#8 An Hour of Advertising with… Mel Exon

Mel Exon has spent her career doing what other people say they’re going to do.

She’s stayed loyal to a company (for 19 years). She’s done her own thing (with the support of her agency — one that’s historically been one of the best in the game).

When she stopped learning, she moved on to something more interesting and progressive.

And when there was a chance to write that novel we all say we’re eventually going to write, she took a year off and started typing.

Mel’s incredibly smart and incredibly generous — generous with both her time and with the thinking she shares with others.

And she’s incredibly self-effacing too. Perhaps that’s why we spend a large chunk of the interview discussing various career fuck ups and other moments Mel shudders at.

Fuck ups vary from the precocious (putting a £1 million profit target against a two-person start up) to the downright terrifying (going toe-to-toe with John Hegarty), but they all provide a platform for important career lessons.

We also chat about what it’s like to leave an agency after 19 years, how BBH Labs helped shape the digital advertising industry, the benefits and pitfalls of industry festivals, and a whole lot more…

Part one: Embarrassing career moments, launching BBH Labs and preparing to be fired…

Do you remember the first time in your career you really fucked up?

It was a very long time ago. As I remember it, my fuck up was getting wildly overexcited by doing something new and just being convinced that everyone — and I mean, everyone — was going to agree. There was Ben Malbon (now a Director at Google) and me in a self-appointed bunker in the bowels of BBH in 2006/7, with Ben’s brilliant brother, Tim Malbon and his team from MadebyMany. We were working with a brave BA client who had said ‘here’s an awful lot of money, can you build us this thing you’re describing as a social utility?’

Our idea was to create a service for Exec Club members that essentially twinned New York and London (“if you like this park or bar in London, here’s one in New York you might also like”). NY-LON was BA’s most popular and profitable route, but highly competitive.

Three months in a bunker later and we’re so damn proud of what we’ve created. And we’ve definitely drunk our own Kool-Aid. I just remember bustling in to (then BBH’s Executive Creative Director) Nick Gill’s office with all the service design and UX work, lists of achingly cool content editors and all these documents that until then I’d never bothered talking to Nick or anyone else about. I presented this whole thing, just expecting him to love it. And he just looked at me as if I’d completely lost the plot.

How did you handle that?

Bearing in mind that Nick and I go back a very long way — we made Boddingtons TV ads together when we were kids — it was just the most embarrassing moment of my career. Where the gap between your hyped-up expectation and someone who has had zero involvement so far — I hadn’t even told him about the brief — was huge. He hated it.

I remember burning with righteous indignation. But eventually I learned from it. The work that MadebyMany in particular had done was brilliant. A social utility created before Facebook even existed was an amazing thing. But don’t drink your own Kool-Aid before all is said and done. I learned how important it is to take people on a journey with you.

You eventually got the work out there though — was it the catalyst for BBH Labs?

Yes we did. And it actually worked. At least until Facebook arrived in the UK and a couple of years later the service was migrated onto that platform because it was where the audience was.

Back in 2007, we had had the idea but it was at least six months later that Ben and I managed to set up BBH Labs. Or rather we went cap-in-hand to Gwyn Jones, who was then BBH’s global CEO. We said: ‘we’d really like to give up our day jobs and do more of the stuff like the BA work’. Because we wanted to keep learning. I think we learned more in those 3 months than any other time and we were arrogant enough to believe that the industry needed to do more learning too.

Gwyn had many, many questions, and was clearly a little like ‘hold your horses, what do you mean give up your entire day job!?’. Nonetheless he was supportive. And my God he was patient.

Patient how?

In retrospect it took about six months to incubate BBH Labs because, whilst Ben and I weren’t stupid, we really didn’t know what we were doing at the outset. For example I remember writing a forecast P&L. In retrospect that was a pointless thing to do for a unit like Labs. It probably needed in its first instance just to go out and learn and experiment, and the learnings could then be taken back into the core agency. Maybe then money could be made. But no, Ben and I thought we could make money from the get-go.

I was sitting there with our FD trying to write a business plan, with no real clue how to do so. Maybe the thing is to not worry about it as you’ll eventually learn stuff like this on the job, but we just went ahead and wrote a business plan anyway. We ended up putting £1 million revenue against BBH Labs’ first year in the forecast. That number went into the main BBH forecast and it just sat there. At the time there were just two of us. With no clients and no product to sell.

So it’s fair to say you wouldn’t take the same approach now?

I was a pretty good Business Director. I knew how to lead big pieces of business — I’d run Levi’s and I was running British Airways. But I learned then that Business Directors, before they’re made Business Directors, should be taught not just to understand the finances of how to run a piece of business profitably, but actually to understand how a company runs things profitably.

