As Futurist Business Designer and founder of bonbo, Melissa Pepers is a unique supplier to the advertising industry. An expert at transforming unique ideas into extraordinary businesses, her role is a strategic one – working with agency clients at the intersection of their business and brand to create competitive advantages where they are one of a kind. She’s also a new mother managing a chronic illness, and a proud member of the queer community.
Mavens correspond with Melissa to learn more about her life’s work, and its role in the creative landscape.
Tell us about your background. How did you carve out such a niche position?
It all started with following hunches that mattered to me.
I have always been very obsessed with influence – why something ends up doing or being something else. That led me to work in advertising.
I would relentlessly try to study and experiment with any curiosity around my hunches. Every time I worked something out, it would raise a different question.
A lot of revelations happened along the way. The way it’s done in advertising is very ineffective. It’s lose-lose-lose for all involved. Creatives are unsatisfied, agencies lose money in effectiveness and compete on price, and the clients don’t get what they need.
Following my hunches I realised that no-one, not even the clients, understand the potential in their own organisations. So what happens is agencies have to work out how to make brands and campaigns that are interesting because the companies themselves are not. And they can do that pretty well, we’ve all seen a great brand or a great ad. There is enormous talent out there. The problem is it’s really superficially applied. The main emotion felt in agencies is frustration.
The brands often lose strength over time (in my world, rebrands should never need to exist) and the campaign is forgotten once it’s over. It ends up being this hamster wheel of mediocrity. I hated that. I kept studying, and teaching myself any discipline that might hold my next answer. I learned competitive strategy, behavioural economics, design thinking, trend analysis, the history of magic, you name it. Finally I worked out a methodology. I tried it out once and it was so successful I quit my job and jumped straight into this, full time, with no runway. Since then it’s been a wild ride.
That’s awesome. Can you tell us more about your methodology?
With my process the foundations of business are built from square one, from the top of the organisation, into something extraordinary. Give an extraordinary strategy to these talented teams and what happens is wild. They know exactly where the limitations are, and that clarity means they can max out their creativity on every project. This is what they want to do, they just can’t under the burden of the conventional system.
When I was in agency, the majority of billable hours were spent on alterations and changes. In my process, no matter the scale of the organisation there are ZERO, or at worst, one small round of changes (purely technical) on any creative project.
Every time the nail is hit on the head the first time. That’s incredible. It’s a 100% success rate. Imagine if every project was a showstopper and all of your creative team's time was spent creating these showstoppers and not on absurd changes? Not only is that super profitable, cuts project deliverable time considerably, it’s also immensely fulfilling for all involved. That’s the power of being aligned around a special vision.
My process doesn’t replace anything that isn’t already dead in the water. It’s as simple as adding one extra step (do ‘Turning Points’) at the beginning of any client relationship. Then do what you normally would. Bill the clients the same amount. Except now you’ll get it right the first time, and all the rest of that time can be spent on other, equally successful projects. Suddenly an agency's capacity to do creative work has dramatically increased, as has the success rate and staff satisfaction. From lose-lose-lose to win-win-win with the addition of a new strategy step at the beginning.
You create businesses that have never existed in the world before. Without giving away all your trade secrets – how do you do it?
In essence, it’s a simple concept. The kind that made a lot of sense and seemed completely obvious, only after I had spent countless hours to work it out.
It starts with an exceptionally detailed vision. This vision belongs to the founder.
What the world calls vision is reductive and totally misses the mark. What vision is in my process, is what a person’s brain recognises as a new status quo that could replace the current one.
It’s nearly like we each imagine a whole reality that doesn’t exist that would be better than the one we live in. What status quo the brain sees is based on a combination of talents, memories, skill, experience, and values. That means it is as unique as a fingerprint. Everyone has one and my process reveals the detail.
So the businesses that have never existed before. They are the business model and brand that most effectively (and rapidly) makes that future vision exist now.
I’ve spent years developing and refining the under-the-hood process that is actually happening here. That development involved a few crucial aspects. Evolving the process to only get the most ambitious results. Eliminating any aspects of the process that led to average results. This means that any one person (single founder at the helm) or team (in the case of organisations that have more than one key founder) could be the next successful case study.
