UX Insider Interview – Adam Powers on UX at global ad agency BBH
by Damian Rees, Founder & UX Director

UX Insider Interview – Adam Powers on UX at global ad agency BBH

Adam Powers

We’re on a mission to interview the top UX leaders in the UK. This month we spoke with Adam Powers at one of the world’s most famous creative advertising agencies: Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Adam has recently been promoted to Chief Experience Officer at BBH and we wanted to know how UX works within a global ad agency.

 

Hey Adam, so you’re Chief Experience Officer at BBH. Can you tell us more about your role?

I’ve been at BBH for 4 years, and I’ve been building a UX and Design function here where there wasn’t one before. My focus was really thinking about user experience in the broadest possible sense; frankly, more of a kind of service design mentality than perhaps a traditional UX or UI approach.

A lot of it is actually driven by client demand. Our clients are changing how they work with agencies. BBH has a history of 33 years of making amazing commercials, TV and print. Over the last four years, the company has recognised it needs to move into more digital stakes.

Increasingly what we were seeing were clients coming to us with business problems—not that they needed a great new ad or new website, necessarily—but deep-seated business problems. So we were convinced that applying creativity, great strategy, and UX together, we could help them solve those problems. And that’s where the Chief Experience Officer role has arisen.

It’s a C-suite role that enables us get into our existing client business and tap into areas around business transformation. It could be marketing communications, operational design, or it could be about physical environment. If we get it right, it’s about bringing the entire capability of BBH to bear across a clients’ entire customer journey, from intent all the way through to post-purchase and all the things that happen after that.

I’m also looking at the internal organisation of our clients’ business, where smarter clients are thinking about how they design services for their staff—because if you get that right, your customers benefit too.

 

“When I first arrived I thought; What on earth is a UX guy doing in an advertising agency?”

 

As it’s a fairly new role, how many clients are you working with on their overall experience?

It is fairly early for us. I’d say we have probably four or five clients where we are genuinely looking at their entire business in this holistic way. It’s my job to expand that pool and find new clients and new projects, and also to build up capability within the agency. We certainly have a really broad section of specialists now: service designers to UI designers to digital art directors, and motion graphics guys and people that look at the physical space and retail design.

When we get it right, what we are able to do is create a brand that can deliver everything, from above-the-line TV commercials to what is happening in the shopping basket in a mobile app. That brand cohesion across the entire business makes for something really powerful that will have a big impact on the overall experience.

 

Is there anything you’ve worked on recently that you can tell us about?

The work we do with Clarks, the shoe company, is interesting. Our journey with them started really as quite a traditional role — brand redevelopment and positioning. In the UK, they were regarded as a place for first school shoes. But across the world, there are very different perceptions. In sub-Saharan Africa, they are the ultimate cool. Hip-hop stars and rappers wear Clarks shoes and talk about them in their music. In China, they are a prestige brand. In America, they compete with established US brands like Hush Puppies. Clarks wants to evolve its business and modernise to become a stylish global shoe band rather than simply another High Street retailer.

So a lot of work has happened with Clarks to help on that journey: everything from point of sale, art direction, and communication. However, there’s an increasingly bigger field of play opening up that goes beyond marketing and communications; it’s Clarks as a platform, it’s about Clarks and their service. The start point being a redesign of their global ecommerce platform. So we said, “We’ve got to have a go at winning that pitch, because it makes total sense if we are reinventing their brand worldwide.” We had the opportunity to deliver a new ecommerce platform that’s going to be seamlessly joined up in a way that multiple agencies working on it would really struggle to do.

 

How does a digital ecommerce project like Clarks fit with the wider BBH offering?

This is probably about 18 months to two years ago now. There were some raised eyebrows about BBH going for an ecommerce project, but ecommerce is pretty commoditised—you can buy a decent ecommerce platform off the shelf—so our pitch was about the power of a brilliantly branded ecommerce solution. We wanted to get the balance of brand storytelling and a frictionless transactional environment.

We’ve recently launched a US version, with a global version to follow. What this has very naturally led to with the Clarks internal teams is consultation on how to deliver assets the best, and what do we do in-store. We have also been advising them on the structure of their own teams and how, as a business, if we give you a brilliant platform that allows brilliant storytelling and amazing customer experience around transaction and purchase, how does the business sustain the quality of that when we hand it over? So it became a consultancy piece about team structure, about skills and capabilities, about the internal communication of the brand strategy, so the Clarks people on the teams working on this stuff really understand where we were trying to take the brand.