It made me realise everyone should experience setting up a business, preferably as early as possible, even if it’s a lemonade stall. We learn by doing.

Beyond the rookie business plans, take me through the first few months at BBH Labs…

Well obviously, despite our forecasts, we don’t make any money for 3 or 4 months. Then something miraculous happens and we win a few clients, alongside doing our own experiments. So we’re starting to learn properly and maybe you think we might make some money — though still nowhere near the figure we confidently promised.

Sadly then the recession really bit. It was 2008. A lot of the clients we had at the time had ‘innovation’ in their title — so all of them were either moved on to other jobs or fired. Ben and I had very, very, very stressed conversations and I remember thinking ‘we’re going to get fired ourselves’. To be honest I think I deserved to get fired. I learnt an awful lot from that whole experience.

So you didn’t get fired?

What was amazing was that Gwyn and Ben Fennell and Nigel Bogle were supportive. BBH was a very well run business: those three in particular taught me the importance of taking calculated risks and playing the long game. I’m sure they had some really serious chats about us behind closed doors, but they said that they’d been looking at everything we’d been doing, that we weren’t going to be fired, and actually they saw some value in what we’d been learning and writing about and what we’d been experimenting with.

Part two: Finding the value in BBH Labs, developing client relationships and the highs and lows of SXSW…

You say that BBH saw value in what Labs had been writing about and experimenting with. Is that how you saw it? That there was value in agency blogging and experimenting?

We set up a blog at BBH Labs not long after starting, but we’d been on Twitter right from the very beginning. And that meant we learnt a lot from a group of people who weren’t from BBH in the first place. It sounds crazy, but we spent hours and hours with companies we had no affiliation with, but whom we’d met on Twitter (N.B. which was summed up beautifully in Mel’s farewell post on the BBH Lab blog here).

And this was like micro-blogging. We’d have these rash, experimental ideas and would put them out there. People were responding very kindly — I think because they just appreciated that someone was sparking conversation about finding different kinds of ideas and different kinds of solutions. It was 2008/9 and by then there was this perfect storm of recession and digital disruption, and we were a part of it. Being at the coal face of that was valuable for BBH.

It must have really needed the support of all of BBH to work?

Nigel (Bogle) used to say: ‘run at the future’. So I think it allowed them to say ‘we’re not entirely sure what you’re up to but we think you’re on to something, you can both think and write well, and there is some inherent value here’. The problem with a lot of agency labs were that they were a PR tool, not a learning tool. Ben and I always just wanted to use ours to learn and to do so out in the open, because it was faster. We wanted to say ‘we’re thinking and doing this, what do you all think?’ and get a response. It made things better.

During that period, I suddenly realised what I wanted in my professional life and in terms of my mindset was to create balance. I don’t mean work/life. I mean I wanted to understand the extremes as deeply as I could — to understand the creative, intellectual positions we often take that are the polar opposite of one another — and find the balance somewhere between the two, because that’s often where the truth is. Try not to believe the hype, but equally not dismiss something coming around the corner just because you don’t know or understand it yet.

How you then impart what you learn and do so in a way that’s not patronising or over-simplistic is important. These days the world is only getting more binary: ‘hot takes’ and polarised opinion seem to pay. So, it may not sound too sexy, but I guess I decided then to dedicate myself to the cause of fighting for balance, at least in our discourse.

So what did that mean your job description was at the time?

Initially we were seen as ‘running BBH’s innovation department’, but when I came back from maternity leave in early 2010, I deliberately ditched the word innovation because it had become overused and even toxic. For some, it suggested that the rest of the company wasn’t innovative.

Language creates reality, and that can be an amazingly subtle and yet powerful, kinda terrifying thing in organisations full of very clever, very creative people. I’m remember Gwyn saying ‘you guys are the scouts ahead of the wagon. You go out, have a look, and bring your ideas and your findings back to the main agency. If it’s good, we can scale it, if it’s not, you can keep looking’. But even the language of ‘scouts ahead of the wagon’ somehow diminished the rest. It’s always been tricky.

With the clients you had early on, how did you deal with the fact they probably had ‘innovation’ in their title when you knew you needed to speak to the wider marketing team?

I think we probably learnt — in fact everyone learnt — that the idea of having someone who was just in charge of innovation was an indulgence. Clients just needed to have their CMO to be a very innovative individual. And interestingly, whilst we found nobody was going to outsource their innovation within their own company, they were willing to talk to specialists in the agency world. Because we’d done these experiments and because we’d been using social networks religiously since it started, we were the experts.

