BC&F Dentsu’s Bex Radford on cultivating creativity, empathy, and radical collaboration

BC&F Dentsu introduced its new creative partner in 2019, Bex Radford. Coming from Amsterdam to work with the agency, Courtney Devereux sits down with Radford to find out her plans for the coming months, and how she plans to encourage wider conversations around our industry expectations.

Radford joins the BC&F Dentsu creative table alongside Murray Streets, Luke Farmer and Monica Wales after a ten-year stint internationally. Radford’s experience includes project leading in San Francisco, educating in the Netherlands and creative directing in Amsterdam.

Before her time working internationally across a range of industries, Radford found her start in Saatchi & Saatchi, where as a junior creative she was mentored by the head of strategy at the time, Murray Streets.

“It was my first job out of ad school, it was a fantastic experience. When I was a junior creative I learnt so much from Murray. He is a great character and just a wise soul in the room, and I always found that we had great chemistry together when we worked.”

Streets asked Radford to join the team while she was still based in the Netherlands, to which Radford says was an interesting proposition, and one she ultimately decided to move back to New Zealand for.

“I’m at my happiest when I’m solving really interesting problems with really interesting people, I don’t care what the logo on the front door is, and I don’t care what my title is. So, getting to click and fall in love with Luke and Monica when I first started was a really lovely moment.”

Radford says the conversation on her employment with Streets wasn’t your normal job interview. Their history allowed for a casual, candid conversation which Radford says was a deciding factor for taking the job.

“The conversation between Murray and I was about starting this process of transformation, and who you hire in the first year is crucial in terms of setting the culture and vision. We said let this be a conversation about whether someone is the right person for that role. I’ve never had such a candid casual conversation about where I fit. This was a huge decision for BC&F Dentsu to make, so it was nice to sit down with Murray and have this conversation about if I was the right fit.”

Thinking fast & slow

Since Radford’s introduction, the agency has reached a 50/50 gender split for their partners. She acknowledges that the equal gender composition of the team is important, but was not a deciding factor in the appointment.

“My role has changed since I was here last but so has my mindset. When I was talking to Murray, we were really intentional to say I am not a creative director, that will not be a job title I will ever own. I think it sends a signal of climbing up the ladder. Monica, Murray, Luke and I all sit as equals at the table, we’re as interested in the whole business as we are in what we’re cultivating. We’re one team, which sounds like a goddamn cliché, but it’s true.”

Radford has a lot of short and long-term plans for the agency and its employees. One thing that emanates strongly from Radford’s plans is her focus on changing a lot of stubborn behaviours our industry tends to adopt.

“I’ve worked client-side, I’ve built a brand from the ground up, I’ve worked in large digital organisations. But because I’ve been stepped back for so long, the ‘them and us’ process is one I just don’t have time for anymore, I don’t think it services anyone.”

Her outlook focuses a lot on changing team dynamics, whether that be team member to team member or agency to client.

“In our industry, there are conventions around the way teams work together. Whether that be client, agency, creative or suits, these ways can be really toxic. BC&F Dentsu is small enough that I don’t think this exists and that we can move away from the normal conventions. These conventions tend to be the result of really stressed people getting really tribal. So, we’re figuring out how we as a team have all our fingerprints on something when it goes out into the world. So, we don’t have an ‘I made this, or you made that’ way of working, it’s more cohesive.”

BC&F was acquired by the larger Dentsu Aegis Network in 2016, and Radford says this has inspired a conversation within the team about how they need solidify their own ways of working together.

“When a smaller creative team gets acquired by a bigger organisation, one of two things happen. Either the small team starts acting like a global organisation, or the big organisation gets pulled towards smaller more nimble, entrepreneurial mindsets. It’s about figuring out how we make our centre of gravity of who we are as strong and compelling as the larger centre of gravity. We don’t want to be sucked in too much and lose our identity.”

Radford expresses that the relationship between BC&F Dentsu and the wider international network is still working itself out, yet she says the benefits have been widely felt in the business.

“Being connected to the larger Dentsu Aegis Network allows us to tap into some really smart people we couldn’t afford to have on full-time in terms of strategic and digital. What needs to happen is we need to figure out the superpower of each individual. Once we’ve done that, then we know how to bring the right person into the right room at the right time, but the wider network definitely gives us more firepower.”

Mental Awareness

Radford says that her focus in the group will also extend to the personal wellbeing of both the staff and clients. She adds that the group creativity is dependent on good mental health and the support systems on offer.

“I think we all take our mental health very seriously, and I’ve had honest conversations already since starting which is a great sign. We’re trying to open up the conversation. Then with that conversation comes modelling it, scaling it and expecting our team to take control of their mental health.”

She notes that the industry’s struggle with mental health comes from the expectations both clients and individuals place upon themselves. This, as well as our previous industrial revolution style of working which involves high output at a constant rate, one which isn’t often sustainable in the creative industries.

“Taking care of your mental health is taking care of your energy. I think when we do that everyone wins. But it’s so at odds with the illusion of the hustle and grinding out constant work to look superior. I’m not naive enough to think that this isn’t sapping our creativity. Sometimes we do have to hustle and there is a comradery that comes with that when you’re in a team, but we need to know when we’ve been doing that too long.”

She highlights the importance of cultivating high-quality creative energy, rather than just pure grunt. For Radford, nurturing this creativity will give BC&F Dentsu an edge in the market.

“Creativity for me is a brands most unfair advantage in the market. Yet, if our teams are driven into a survival state due to high pressures and workloads, then that creativity isn’t going to be achieved. Sometimes we may be in survival mode just trying to get something out on deadline, but once that’s done our focus is how do we get our teams back into that creative space.”

The ROI of empathy

Radford often circles back to the values she brings to the group; bravery, creativity and collaboration. She does however say that empathy is the easiest way to balance creativity with ever-growing client expectations.

“I think we can balance creativity with client expectations by educating them a bit. But also, the worst thing we can do it not be empathetic to our clients. Because a lot of the time they will be grinding as well, and they also will be in survival mode. If we bring them into the conversation about what we’re doing, they’re also empathetic to our plight.

“I’m trying to bring in radical collaboration, but that often stems from empathy. If you’re empathetic to your clients, you are naturally going to connect with them.”

Radford has a very dogmatic view on the industry’s importance in a consumer’s life, but she brings it back to creativity, and how cultivating that will, in the long run, put them ahead of the curve and in the heads of consumers.

“A lot of times in our space people are just trying to be too tricky, too clever, or taking themselves too seriously. What our industry creates is probably the least interesting thing that is going to happen in a consumer’s life. They have more interesting things to do, they’ve got kids to hang out with, people to fall in love with and tinder dates to go on.

“We need to understand where we sit in their lives if a consumer is going to give us two seconds out of their day. We’re not going to waste it on behalf of one of our clients. The shift to in-house advertising will come, and clients will take their work back if we’re not constantly being creative.”

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