The latest piece of work that we have released is something called Clarks Unboxed. We wanted to tell the world the Clarks story, as we felt it was something that isn’t well known. Clarks was sponsoring an Exhibition at the V&A about the history of footwear, so we created a digital interactive documentary looking at when Clarks first started the role they had to play, within significant cultural, historical events. So rather than coming at it from a Clarks lens, we came at it as storytelling through these big interesting cultural events and how Clarks was present. It’s a terrific piece of content marketing and has received a number of plaudits already including an FWA site of the day: http://www.clarksunboxed.com.

This is the start of a journey we are on with them as a client. It’s very much a genuine collaboration rather than client/agency relationship – deep-seated conversation about what we do and what we don’t do across their brand ecosystem. These are some of the early wins for us.

Some other clients that we are working with have much more quickly got into discussions about physical and environmental design, and are very actively exploring how we can help them bridge the physical and digital world.

 

“UX talent is in high demand, there’s a massive appetite for what we do and how we do it.”

 

What sorts of challenges are you facing when talking to new clients about this new approach?

Credibility. There’s the likes of Deloitte, Accenture, CapGemini, and McKinsey, at the top of the tree, who are the multibillion pound consultancies. Often they lead with operational or financial responses, whereas we are coming at consulting more from a creative perspective. It is fascinating, though, that Accenture bought Fjord, EY has purchased Seren and both Deloitte and IBM are investing so visibly into digital and ux/service design initiatives. Those traditional consultants are trying to crank up their creative capability and muscle in order to operate in the digital space.

I think that legacy is a huge challenge too. A lot of key clients have a healthy appetite to move their business forward to evolve for the digital and modern age and to really think about themselves more holistically. However the reality is that many businesses have evolved in silos – separate verticals that can often have conflicting KPIs. This can make it feel like it’s not in the best interest of a Chief Marketing Officer to work with the Chief Information Officer or their Head of IT, so we try to find ways to build bridges between those silos and go to CEOs to talk about the need for shared metrics and shared KPIs, so they’re in it together with a collective responsibility, establishing shared ambition to drive the business forward.

Sometimes there are legacy systems and tech infrastructure that have been built up organically and kind of held together by gaffer tape and string. Creating solutions that work in this context and that can also deliver on the growing ambitions to connect physical and the digital world, that are able leverage a single customer enabling 1-to-1 communications. This is all really challenging but highly desirable. They are sometimes perceived to be expensive, so the challenge is to find small steps you can take with a client that will show immediate return. To get uplift in brand appreciation, sales and conversions, but do it in a way that doesn’t necessarily bust the budgets.

Another large challenge comes from the other side of the fence: talent. There aren’t legions of UXers in their golden years, just kicking back drinking cocktails. We are still a relatively young discipline with even the most seasoned practitioners still out there working at it. UX talent is in high demand, there’s a massive appetite for what we do and how we do it. Even globally, it’s still a relatively small pool, so the ability to put together a really cracking team is a challenge, and expensive too.

I think collectively, as an industry, we have a responsibility to do more to grow and nurture new talent. I think there are very limited courses. Anyone can learn to wireframe or do a bit of OmniGraffle. Instead it’s about a way of thinking, and I think that’s something we are having a bit of success at BBH: bringing in some really new people, giving them some air cover and protection, and helping them to grow into the type of practitioners we want, because it is so tricky finding good senior people out there.

Adam Powers

 

What challenges have you faced internally? How have you dealt with them?

I would say over the past two years, we’ve gone past the tipping point, and now the entire strategy department here—over 120 strategists—all use the language of UX. They use some of the tools I’ve introduced to the business. User experience and customer experience largely permeate the business now. Not everyone’s a practitioner, but there is no sense of “What is this magic of which you speak?”. It really is integrated into the culture now.

That said, during my first year at BBH I worked really hard to merchandise my own skills and the benefits of the whole toolkit of the User Experience Practitioner to the business. I approached one client at a time, and I was working on projects, making stuff, consciously trying to make a very visible difference, and then touring with a road show and a slide deck to tell others. Unpacking a UX 101 at every opportunity with new clients, new staff, entire departments and teams. I was really on a program of education.

When I first arrived I thought, “What on earth is a UX guy doing in an advertising agency?” – I had been really charmed by the process that and people from BBH that had persuaded me to join them. I’ll admit that on the ground for the first few months, I really struggled to get my head around what difference I could make. Listening to a lot of the client conversations and the challenges that kept coming in, it became clearer and clearer that a great TV ad was only one way to skin a cat, and in some instances was just entirely the wrong solution to the problem. So I intervened, but really sensitively. It’s incredibly important in these types of environments, where UX hasn’t had foothold before, that one listens a lot and actually understands what will make our practices really get bought into.