If your job is to always have an expert eye on ‘what’s next’, what’s been your take on things like SXSW and Cannes? I know agencies have very different views on them…

Personally I’ve got a really simple rule of thumb. If I’m going to be spending most of my time learning something while there, go. If I’m not learning anything, then don’t. But it depends on the agency values. I know other people use things like SXSW for different reasons. My husband’s company (Joint) go every year and it’s a huge shared experience, it’s part of their culture to do that together. It’s a mix of meeting new people, learning stuff from great speakers, trying out some stuff they’ve never seen, eating a lot of barbecue together — they move as a pack.

I stopped going to SXSW because the first three years I went were the most mind-blowing experiences of my professional life. I mean, Twitter was launched there, lots of platforms and tech were discovered there. The whole thing was taken really seriously by a very broad ‘interactive’ community.

But honestly then too many marketers turned up and diluted it. Agencies turned up and treated it like client entertainment or PR. Austin prides itself on being weird, but it just isn’t weird any more if half of London is there. I felt I wasn’t learning enough, so I stopped going. A conference needs to be as different as possible so that you definitely learn something and often that’s as much about the people you find there.

The minute you’re taking clients to festivals it’s all over…

I actually think there’s something to be said about feeling more than a little scared about going. Not so comfortable that you can take a client and be certain they’re going to have a great time. Of course, it depends on the client — I know some great clients who are right at the edge pushing people to be more experimental — but a great event needs ground breaking thinking that makes you feel a bit uneasy.

Part three: Having a digital role at a traditional agency, the challenges in hiring talent and standing up to a creative icon…

At what point as BBH Labs did you see what you were doing become a greater part of, as you put it, ‘the main BBH agency’?

In 2010 we won Yeo Valley and did a campaign that was born on the social web with just a couple of ‘superbowl’ TV spots, which at the time no-one had done before. And no-one would have had the guts to do it if we hadn’t done all these experiments beforehand.

You’d never give someone this title now, but I ended up being made Chief Digital Officer of BBH for a couple of years and that allowed me to run a couple of large clients who were looking for a different approach. In some respects, I’d gone full circle: from being at the heart of the company to the edges of the company, and now I was being walked back into the middle, just taking some of those edges with me. And in the end that meant I went from being the Founder of BBH Labs to the Chief Digital Officer of BBH to the Managing Director of BBH.

How did that affect your relationship with the rest of BBH? There were a lot of big names who’d been running the ship for a long time?

Well it meant I went toe-to-toe with John (Hegarty) a few too many times. He is very open and public about the fact he thinks technology has diluted the creative power of the work agencies do. And he is not wrong. A lot of what is either put on the web or made of the web is still not as well-crafted or inspired as things were of yesteryear. But my slightly naïve statement is that we’ve been writing and painting for millennia, and relatively speaking we woke up this morning and had code. So I feel like we need to cut ourselves and technology a little bit of slack. We will get better at this.

When BBH Labs was really kicking on the ‘digital agency’ scene was exploding too. What was it like being one of the few ‘traditional agencies’ doing digital, as opposed to the likes of Glue and AKQA who were carving it out as a niche?

For a while what you’ve just described was the only thing anyone ever talked to me about! I stayed at BBH for 19 years for a reason. I felt I was being allowed to learn and work at the edges of the present and future. I was not an engineer in Google X, I was running an innovation unit at an ad agency. We called ourselves a marketing R&D unit because we weren’t a lab for a tech company, we were a lab for a creative agency. That sounds mundane but it was an important distinction.

Where I was happiest was trying to unite what felt like the future with some incredible past DNA of BBH. Pulling this together was going to be good for my company and good for me, because I still loved that ‘we are on a mission together’ mindset and the desire to make the very best possible product. And it didn’t matter to me if that was made of code, or made of pixels or paint, or made of words. The culture of BBH was more important to me. I fundamentally believed in it — it was more important to me to help evolve that than dump it and leave.

Did you ever talk to the digital agencies about it?

Mark Cridge (the founder of Glue) and I would have breakfast or lunch together really quite regularly for a couple of years — we met for no other reason than we both admired what each other was trying to do. I still really love Mark and what he’s up to. But at the time my argument to him was that even as the pendulum had swung to the opposite end of the spectrum, where clients wanted everything new and were going out to get these specialists to do what they need, what BBH was able to bring to the table was being a trusted partner who also now happened to have specialist knowledge that meant they could tackle the new things too.

So I thought that the strength of BBH’s past, combined with its eventual embracing of more cutting edge ‘new’, arguably gave us a position that was stronger than Glue’s, who had started from a point of specialism.

How did all that affect the talent you were working with?

We hired a lot of people from Glue, and vice versa, and everyone said the same things. People left places like Glue because they wanted to move to an environment that deeply understood the power of an idea and was willing to learn to express them in new ways. But then you had people from BBH who wanted to take their expertise to Glue so they could start those ideas in a different place.

