Bompas & Parr, the agency behind most of the past decade’s bonkers brand activations, is preparing to take its unique brand of content creation far beyond British shores: eyeing a studio in the US and launching its ‘Tongue Town’ installation in Brazil. The Drum sat down with the eponymous founders to discuss how they remain perched on the outlandish spectrum of creativity, in between the worlds of brands and art.
Bompas & Parr began life as a maker of fine English jellies, before the pair were dubbed architectural foodsmiths by the London press sometime around 2010. Now they have settled on the moniker of “experience design agency”, which co-founder Harry Parr admits is “a bit of a mouthful”, but one they finally arrived at after eight years in business.
“Ultimately we concluded that we design experiences, whether it’s on a very small scale, like designing a cocktail, or on a very large scale, like designing a museum,” he said.
Parr is referring to the agency’s British Museum of Food, 2016’s elaborate passion project featuring a 4D journey of the human digestive system, a tropical butterfly zone and a ‘sonic chocolate wonderland’. Eighteen months later – or last week – the agency housed a retrospective of itself at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, where Brazilians could wander through a fictionalised old English market town and experience Bompas & Parr’s best work of the decade.
The scale and ambition of Tongue Town, alongside a simultaneous creative production in London, is a prime example of Bompas & Parr’s ability to “really do anything we set our mind to”.
“What makes us different from other people is we can probably be bothered a bit more to make something happen,” said Parr. “Everyone has great ideas. Everyone goes to the pub with their friends and talks about interesting things, but the difference with me and Sam [Bompas] is that we talk about them and we’re stupid enough to try and do them.”
Beyond these one-off, pure-play creative productions, Bompas & Parr is more than happy to work with brands. Its past client list is dreamy, diverse and exhaustive: the team has created live experiences for the likes of Guinness, Propercorn, Perrier-Jouët, Tutti Frutti and Johnnie Walker.
Bompas may believe that brands previously came to his studio as a “last resort” but in reality, the agency clearly has no problem winning new work. This is undoubtedly due to its ability to think creatively, fast (“We have enormous books full of ideas that are just hot and ready to go”), as well as its founders’ enthusiasm, which manifests itself as much in its commercial work as it does in its artistic projects.
Bompas likens the relationship between client and agency to that of a patron and artist during the Renaissance. He is also infectiously upbeat about working with brands.
“One of the things that we found in terms of real, raw creativity is quite often the work we do on brands is much more creative than in the cultural sector,” he explained “In the cultural sector, certainly if you’re working with museums, they’re looking for you to do something that’s in your métier, that’s familiar to their audiences and that fits within their curatorial remit.
“Now that’s vastly different from [working with] marketers who like your work, but as you obviously can’t do something you’ve done before they want you to do something that’s totally new, otherwise it’s just not going to get much cut through. What’s more, you’re also able to work with bigger budgets, which means you can achieve things that are just utterly, utterly impossible if you’re working in a purely cultural remit.”
Now that the Bompas & Parr has made its name on the UK creative scene both culturally and commercially, the studio is actively looking for opportunities in new markets. While it remains devoted to its Bermondsey home and the “dynamic” and “jaded” London social scene, already 60-70% of its business by revenue is global, and a US office is on the cards.
Does this mean the agency will have to translate, or dilute, its British eccentricities for a global audience?
“When we started Bompas & Parr, Britishness as a brand was quite fixed and was also quite aspirational, quite desirable around the planet,” said Bompas. “Many might say that in light of recent events, Britishness as an identity is being very, very contested, and that is obviously reflected in the global perception of Britishness.
“In the past Britishness, and Bompas & Parr, have been interesting and intriguing to people around the world. But I would say now and the future we’re looking to be more global.”