Inside the Studio: Bulletproof
Interviewer: Theresa Christine, The Dieline
Interviewee: Gush Mundae, Bulletproof founder
Bulletproof is an agency, with a truly rich culture. With offices in London, New York and Singapore, Bulletproof is a mix of different interwoven cultures that creates a rich tapestry of seminally strategic ideas and unrivalled creativity, with a fiercely independent spirit. This month, The Dieline had the pleasure of interviewing Founder, Gush Mundae, about Bulletproof's strategy, energy, and fearless approach.
Theresa Christine: First, tell us a little bit about how Bulletproof got started. Gush, why did you and Jonny join forces and what goals did you have in starting your own agency? What were your early successes and what were the biggest challenges you faced?
Gush Mundae: Jonny and I met at Art College, while studying graphic design and advertising, back in the early 90’s. Despite coming from completely different backgrounds and cultures, we soon realized that we had a shared belief system and, from there on, we formed a bond thicker than blood. After graduation, I worked for two agencies and quickly became frustrated with both – one had a small family feel, which I loved, but the size meant the scale of work was limited; the other was much larger with global work, but I didn’t agree with the culture and ethics. So I left and set up Bulletproof, an agency that would encompass the best of both – a small inclusive culture with progressive global clients. The name Bulletproof isn’t a dressing – it’s a belief that all work must have a genesis in impenetrable ideas. This remains the foundation on which Bulletproof is built.
In the early days I pitched for everything and pretty much worked seven days a week. Six months in, I was invited to pitch for an advertising campaign for Disney. I took the brief and bluffed my way through the entire meeting. When I got back to my studio, I called Jonny and convinced him that working all weekend was not as bad as it sounded. We won the work and I then used my powers of persuasion to ensure Jonny turned his back on a six-figure salary to work with me for next to nothing. Together we built a solid, young and extremely talented team – I couldn’t afford to buy experience, so I bought talent and nurtured it. We worked tirelessly and fearlessly - fighting, pitching and bluffing our way into client’s hearts and minds; this is where our tribal nature comes from. Our raw, ‘say it how it is’ attitude and highly creative culture really resonated with larger clients. We cut the bullshit and delivered outstanding creative work, which pushed and challenged their brands. This is how our Coca-Cola relationship was forged and remains the foundation of our work with them to date. Coca-Cola was a huge turning point for the business. Their trust in us allowed us to grow our team and learn from very experienced marketing teams, ensuring we think beyond the pack to a much wider 360-degree creative space.
One of our greatest challenges, which remains the same today, was growing our tribe to meet the demand for our work. Finding the right people, with the right skills, cultural synergy and entrepreneurial spirit is continuously a challenge.
Theresa Christine: What is Bulletproof’s design philosophy? How does this manifest itself in the work you do?
Gush Mundae: Our design philosophy is based on the human approach. We believe in the universal truth that all human beings are linked by very simple and often primal needs and wants, creating overly complex systems of ideologies, which cloud and add layers to our basic behavior. In essence we make decisions with our heart first and foremost and then rationalize with our heads. Our design philosophy centers around cutting through the noise and connecting with the heart - driving desire. This is underpinned with seminal strategy and logic of course!
This human approach is deep rooted within Bulletproof – from our core beliefs to our working space, which encourages our teams to ideate and collaborate together - right through to our Soul Power proprietary strategic and design system. Before any creative begins, we work with our clients to define the intrinsic emotional truth behind their brand – the Soul. We then deliver the Power through our creative punch - expressing the extrinsic identity through distinct equities. Finally, we never underestimate the need to enjoy our work and not take ourselves too seriously…seriously.
Theresa Christine: You have three locations: New York, London, and Singapore. In what ways is this mix of cultures beneficial? How do you feel that this improves the caliber of work you do?
Gush Mundae: Having these three locations helps to give us a global viewpoint. We’re working with brands that are truly global in their reach and appeal, so it is essential to understand the different cultures, traditions and nuances around the world. You have to feel the differences and live them to understand them – you can only do this by being on the ground in these locations. One of the greatest benefits is attracting talent from all corners of the globe, ensuring our tribe stays multi-cultural and diverse.
Theresa Christine: Can you elaborate more on what the offices and spaces are like? Do you try to foster the same type of environment in all three locations or is each one unique and offers something vastly different?