We had a pair of Creative Directors at BBH — now very well known — called Alex and Adrian who went there, and as much as I loved them and admired Glue, I knew it was going to be a shitshow, because there was no way their attitudes and culture were going to jell. I hugely respected that they had the ambition to go, but it wasn’t surprising that they went to AMV soon after. I bet they learned a ton though.

Part four: Leaving an agency after 19 years, taking a year out and finally fulfilling a lifelong dream…

So what’s it like leaving an agency after 19 years? Was it ever the plan to stay somewhere that long in the first place?

No. I think the brilliant thing is that whenever I felt like I wanted to learn something new, BBH was willing to listen. Or they would push me. I had offers from other places and I would go and interview. I actually think it’s healthy to go and meet other people. But BBH always held my attention because they let me make mistakes and because they’d let me learn.

When I eventually left, what it came down to in the end was that I wanted to go and join an independent company again. And I was realising that the learning curve was slowing down a bit and it was time to leave home. What I loved about Sunshine (the entertainment agency that Mel joined as CEO) was that it was full of very good people and it offered something valuable, ambitious and different, but they hadn’t found a way to codify what that was and they really wanted someone to step in and lead the company.

And after two years you left to go away and write. Was that always the thing, that you always ‘had a book in you’?

Yeah. When I was 14 I was sure I was going to be an author. My 14-year-old self is pretty angry it took me so long. But I figured I’d worked hard enough and had been able to salt a bit of cash away to be able to take what will probably be a year out to do what I’ve always wanted to do.

Was there a particular moment where you came to that realisation?

There were lots of reasons why I finally said ‘OK, I actually have to do this’, but one of them came from sitting on the Facebook Client Council, of all things. They did a very generous thing where they would invite people to join training courses that may have had little to do with Facebook, but were good for the people involved.

I went on one called ‘Women in Leadership’. Any course with ‘leadership’ in the title always make me cringe, but I was able to bring a few other women from my company so off we went. There I was paired up with someone I’d never met before and we were asked to write a list of 5–7 things that we wanted to do with our lives.

The final point on my list was to finish writing a book that I’d been trying to write for a long time. And the partner I was with said ‘well, when did you start writing it?’. I told her I wasn’t sure exactly, but it was definitely before 9/11. She said to me ‘9/11 was in 2001, it’s now 2018’. And it sounds stupid but that’s when it hit me.

The problem is that if you’re good at a job — in fact not even ‘good’ at a job, even if you’re just ‘OK’, it’s so much easier to keep doing it. And necessary in many cases. But when I had that conversation, I realised that if I didn’t do it now there was a danger I would never do it.

So what are you writing?

It’s fiction, set primarily in Pakistan in the mid 1970s. All the stuff I’ve got wrong since starting to write full time is a whole other interview in itself.. Writing fiction versus writing for work are obviously very, very different things. Not least the practical reality of 350 pages versus 750 words — or even 4,500 words — it’s just a totally different gig. The self-motivation to get up and write every day, the intellectual effort to hold a book in your head that is only half-written and try to find the words that do it justice. Most of all: to see past the hideously embarrassing early drafts and keep going. I’m actually glad I waited until now, I’m not sure my 14 year old self would have coped.

I’ve got a good mate who’s a planner by day and a writer by night, and he warned me about all of these things. To use an agency reference, writing a book is a lot like doing a pitch, entirely on your own. You’re researching, you’re drafting, you’re creating everything. You’ve got no-one to brief ‘can you just go away and re-write that paragraph twenty times?’ ‘can you do a few days’ research on the political events in Islamabad during May 1976? And you need to write down everything about a character — because believe me if you don’t have those notes, then in 350 pages that same character will end up going all over the place. Early on I desperately wanted to brief someone to go away and make it all happen!

So where are you now with it?

I’m at a good point. And it’ll probably mean I’ll have ended up taking about a year out overall. In a great week, I write about 1,500 words a day, then edit hard. And for the first 20,000 words it was okay just to keep going. It wasn’t easy because that’s still the equivalent of two dissertations, but it’s still OK. However, I found once I was past 20,000 words, I needed a physical board with chapter outlines, I needed structure and to have thought through the threads of a plot properly. I’m there now.

I’m sorry to sound sickening here, but it has been a privilege to be able to do this and I could not be happier. And strangely enough, when I do return to work, I suspect I’ll look back and realise writing a book taught me a ton about perseverance, about feeling the fear and doing it anyway and also the inconvenient truth that practice really is the only way to make something (even close to) perfect. All of that, and a fresh appreciation of just how incredible my family and my mates really are.

Artwork by Guy Sexty