At the heart of BBH are incredible storytellers, and that capability and those skills are as enormously important. With all the tools at the disposal of a UX Practitioner, if you can tell incredible stories and surprise, delight, captivate and engage customers on behalf of our client brands, that’s when the magic happens. In that regard, oddly, it wasn’t that dissimilar to the BBC — some colleagues shied away from the world of digital and the web, because it felt like they were giving away control and ownership, but actually it’s about moving forward with creative expression. It’s about new ways of conversing with other human beings and clients’ customers, and that’s a good thing. I think it certainly wouldn’t have worked if I had tried to strong arm my way in and took more of a dogmatic approach.

So it took a while but it feels like permanent, meaningful changes have taken place, beyond the early, superficial “Yeah, we have a new UX guy and he’ll knock you up a website”. I have always really wanted to help transform the DNA of the agency. Keep everything that was so amazing and relevant but continue to evolve it so that’s brilliantly placed for the new creative challenges that its client face.

 

Previously you were Head of UX and then promoted to CXO. What’s the core difference between the two roles?

So the Head of the UX Discipline, I would describe it as being probably closer to the production of artefacts and assets. At BBH, it’s very much the kind of environment where even if you’re a Head of Department, it’s about what you make. We’re here to make stuff, so whether that’s a strategic deck or user flows or customer experience mapping, the Head of UX is just as likely to be doing that as the practitioners or the juniors. So I was closer to the production side of things, and more active day to day in regards to team management, holistic care, and their development.

The role I’m in now is much more about defining strategy for a group of specialists. Interestingly, it’s a more external facing, and new business generating role, as well. Equally it’s now part of my role to look at how our clients experience us as an agency — what processes and events are in place to help us further improve our handling and engagement with clients and their businesses.

 

What would you say your biggest challenge will be in the next 12 months?

Some of the things that we’ve talked about already such as credibility and talent. Additionally for some of the clients we’re working with, and some of the prospects we’re in early conversation with, translating a great Customer Experience strategy and great service design into reality is still one of the hardest challenges. We can create astonishing prototypes and beautiful keynote decks, but actually translating these into real business transformation and operational reality is challenging. Stuff that real people can see and feel and enjoy in their High Street or in their airport lounge or within the supermarket environment — that’s also the biggest prize. When you can take great thinking, great creativity, and then take it all the way through to delivery, roll out and scale it up, the proof of the pudding is where you are able to see the change that great customer experience design can make.

Different clients have different obstacles too, but it all boils down to translating thought into reality, and I think that would be the single biggest challenge as we expand this capability and approach.

 

What’s the biggest UX mistake you’ve made in your career so far? And what have you learned from it?

It was well over decade ago, but I remember it vividly, as it was pretty disastrous. I actually used Flash to create a core navigation system for a corporate client’s intranet. This was a hard-core, grown-up business, and in a moment of naïve enthusiasm, I had re-architected the navigation and thought that Flash would be the ideal solution for the slick, seamless UI that I had in mind. I hadn’t even thought to check, but nobody in the business could actually have the Flash plug-in on their corporate PCs, so from the first roll out it was just broken.

Not understanding the client’s business effectively and context of use was obviously a cardinal sin. I had moved from being a traditional print designer into web and digital at the end of the 90s, and so it was kind of early years. I think there’s this safety net when you’re a print designer, you know that the thing you design is going to look exactly the same for everybody that receives a copy of that book or that magazine. Both a huge fear and extraordinary delight, present themselves when designing for the web, in that for 100 different people, there might be 100 slightly different renders of what you designed. That whole event was a rude awakening for me – ha,ha,ha,ha – yeah, that was horrible!

 

What about more recently, since being at BBH, have you got any learning points that stand out?

There are a lot of smart people who really understand customer experience inside client organisations that don’t have CX in their title. They often get overlooked, and I think it’s very easy to come in as a body of experts and practitioners and assess a business and apply some empathy. There’s a specific client we worked with where it wasn’t until we were three months in that we identified an individual who was absolutely brilliantly informed about customer behaviour. They had access to data, but they weren’t part of a set of people who we would interface with.

We were lucky we found that person, as it helped that project enormously. We could have ended up burning time and hours completely unnecessarily if we hadn’t discovered this person. It’s about being smart and understanding client business and listening really hard and looking really hard before jumping into solution mode. As a third party, we have an obligation to look across the business to see where smart stuff is happening and where the intelligence lies, because often times there isn’t a view of that from within the business. We can use that slightly removed position to our advantage, and tap into the best knowledge the client has.

