Disrupt and Delight: 10 Business Lessons from Our First Decade


November 22, 2013

This article originally appeared in FullStart on November 22, 2013.

By Raphael Bemporad and Mitch Baranowski

After separate careers in political communications and consumer marketing, we founded BBMG as a different kind of agency, focused on promoting responsible business and positive social change. To survive the past 10 years, we’ve pivoted once or thrice, re-branded and grown a few gray hairs in the process. But we’ve stayed friends and stayed true to our initial vision.

Here are ten things we’ve learned getting to this stage in our journey:

1. Make a life, not just a living.

We met in 1990, introduced by Dr. John Rodden to help teach his class on utopian literature at the University of Texas at Austin. When you deconstruct classics like 1984, Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World, you ask some pretty big questions like, “What is the good life?” “What is the good society?” We’ve never forgotten what Dr. Rodden taught us, so when we had the chance to start BBMG with $3,000 and a dream in 2003, we created the firm with five core values in mind: Do what you love. Work with people you love. Stretch and grow every day. Do good. Live well.

2. Don’t be afraid to bring a point of view.

Traditionally agencies like ours have punted on a strong point of view. They profess to be agnostic, which works well when you want to take money from all sides, and too often they relegate anything socially minded to pro bono work. We’ve always tried to take a more holistic approach, working with our clients to embed sustainability into the business so it can drive shared value. Recently we pitched a big bank on changing its ways, bringing in a lot of research showing how frustrated customers are by the bank’s spurious practices and lack of real commitment to advance prosperity for all. Needless to say, we lost. But we lost with our heads held high.

3. Listen more than you talk.

There’s a reason we’re born with two ears and one mouth. But as we grow and push to stand out in the workaday world, we often jump to advise before truly understanding the task. There are no short cuts to great insights and creative solutions. We’ve learned over the years to craft an immersive discovery process that allows us to truly observe, listen and co-create with the consumers we’re trying to reach and engage. Another standard practice is to workshop solutions with client teams at key stages of the project. One of our pre-planning documents is called The Briefcase because it’s meant to capture everything we’ve heard after listening intently to the client’s needs, challenges and opportunities.

4. Advance the dialogue.

For decades MBA candidates have learned that functional and emotional benefits make up a brand’s DNA. But this approach, perfected at large consumer-packaged goods companies like Procter & Gamble, leaves no tools in the toolbox for brand managers to address a brand’s societal and environmental benefits. Inspired by triple bottom line thinking, we’ve tried to advance things with a new methodology for brand design called the Triple Value Proposition, which evolves the traditional brand pyramid in favor a more integrated strategy that unites practical, societal and tribal benefits. Twenty-first century brands like Patagonia, Nike and Chipotle know their larger purpose, understand their Triple Value Proposition and then embody it in disruptive yet delightful ways across every touch point, from product development and packaging to promotions and digital platforms.

5. Create a sacred bundle.

Years ago we borrowed a trope from Jane Goodall, which she had borrowed from nomadic tribes, and created a small sacred bundle housing mementoes from our team both personal and professional. At agency retreats or milestone events we unfold the bundle and share stories, add new items and introduce new members to the (not so recent anymore) past. We have snow globes that have inspired designs, torn pages from failed movie scripts, college photos, symbolic pens and even a wedding veil. The bundle helps us touch the font of inspiration and purpose, remembering why we started this agency in the first place, and it brings the team closer together around our shared vision.

6. First ask “How might we?” and then “Yes, and” each other.

Broadly speaking there are two types of projects. “Get Me One of Those” projects that come with tight budgets, tighter timelines and very clear demands by the client. New ads, new apps, new sites and so on. The second type is rarer and much harder to come by: “Help Me Change the Game” projects mandated or endorsed by the CEO, often meant to leapfrog the competition, maintain a leadership position or drive a rapid turnaround.

But as we’ve learned, innovation for innovation’s sake, when you’ve lost your sense of purpose, is a losing proposition. Witness Barnes & Noble and its Nook. Or the JC Penney revamp. We need more game-changing conversations, executives willing to bet on shifting the paradigm from less bad to net good, from resource scarcity to regeneration and resilience. We’ll only get there by asking “how might we” and then—banishing the devil’s advocate—building constructively on each other’s ideas. “Yes, and…”

7. The crowd is wise, indeed.

“How many consultants does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

“I don’t know. Let me focus group that and I’ll get back to you.”

In 2010 we created a skunkworks called The Collective, the first online community connecting sustainable brands and related causes with consumers who care to help them by sharing their thoughts and opinions. It fundamentally changed the way we work. Instead of drawing up ideas in an isolated conference room, we workshop them real-time with the very audiences we seek to engage. Now The Collective is a thriving private social network of several thousand participants who regularly co-create with brands that share their values.

8. Put fees at risk.

We’re small and independent. When we see a project or new venture we believe in—like a new car sharing service or a vertical farm—we’re able to put our time and passion into advancing its success. More recently, as we’ve pivoted the firm to do more innovation strategy, we’re much more inclined to put fees at risk, confident that our ideas are going to save money and drive revenue for our clients. Performance-based compensation structures have had a tough go of it in our business, so we’re feeling our way a bit. But we think it’s bound to find renewed traction, especially given the urgency surrounding sustainability as an innovation imperative. The greater risk is not doing more, in real partnership with our clients, to accelerate positive social change.

9. Be inspired and you will inspire.

Play, and a playful mind, is an essential pathway for generating big ideas. It helps us move beyond rigid rules and predetermined structures to create and imagine new possibilities. At BBMG we offer “Inspiration Accounts” for our employees. The only stipulation is to spend the money on something that inspires you and then share the experience with the team. We’ve had colleagues go sky-diving, take guitar lessons and pursue silk-screening, metal-working, mosaic tile design and much more. It’s been a privilege to seek and share inspiration, and it’s an exciting part of our culture.

10. Know with whom you will walk through the valley.

Not only are we proud to have survived the nastiest economic downturn that we’ll ever see (knock on wood), we’re proud to be thriving by doing what we love most: working on projects at the intersection of branding, sustainability and innovation. But these past few years haven’t been easy (understatement). Mitch and I often refer to each other as “the other spouse” and it’s true. You spend as much if not more time with your business partner as you do with your life partner. In darker moments—layoffs, resignations, failed launches, disappearing projects—it helps beyond words to be angling toward the sunlight with someone who knows your capacity, your strength, your pain, your dreams and who can be there at your side when the sunshine returns.

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