Gush Mundae: All our offices are different, but all have a definite Bulletproof style. One thing that unites them is that they’re all in very design-centric locations, which are inspiring and energizing. They’re inviting, bright and designed to inspire as well as encouraging interaction between the teams. Because of our tribal nature there’s a consistency in terms of the energy throughout the various offices, though each location brings with it a unique sense of identity and feel.
Theresa Christine: You’ve talked about your Soul Power process. Explain some of the tools you use in this approach and how they benefit your clients.
Gush Mundae: Our Soul Power process has been honed over many years to ensure we cut through clutter with piercing clarity and efficiency. The process works in four quadrants – each informing the next to ensure a successful outcome to the most complex of projects. We investigate ﬁrst – listening, observing and dissecting the brief, the consumer and the marketplace using tools such as ‘Center-of-Gravity’ to identify the shared consumer mindset and ‘BrandAmp’ – where we carry out a full brand deconstruct. Next we deﬁne – distilling, building and shaping the strategic thinking and delivering a ‘Design Success Equation’, which lays out the strategic criteria against which all creative work will be evaluated. Then we explore – designing, directing and pushing the creative space, creating inspirational and directional ‘Brand World Platforms’ to generate design concepts that live beyond the pack as well as using our ‘High Concept Innovation’ tool for those challenging innovation briefs. Finally we activate – ensuring your brand communicates with a cohesive look and feel beyond packaging, whether that’s through a ‘Visual Communication System’, giving a brand a coherent visual and verbal style across all consumer touch-points or through the creation of extensive ‘Brand Guidelines’.
Every approach is individual, every process is engaging, every result is outstanding.
Theresa Christine: You describe the culture of your agency as “driven by a restless energy and fearless approach.” This certainly sounds intense, so how do you deal with more hesitant clients that struggle with the idea of change?
Gush Mundae: I learned a long time ago that we aren’t right for everyone, and I’m very comfortable with this. We’re judged by the projects we turn down as much as the ones we fight hard to win. It’s about being honest with our clients and ourselves. We’re not the agency to work with if you want a small step change or evolution. So we encourage our clients to be a little braver and we demonstrate the power of this thinking by sharing the commercial success we’ve achieved. If they’re still not convinced, then we’re not the right agency for them – it really is that simple.
Theresa Christine: What can you guarantee clients will experience when working with you?
Gush Mundae: It’s all about relationships and we offer a very down to earth experience where we’ll laugh, listen, discuss, share and challenge. We can guarantee a rigorous and proven strategic viewpoint, a truly deep creative exploration and an engaging and enjoyable experience. Above all else, we guarantee commercial success.
Theresa Christine: What is a project that you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of? Why was it so rewarding?
Gush Mundae: A recent project would have to be Cadbury Marvellous Creations where we were challenged to create a brand platform, which can work globally across multiple categories. It was a complex brief as there was a tension formed by the need to disrupt the category conventions of chocolate while retaining traditional Cadbury values – and then it had to work globally while allowing for other Mondelēz brands to influence the product inclusions. So it had to be disruptive yet reassuring, with a unique look, which didn’t alienate traditional buyers and had to encompass a flexible architecture… oh, and we had to incorporate a new opening and eating ritual to boot! So I’m extremely proud that our team relished and smashed the challenge set and we played a part in helping Cadbury Marvellous Creations become a £49.7M (Source: http://www.conveniencestore.co.uk/products/cadbury-conjures-up-three-new-marvellous-products-for-spring/355670.article) powerbrand in the UK alone within the first year.
Theresa Christine: Let’s talk about your team. Bulletproof seems to have a work hard, play hard mentality. You have an extensive portfolio of work, but you also seem to offer a personable experience and even put together an insanely fun holiday video for 2015. How do you attract employees that are a good fit for the agency? What is most important to you when looking to add someone to the team?
Gush Mundae: It goes back to one of our core beliefs; ‘People make the difference’. In recruiting we always ask, are they Bulletproof? I’m looking for future leaders – even when meeting a very junior prospective addition. We’re looking for individuals who are creatively intelligent and possess an entrepreneurial flair coupled with a positive infectious energy who go over and beyond what is asked. They also have to be the brightest people in the room. No tall order! Once we’ve found that talent, we ensure they don’t want to leave. Our tribal nature ensures everyone is valued, listened to and challenged – regardless of seniority. Being tribal means that we have little hierarchy; it’s more of a family-centric system where contribution, respect, trust, and collaboration are encouraged and valued above everything else.