 

“This idea of being focused, but constantly seeking to improve, is something I really appreciate with brands.”

 

Are there any examples of great User Experience out there that you thank have nailed it?

I continue to really enjoy services like Uber. I think there is something about the supreme focus and sense of purpose in what they do. They do one thing brilliantly, and although other people are operating in that space such as Hailo, it shows that if you do something better than anybody else, it can be a success.

Netflix offers a pretty simple service, where the complexity of it is hidden from the user. I love the fact that they know whether it’s my daughter who’s accessing it from set top box at home, or it’s me on a tablet when I’m travelling on business. My behaviours, uses, and tastes are captured within my Netflix profile that travels with me, and it is absolutely seamless.

This idea of being focused, but constantly seeking to improve, is something I really appreciate with brands. What really annoys me is when unnecessary feature bloat, “Ooh, I’ve got this new function and we’re going to start building something now”, and what they did brilliantly in the first place is smothered or impeded.

 

Is there anywhere you would go for inspiration on a regular basis?

I pretty aggressively follow a suite of UX blogs. As a commuter, I have a couple of hours each day where I can immerse myself in as many of these things as possible. Architecture sites, technology sites… they tend to be my daily sources of inspiration. I also continue to be inspired by the people around me at one of the best creative agencies in the world. They are just extraordinary people to work around. As a practitioner seeking brilliant experiences across every platform, there is always something to learn, whether it’s from my development colleagues, or head of technology, to directors and film makers—that sense of just being open to influence and being able to absorb intelligence and insight and thought-provoking activity from any source is critical for what we do. I also organise an annual internal expo of digital innovation and technology, that gives me license to bring over some of the most inspiring talent from around the world.

 

It’s impossible to know everything within UX, as it moves so quickly. Are there any areas where you feel you need to know more?

Yes. Hardcore retail. We were fortunate enough to take on Tesco as a client at the start of the year, and frankly, they’re an incredible business in a nasty place. One of the most fertile environments for change and innovation because of their circumstance — they have an amazing CEO who was a previous client when he was at Unilever. I have been astonished by the scale of their business, but also by the very different rhythms of a massive retail brand.

The pace is staggering — their need for responsiveness and timeliness is extraordinary. Their ability to mobilise thousands of people is something to behold, and very quickly we are learning they desire a very different type of relationship with their agency. For them, the smallest customer interaction can have ripples across the entire business, so understanding that over 90% of the population are within six metres of a Tesco store means the responsibility around the experience you design is amplified as a result. On the one hand, it’s mildly intimidating, but on the other, it’s extremely powerful. Together we can make things better for millions of people if we get stuff right. It’s a steep learning curve and it’s unlike any other business I’ve worked with.

 

When you’re looking at different people to recruit, what makes a great UXer different from a good one?

The term UX is sprinkled all over CVs these days. I think we know that great UX people come from many different backgrounds, whether it be library scientists, architects, graphic designers, motion graphics, philosophy, human factors etc. I very specifically look for UX practitioners that have an affinity with brand worlds and aesthetic design, because at the heart and DNA of BBH we want to make beautiful things that work beautifully. It is really important to keep the cultural legacy of the agency, which is about extraordinary craft and the excellence of execution.

So I would not necessarily be talking to UX practitioners who are working on trading applications or hard-core data management; that’s not the world BBH operates in. So my first filter is at a cultural and craft/skill level. Do they have affinity for this environment? No individual can do everything, so it’s actually about getting a team of people together with complementary skills who are integrated. I have a very senior team member who is much more into psychology and behavioural science, while on the other hand I have what I call a digital art director; he is absolutely visionary in terms of ability to craft beautiful things out of the ether. You get these two to work together, and you get beautiful things that work beautifully, and that’s something to strive for.

I look for hungry intelligence, a curiosity, and constant desire to learn and grow, because this is a fast-moving world that we are living in. Daily, the channels we can influence, and the things that we can design for, increase, so you have to have an appetite for that. I’ve had a few missteps with freelance practitioners, where it’s a sausage factory for them—they just want to bang out some wire frames and move on to the next job. Sure, I need people that can make artefacts and build meaningful documentation, but for me that’s the price of entry – I really want to know how your mind works and how you solve problems.

I’m also looking for people that have the confidence to express themselves and their ideas, and support the decisions they make in a persuasive way. There is a role for every member of the team, no matter how junior, to evangelise what we do – everyone on the team has to be a vocal champion for UX.

You can find Adam on Twitter: @adamvtpowers or see more in our UX Insider series

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