The last key aspect is around the unique needs of a business in the future. The way we currently do business is focused on structures that might be profitable, and then tacking on impact and influence as an afterthought. That worked really well in the early 1900s when people were one of the ‘first’ of whatever they do. Now this process just gets more difficult year on year, whether the company is a global conglomerate or a small startup.
Doing the same things for the same people is a relentless hamster wheel that will only get harder and yield less financial results. My process is the alternative. It finds the best structures for the impact and is about rapidly scaling that way of changing the world, instead of rapidly scaling the structures. On the outside, it’s still scaling and highly correlated with profit. But that shift in focus is everything. It is the future of how brands will grow and operate.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Amazing, I have the best job in the world! There are two different aspects of my work that make up my days.
Turning Points is my digital vision quest. It’s where agencies (for their client brands) and founders (for their own brands) move through my process in an online portal. For me, that looks like exploring audacious possibilities with those people based on whatever their business might look like. There was one day where we were brainstorming for a venue ‘what werewolf tastes like’. Being sure their menu could bring these fantasy foods to life regardless of their customers’ dietary requirements.
Later that day, it was helping a different brand analyse their customer insights. We’d discovered using Google Trends and Also Asked data that their customers had been asking Google “is this all there is” about the stage they were at in life. It had us both rippling in goosebumps because it was that exact hopeless feeling that their offering resolved for their customers.
With the privacy of the internet, people often search for things that matter to them, that they would never share with another person. It’s essential to uncover those insights to ensure the unique future your business creates is aligned to the needs of the person wanting to live in that future.
They become your highest value customers and biggest ambassadors.
The other aspect that makes up my days is generating business concepts for the unique brand marketplace I’m building. This week it was developing the concept and brand for a smart mirror where your mates can use the app to send your mirror messages that display while you’re getting ready. On this marketplace, creatives will be able to sell unique business ideas. Companies who are looking for the next disruptive innovation, or even just a unique concept they’d love to build can buy the ideas. I’ll be regularly releasing Bonbo Original ideas to the platform, to show people what’s possible with my methodology. They can buy the ideas or they can jump into Turning Points to learn how to make their own (whether for themselves or to sell on my marketplace).
As a new mother who is also part of the queer community – and living with a chronic illness – you are a rare asset to the industry. How has being a minority impacted your career? What challenges have you faced?
Until this moment I’ve never seen it listed altogether like that – pansexual, new mama and interstital cystitis (satan bladder).
When I was working for other people, those things were a net negative. They created me a lot of stress.
My sexuality through erasure. If you thought coming out once sucked, try coming out again and again because it feels like everyone forgot. The invisibility is hard for the bi and pan community, regardless of who you’re dating you get a label that doesn’t fit.
My future plans for motherhood impacted job interviews (oh yeah, people ask young females if they intend to have a family) and stress about my future. I saw every single woman I know that had a baby, have her career flatline or nosedive at that point. It’s awful.
The chronic illness created stress through job security.
In a way, I’m grateful to have experienced the intersection of these things. It encouraged me to leave the employed life and build my own life.
I’ve built a career I love, a family I love, and a lifestyle I love. It’s been so good for me that I haven’t had a flareup of my chronic illness since, which essentially is like being cured. It’s become a predisposition instead of a lived reality. As a female mother, with a male husband, my sexuality is still pretty invisible. I love that you’ve asked me though, as that’s my opportunity to be seen. I bring it up but when others do that proactively, it’s really validating and healing.
A lot of the impact of my work is around self actualisation. Of course we need our basic needs for safety and nourishment met. But then, to be seen as we are and embraced as we are is the greatest gift we can give ourselves and one another. The ideas we all have matter.
They are what will shape our future
What’s your professional motto?
Mine changes to whatever will help me most at the time!
For 2022 it’s in the form of a word for the year. Mine is JUICY. That means that everything I say yes to feels good, fulfilling and fun.
Join Melissa in Turning Points here or reach out on Instagram via @bonboau