I believe great leadership comes from truly understanding and appreciating your team – my tribe. I regularly make time to catch up with each and every one of them - whether that’s over a coffee or joining them for lunch in our breakout area - it’s important to listen and learn. I ask their opinion on our work, our business, our thinking and our team. However, I also ask about their health, their families and loved ones. Jonny and I host a bi-monthly dinner and take a handful of our tribe to break bread and put the world’s problems to rights. It’s the very simple things which bond and unite us.
Theresa Christine: How do you inspire creativity in the workplace?
Gush Mundae: As well as having inspiring offices in fantastic locations, we also have a truly inspiring tribe with real creative passion and a totally infectious energy. Every month we hold ‘Lunch and Learn’ sessions to expand the minds of our teams and we also hold an annual Inspiration Festival every October where the elite in creative talent are invited to Bulletproof’s offices to share their knowledge and inspire us. Last year we had everyone from a collective of graffiti artists to renowned illustrators and toy designers Tado, through to celebrated public artist Gordon Young. Each one gave us a different perspective on the industry and opened our minds to what creative talent is out there.
Quite often at other design agencies, teams are assigned to brands. We shun this notion giving our creatives a variety of brands and projects to work on with a continuous rotation of teams. This ensures thinking remains fresh and keeps the designers motivated and inspired. We also encourage out of house briefings to truly immerse our teams in the brand’s world and see things from a consumer’s point of view.
Finally, we’re firm believers in giving our tribe the opportunity to learn new skills. All Bulletproofers have access to a development fund to support this - whether it’s jewelry design, calligraphy or screen-printing – it’s each individual’s choice. It’s all about learning, growing and flourishing.
Theresa Christine: What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned since the beginning of Bulletproof—in business, in design, or in life?
Gush Mundae: I’ve learned two valuable lessons, the first one being - You cannot grow a business; you can only grow the people. So we focus our efforts on getting the right people, with the right commitment and passion and one shared Bulletproof vision.
The second is - Always trust your instinct. Never be swayed by the system, market forces or the opinions of so-called industry leaders. Whether you’re thinking of expanding the business skill set, adding another office overseas or taking on a new member of your tribe, remember to trust and listen to your instincts – they won’t steer you wrong.
Theresa Christine: What type of projects excite you the most? What would be a dream project for Bulletproof to work on?
Gush Mundae: The projects that excite me the most are the ones that challenge us to think better, work harder and where we can learn the most. Bulletproof already has a client list to die for, which we’ve worked hard to build. There’s just one project, which has eluded me and, which I would call a dream – and that’s to create the brand strategy, positioning, and identity for an airline. Richard, I’m ready when you are!
Theresa Christine: What do you see for the future of Bulletproof?
Gush Mundae: The future for Bulletproof is all about growth, which I see as critical to remain relevant in these ever-changing and challenging times. I see this growth in three distinct areas.
Firstly, growing our offices in New York and Singapore with the addition of three smaller supporting hubs. My ambition is to make New York a similar size to London (80 people) and grow Singapore to at least half that size.
Secondly, growing, and strengthening, our skill set. Our innovation offer is the largest growth area for our business at present and continues to gain strength and momentum allowing us to work much higher within the client fold. This will be a key focus over the coming years. We are also growing our structural design offer, for which we have a unique methodology and our established brand communication offer which allows us to flex our thinking to a wider brand universe.
Finally, and most importantly, it’s about growing our tribe – empowering their thinking and doing, growing their confidence and nurturing their entrepreneurial spirit, while remembering our culture and the foundations on which the Bulletproof business is built.
Written by Theresa Christine
Theresa entered the world of design through The Dieline. With a background in writing and journalism, she has a passion for discovery and cultivating human connections. Her work for The Dieline is a constant journey to deeply understand all facets of the design process and to investigate what makes designers tick. Theresa's writing has taken her snorkeling in between the tectonic plates in Iceland, horseback riding through a rural Brazilian town, and riding an octopus art car at Burning Man with Susan Sarandon as part of a funeral procession for Timothy Leary (long story). When not writing, she is planning her next trip or taking too many pictures of her cat.