry level, it’s important to set a standard and a direction for what work we should aspire to do.
Our job, to a very large extent, is to be original – or at least fresh, as John Hegarty puts it. Taking insights and turning them into inspirational ideas.
To me, that’s one of the main purposes of awards shows – to celebrate and remind us on a regular basis what our job is and what we should be doing.
LBB> HeyHuman has undergone some massive changes since rebranding from Billington Cartmel earlier in the year. What were the drivers behind that?
BH> The new agency has very few similarities with the old one (apart from the address and phone number). The thinking, the approach, the work, the client list have all changed, including the management. So, it was obvious that the old name was no longer appropriate.
The name HeyHuman came from a piece of research that we’ve based our approach on, regarding perception vs. behaviour. The bottom line is that behaviour builds brands. Both ways. How brands behave (duh!) – but also when we, as consumers, adopt and change our behaviour. Human behaviour builds human brands, basically.
LBB> And aside from the name change, what else has been changing at the agency?
BH> Oh God, so much has changed over the last six months. It’s the whole agency mentality and the fabric of the building, literally. We’re refurbishing the whole office, we’ve brought in a lot of new people, about 50% have been in the agency less than a year – we’ve been fundamentally changing how we work, both internally and with clients, and of course the output.
LBB> Behaviour change and human psychology are really key to the HeyHuman brand and philosophy. From your perspective, as ECD, how do you ensure that creativity doesn’t get lost in the science and strategy? What are the keys to marrying behaviour change and creativity?
BH> Sure, it can easily sound a bit scientific, but it isn’t really. It’s just human behaviour; things that we as people do, don’t do or perhaps should do.
You could argue it’s economical behaviour principles and I can agree with that. But we’ve simplified those principles and made them applicable and practical. And no, I don’t think that the creativity would get lost. If you remember, one of the most successful and awarded campaigns in the last couple of years, ‘The Fun Theory’ for VW, was completely based on simple ways to change behaviour in creative ways.
In short, it’s still about great ideas, but ideas that actually benefit people and they can relate to.
LBB> I love the question on the Brave website: ‘What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?’ So… what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
BH> Honestly, I don’t think that way. I’d rather be fearless – or naïve – enough to take the approach that “it’ll work”. The worst that can happen is that the client backs off, the budget doesn’t stretch as far, or the time is too short.
Sure, we don’t win every time. But I’m a strong believer that you’ve got to stay true to who you are and what you think is right. Having said that, I do have a couple of clients right now that I’d like to have another go at.
LBB> I have a theory (an unfounded theory… ) that studying a foreign language is one of the most helpful things a writer can do, because it forces you to get to grips with the nitty-gritty of grammar and syntax. I know that you studied Spanish and that you spent some time studying in Mexico City, and I’d be interested to know how those experiences have directly or indirectly influenced you.
BH> Interesting theory. Well, English is a second language to me, so I guess moving to London or Melbourne would fall into the same context?
I do think studying or learning a new language changes how you see the world. It’s like another filter to take in and express through, which takes on a different dimension… OK, that sounded trippy. But there’s a discipline that goes into grammar and syntax that is helpful. And there’s the part when you realise that the translation never means exactly the same thing in a foreign language.
I haven’t really thought about how Spanish or spending time in D.F. (which is what you should call Mexico City!) has influenced me. I do think that being out of your comfort zone early in life is a good thing. Maybe I’m more relaxed in the general agency chaos or perhaps I think of storytelling in a different way.
LBB> How did you first end up in advertising? Was it an industry you deliberately sought out, or was it more accidental than that?
BH> Really randomly. It was nothing deliberate at all. I had done a bit of writing for magazines and papers, and used to hang out with a creative and curious bunch of people.
To be honest, I think it was more trial and error. I tried studying law, which didn’t really pan out. Then marine biology, which seemed to take an eternity. And then I did a creative writing course with an interesting copywriter. I got kind of hooked.
LBB> Over the course of your career, it looks like you’ve managed to surf the changing tide of the ad industry quite deftly. Where do you think the industry is heading next?
BH> Ha! Sounds like I’m some kind of a survivor.
I think what we’re seeing now are pretty clear indications of where things are going. First of all, advertising and communication is no longer something you are exposed to in return for a TV show or a magazine, or something else that you want. Brands are more and more becoming the actual content (or else really useful tools).
It sounds like a cliché, I know, but the brand story has to stand on its own two legs and be interesting enough for people to take notice of. Which leads into who actually comes up with ideas and how the work comes about. To give you an idea, a recent pitch included two production companies and two agencies. And in our list of partners are people in robotics and product development – sometimes even a neuroscientist.
Size and location are also becoming less and less important; some of the most interesting and international work I’ve seen in the last couple of months comes from a very small agency in Belgium, and from a mini-collective in London.
On the more cynical side, I think the whole ‘Internet of Things’ and wearables stuff will become the CRM guys’ wet dream. But that’s not creative, it’s just creepy.
LBB> What are your biggest frustrations with the ad industry right now?
BH> I honestly don’t have any massive frustrations with the industry; I think we’re all quite blessed to be able to spend our days coming up with ideas instead of having normal jobs.
If I were to point something out, though, I’d say we have too few different thinkers. I went to an event recently where Gerry Moira talked about great ads from the 1970s and the people who used to work in creative departments. By the sounds of it, there were very few who had gone to ‘ad school’ back then; most were creative souls who had a different perspective on life. Like Salman Rushdie, who used to be a copywriter at Ogilvy and whom Gerry worked with way back.
One other thing is that I see a lot of fear in our clients, and inside agencies too, which I presume is a hangover from the recession. This means that we are not getting the best out of creative departments and, sometimes, clients bully creatives into doing what they want. But what’s the point of involving creatives if you’re not going to use their expertise?
LBB> … and what’s the most exciting thing about working in advertising now?
ROBOTS! Seriously, one of the coolest things I’ve seen recently is the ‘Tate After Dark’ thing where you control robots roaming around the Tate Gallery from the comfort of your sofa. It’s awesome – not just from an ideas point of view, but the experience itself is great and I loved reading about the effort that went into building the robots.
On a more general note, I think it’s a great time for all of us. If you think about it, there really are no rules any more on how to be original. In an average week, we’ll be doing TV, film, screen prints – but we’ll be also building virtual experiences and letting loose our innovation team, to make the impossible possible.
LBB> I really wanted to ask you about the tequila campaign we were talking about in Cannes, but I know it’s not out yet… which other recent projects or campaigns have really resonated with you?
BH> From a very traditional art directional point of view, I really like the work that we did for 5 Gum last year. It’s got great standout; it feels original and there was a great deal of craft going into the production.
We’ve also go a lovely ‘craft’ campaign for Addlestone’s “Free Range Cider” full of handmade posters and print ads carved out of wood.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?
BH> For their courage, conviction and creativity: Trent Reznor, August Strindberg, David Bowie, Mark Twain, Nikola Tesla….
But I presume you want creative director names?
So always Bill Bernbach. For obvious reasons. Rémi Babinet and Stephan Xiberras.
And Steve Henry. Equally obvious.
LBB> What does the rest of 2014 hold for you?
BH> I’ll be taking up vinyāsa yoga. It seems like the thing to do right now…