Bee Pahnke, Head of Voice, Dragon Rouge

"Communicating [purpose] in an authentic way often comes down to words. The imagery is almost by the by. It’s the language that connects within your gut."

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE Creativebrief


Creativebrief: Looking at your career, please could you talk about where you started, focusing on particular highlights and how you ended up at Dragon Rouge.
Bee Pahnke: I studied creative writing at university. I also worked for a charity doing what I later found out was copywriting. I worked for the BBC for a while, writing scripts. They had a young writers initiative and I wrote an embarrassing EastEnders spin off series. I’ve always been a big advocate of trying as many things as you can because you never know what’s going to stick. In my third year of uni I found out about a two-day course on how to make a living out of writing run by an agency called The Writer. This course blew my mind. I couldn’t believe I’d found this incredible thing and was unprepared to let it go. I came up with a game plan that if they were ever looking for a Junior Writer, I wanted my name to be the first one they thought of. When I finished uni, I sent an email saying I’ll do an unpaid internship. They said we don’t have a photocopying internship, but we would like to ask you for a Junior Writer interview. I got the job and started to learn the craft. I learnt a lot. I was at The Writer for about four years and then got made redundant. That was a big shock. I put the word out to my network and from that started freelancing. After a year, I was headhunted by Rufus Leonard to be their Copy Lead for branding and comms. After about 18 months there, I got a call from Dragon Rouge saying we’d like you to come and chat about this new position.
Creativebrief: What did you see that was unique about Dragon Rouge? Why did you decide to make that move?
Bee Pahnke: The role itself, being able to shape a language offering for an agency from scratch is really exciting. What this role gives me the opportunity to do is really showcase the power of language almost with no prior expectations. Dragon Rouge were open to embracing how I thought we should do it, and that is so exciting, to not have that precedent put on you. The role itself was too good to be true and too good to pass up. At the agency, there was this real hunger to learn and they wanted to add this level of expertise. It wasn’t box ticking. There was a thirst from them to really embrace the role. The strong strategy department and the research and the insight and innovation department are really fascinating for me. Also having an opportunity to be a part of the bigger group. Dragon Rouge have eight offices across the world and having that breadth of experience across the other offices is incredible. There is a unique culture at Dragon Rouge. There’s openness, there’s a lack of pretentiousness. People come into a room and they really want to hear what you’ve got to say. And that goes the same for clients and colleagues. And they’ve got a lot of really strong women at the agency which is really impressive. Also, one of the original founders of the agency still works here, Dot, she still gets involved.

"Right now, this technology is limited in the voice you can choose, but that will change. The technology is developing. Tone of voice has a remit that expands so much further than it used to. It used to be words on a page; now it’s accent, sounds, pitch, speed."

Bee Pahnke
Creativebrief: In your role as Head of Voice, what’s your primary focus?
Bee Pahnke: The purpose of the role for the agency is to increase that expertise across the holistic brand. With my clients, it’s looking at things like tone of voice, creating a verbal brand and how that can work with and compliment a visual brand, making sure we’re really thinking about the client’s needs holistically because it doesn’t just stop with pictures. I’ve worked across every platform, digital, print, above the line, direct comms, strategy documents and with voice technology, ‘voice user interface’. What I love about voice user interface is that everything I thought it was going to be was wrong. For me, that’s really exciting because it is going to be something that clients are going to want more and more.
Creativebrief: Do you think all brands are going to have a sound?
Bee Pahnke: I think so, you need to have an identity. Between 20 and 25 years ago, people were going ‘I’ve heard of this thing called the Internet, have you heard of it?’ Before that point, brand identity was a real-life space. Then suddenly those brands had to start adapting. It became apps and app stores. Similarly, if something goes wrong and I want to talk to someone, I assume a brand will have a social media account. We’ll get to a point within five years where people will be searching for a brand on the [Alexa] Skill Store and if the brand isn’t represented, the audiences are going to be confused and disappointed. Right now, this technology is limited in the voice you can choose, but that will change. The technology is developing. Tone of voice has a remit that expands so much further than it used to. It used to be words on a page, now it’s accent, sounds, pitch, speed. And the gender debate is so fascinating. There are implications no matter which one you choose. It’s so complex and the exciting thing for language is we don’t know the answers.
Creativebrief: If you were going to put a brand on a pedestal as having the best voice, what kind of brands do you look to?
Bee Pahnke: I was looking today at Homeward Bound. Their strapline is Mother Nature Needs Her Daughters and it looks at getting women into the science and technology industries for environmental progress. What I like about their voice is that they’re accessible. Bodyform have a great tone of voice. As a brand they have a nice alignment between the visual and verbal style. Bodyform feel punchy, like they’re full of a lot of attitude but they also have a softness that is approachable. They’ve balanced that softness with strength really well and also added a bit of humour.

