Berners Bowie Lee, a new agency inspired by culture creators

The new advertising agency Berners Bowie Lee is not named for its three founding partners, but for two “world renowned culture shifters,” though they won’t say who. No really, they can’t for legal reasons.

But culture shifting is also the cornerstone upon which the actual founders— Matt Cammaert, Devon Williamson, and Michael Murray—are building their agency.  

Their goal to help brands understand and be a part of culture as it emerges—to identify behaviours, values and beliefs before they become mainstream.

Once a cultural moment or movement has grown to the point of being a trend, they say, it’s usually too late for brands to do anything meaningful with it.  

“We’re not about chasing trends,” says Murray, who has held CD posts at Publicis Sapient, Blammo and Crispin Porter + Bogusky. “What we’re trying to do is understand why cultural shifts are happening.”

That roots of that vision go back a couple of years, when Cammaert was CEO at Cheil and Murray and Williamson were doing some creative work with the agency. Like more than a few senior agency execs in recent years, the three felt they wanted to do things differently.

The problem, they realized, is that can be tough to do from inside one of the big holding companies which, broadly speaking, are constrained by process and structure. “You can’t really be a renegade in there… it is really hard if you have new ideas,” said Murray.

“By and large, Networks are built on duplication,” said Cammaert. “When you have new ideas that have the promise of new revenue… it is a hard thing for a network to embrace when revenue is coming from a certain place and there is predictability to it.”

“We realized that to put our own ideas into practice, we really needed to be free of networks,” said Murray.

BBL is starting out with what the founders call a “core-plus” model, a small team of full-time staff working with a large network of freelancers from around the world. The agency—which has two clients already, one in CPG and an ecommerce retailer—will not have an account services function, with clients always dealing directly with someone actually working on the business.

The biggest differentiator, however, will be BBL’s vision around creative solutions based on truly original consumer insights, and the structured approach to making it happen.

What they call “culture mapping” will see creative teams and strategists working together at the start of the process, conducting wide-ranging and deep research beyond the traditional options—talking directly to academics, researchers, journalists, filmmakers etc. to better understand the cultural foundations of consumer behaviours.

“It’s not really enough to know why vegetarianism is happening among kids. It’s why is it happening,” said Murray. “What we want to do is really have that strategist and creative person in lockstep, so the output is not only really rooted in culture and ensures that our clients can be part of culture, but it’s done in an arrestingly creative way.”

That is different from the typical agency model, said Williamson, an award-winning art director and designer who has worked at Tribal DDB, Normative and FCB/Six (where she won 13 Lions for her work on PFLAG’s “Destination Pride”).

Right now, she said, it’s like a relay race where strategists work on the client brief to research the target and look for insights before handing it off to the creative team. But then the creative team spends more time doing their own research to add to the strategic brief. “Going out and talking to people [with strategists] is a way to add to that and take us away from telling the same stories and jumping on the same trends,” she said.  

The process will be more efficient than traditional models, say BBL’s founders, because it gives creatives a better and deeper understanding of what the client needs and how consumers are behaving.

“We’re giving the creative people more thinking time,” said Murray. “But it’s in parallel with the strategic time.”

David Brown