23 highlights from our Q&A with Jim Carroll, ex-Chairman of BBH

We recently held another Q&A, this time with the inimitable Jim Carroll, ex-Chairman of BBH and author of a widely read blog. Jim is a master of aphorisms, metaphors and interesting stories, so we’ve summarised some of the highlights from our conversation. Sit back, grab a cuppa, here we go.


Feeling slightly like an outsider is one of the key cards you can play as a strategist. Outsiders are more observant, focused, single-minded. That’s what a creative business often requires.


It’s healthy to be uncomfortable. When you’re in the same company for 25 years (as Jim was), it’s easy to get complacent and comfortable. In fact, healthy doubt is what can help you win pitches. To thrive over the long term, it’s helpful for the people in a business to stay worried.


When you’re a premier sports player, you absorb all feedback in order to get better. If you often struggle with feedback or get defensive about it, know that in every feedback there is something worth listening to, even if you don’t agree with it. That said, feedback often gets conflated with trying to solve a problem then and there, so consider what John Hegarty said about feedback: don’t give me the solution, give me the problem. Don’t say you need 20 seconds of branding, say the problem is ad recall.


It’s better to have people who are exceptional at a few things, than all-rounders who are ok at all things. After a certain point in your career, it’s worth considering if you’re better off putting all your efforts into what you’re good at, instead of trying to constantly offset your weaknesses.


When you’re the one giving feedback, a good test of your confidence is to ask yourself: can I get something interesting out of this? The challenge, of course, is to avoid just telling people what to do, or telling them how you’d do it.


Starting out, it’s easy to think there is one solution to a problem, but over time you might find there are in fact many solutions. Finding the nugget in an idea, or a strategy, is often your job as you get more senior. The game is: always find the positive in the work.


Over the years, you get better at distilling a core idea behind what someone is telling you. Often, the creator doesn’t even have that clarity, because we often don’t know the architecture of our own ideas until someone points it out to us.


In a sense, a creative business will be a bit ageist, because it thrives on the youthful vitality of new ideas. But it also requires experience to help you identify the nuggets in those ideas.


Out of the trivial you can get the profound. “In the particular is contained the universal”. Embrace small things, weird things, bring them into your work. That’s what people are paying you for: to bring the outside in. If all your input is work and all you talk about is work, then your work will be the same as everyone else’s.


Our universal skill is simplification, and this is a key thing to understand when hiring someone. Here’s Jim’s way of thinking about who he hired: when you’re not very intelligent, the world is simple; when you’re moderately intelligent, you complicate things; when you’re really intelligent, you see the world in simple terms. Jim’s recruitment ask would be: “Bring me fools and geniuses”.

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On the human vs machine debate: the answer is probably something more akin to a “cyborg: the marriage of tech with human emotion and instinct”. Your greatest insurances for being useful in the future are your feelings, emotions, instincts, judgement. Machines might replace the more functional aspects of our jobs, but they will probably not replace the softer, more creative stuff.

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What’s the value of a metaphor? Well, if you only analyse work using language from work, it tends to make for a narrow and dull conversation. A good metaphor helps you (and others) to see things differently.


On changing the rules: when you enter a pitch or start a project, you typically enter a more or less fixed process. But a more interesting way of thinking about it is: what are we going to do in the next few weeks that is different to every other agency in town pitching for this? It’s different people and different processes that lead you to different answers. And let’s not forget: we’re in the difference business.


The marketing industry has become a victim of standardisation, where everything is reduced to best practice all over the world. In a way, this is understandable, because uniformity of process equals uniformity of outcomes. This can help raise the floor for markets which aren’t as developed. The problem is that it also lowers the ceiling for agencies trying to do extraordinary things (i.e. things outside the norm).


Technology gives us efficiencies, so we can work out what’s worked before, and do it again. But effectiveness is about taking big leaps forward. All great brands need to take a big leap forward, and then to manage the good that comes out of that leap. But if you only look at efficiencies, you start getting diminishing returns.


When you are young or new, it’s normal to feel paranoid that you don’t know the ABCs of the job. Sometimes, what you want is a book that is quite serious and dull, so whenever there is an issue on terminology or understanding a concept, you can reassure yourself by this “grown up perspective”. Use them to dip in and out when needed, even if you never read them cover to cover.


In the English Civil War, the Cavaliers (who were more flamboyant) were up against the Roundheads (who were more efficient). The Cavaliers lost. There is a parallel to the world of marketing today, because the Roundheads are now winning. But great work needs Cavaliers to get bought. And you’re only as good as how brave your clients are.


A note of hope for the industry: things will turn the other way. We’ve been perfecting these big marketing machines, and we’re getting close to a point where all big clients have got pretty good machines. Eventually, this over-investment in efficiency will start bringing diminishing returns. They will look to us for a ghost to animate the machine and create advantage. Creativity will thrive once more.


Artists like Lee Krasner and Natalia Goncharova were criticised for having too many styles, but they in fact offer a brilliant lesson in creativity. Don’t just have a singular philosophy, don’t just have a thing, have many things. If you’re a strategist, you might want to advocate what Jim calls “broad and shallow planning”: know a great many things, even if in not much depth. The alternative – over-investing in depth – might metaphorically lead you “down a trip to Australia to find the meaning of a paperclip”.


A good philosophy for life and work: aim to find the good in everyone and their ideas. There’s always something in it. And avoid insulting clients, because that type of behaviour/thinking becomes cancerous within a business.


Earlier in his career, Jim thought his job was to be a strategic doctor. Clients came with a problem, he’d diagnose what was wrong, write a prescription, and there you go. Over the years, he realised he was more like a psychotherapist, whose job was to get the answers out of his clients. The answer to most questions already resides in the heads of senior clients, whether that’s in their concerns, dreams, how they feel about their brand or the task at hand. If you can capture that and re-articulate that in a new, helpful way, you’re on your way to solving the problem.


Persuasion begins before you get into the actual advertising. It begins in the office. It’s not enough to be right if you don’t have other people on board. In fact, it might be helpful to let them think it was their idea in the first place. Our job is to persuade consumers, but first we need to persuade colleagues and clients. A useful tip: if you want to persuade someone of a thing, start somewhere relatable “it’s like when you…”. Again, metaphors/similes help you see things differently.


A good model, a good presentation headline, a good picture… these are the things that clients will remember from your presentation. And don’t underestimate the power of words: there is a difference between saying 3 dull adjectives such as “passion, reliable, innovative” vs “red, rock solid, restless”.

Thank you for your time Jim!

If you’d like to come to the next Q&A, all you have to do is become a member by signing up below. It’s all free. Groovy stuff.