"Communicating [purpose] in an authentic way often comes down to words. The imagery is almost by the by. It’s the language that connects within your gut."

Bee Pahnke
Creativebrief: How do you see the industry evolving? You said in the next five years, everyone’s going to have to have that vocal identity but are there any other developments you see within the world of voice?
Bee Pahnke: In a very granular way, people are changing, and our perceptions of people are changing in a positive way. So, gender pronouns. We used to automatically say she and he. That might not be what our customers ask for. I can see a point in the future where as part of the flexibility for a tone of voice, we start introducing that into brands. It may be that it partners with UX. I think of writing unifying every element of the brand. Looking at the UX of a sign-up process for a bank, it may be that when you fill in your personal details, it asks which pronoun you would like to use. That is then going to affect the way you write things in a very granular way. The awareness of the general population is so much broader than it ever has been before. That is going to force branding to change, to force us to change the way we represent people through the images we choose. This has a knock-on effect for the types of headlines we attach to those images. We’re supposed to be representing people out there in the world. How can we do that if we’re in a male or white dominated industry? How can we speak to the length and breadth of the country or the world if we aren’t even talking to the people representing that community in the office?
Creativebrief: The trend we’re focusing on at the moment is that consumers want to know more about the societal, environmental and economic impacts of brands. How do you evaluate that in the brands you work with?
Bee Pahnke: We feel all brands need to demonstrate good social and environmental performance, and to be able to communicate this in an authentic, brand appropriate way. Talking about the positive work a brand is doing can be difficult because if you’re not careful it sounds like you’re being smug and arrogant. Equally, a lot of brands are afraid to come out being so boldly in favour of something. There are lots of examples of brands that have done it mostly well. The Nike Colin Kaepernick partnership. That is them taking a stand. Coca-Cola’s #LoveIsLove campaign. Brands are doing it more and more, but people are cynical, and we can smell bullshit a mile off. Communicating [purpose] in an authentic way often comes down to words. The imagery is almost by the by. It’s the language that connects within your gut. Ultimately our consumers have higher expectations than they ever have before. And they also have more platforms to call you out on when you get it wrong.
Creativebrief: What are your ambitions within the role and then for Dragon Rouge as an agency?
Bee Pahnke: Within the role, I would like our clients to come to us with tone of voice at the front of their mind when they walk in the door as opposed to a bolt on the side. We are starting to get that movement. By having someone who is championing language, they can start to see the benefit, seeing it more as a holistic part of the puzzle. For Dragon Rouge, I’d like us to be known for our incredible writing and language and as the agency that is genuinely tackling every single aspect of a brand. From a personal point of view, I want Dragon Rouge to be the agency that is known for the incredible things we’re doing for diversity and for being the agency that challenge our clients on that and help them become more aware and increase their level of consciousness.
Creativebrief: Something that we’re really interested in is what people are inspired by outside the industry.
Bee Pahnke: There was a Nike India advert with a great soundtrack called Dada Ding. It’s incredible. I’ve got a Spotify playlist called Female Empowerment that I share with my female friends. We add songs that make us feel like we can take on the world. There is a brilliant book by Cordelia Fine called Delusions of Gender where she looks into all the studies in which conclusions [on gender] are misrepresented. I’m a real nerd for learning so I love doing courses and workshops. This year I’ve learnt how to carve a spoon, done a five-week pottery course. Have you heard of Obby? Like Not on the High Street but for experiences and workshops. I also did a stand-up comedy course, I’m in a little band. I’m careful about who I follow on Instagram because Instagram is, not fully because there are sponsored posts and adverts, but it’s pretty much the only place where you can control the types of media and imagery that go into your subconscious brain. I can’t control the images I’m going to see on the side of a bus or tube platform or on the back of a magazine. I can’t control the kind of image that is being sold to me as a representation of society and what the ideal is. I can control what I see as I scroll. I work hard to make sure I’ve got a breadth of people that I follow: Tess Daly, Diva Delux, the Sassy Truth, the Real Alex Bertie, Harnaam Kaur, Taynee Tinsley, Libby VanderPloeg. Take care of what you’re consuming. You can learn a lot about the world if you open your parameters in some ways and you can learn a lot about yourself if you close the parameters in other ways. Get rid of the shit that makes you feel bad. You haven’t got time for that. Enough people want to drag you down. Don’t let social media do it too.

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