Fishbowl: Less ‘Stranger Danger’ and More Safe Space for Conversation

December 2, 2019

Robyn Frost

Undeterred by the polar vortex, in early 2019 Robyn hopped on a plane and flew 4,000 miles from London to the Windy City, joining FCB Chicago as an art director and writer (yes, both). She works as part of FCB’s experiential arm, FCBX, as well as the wider agency, creating bold above-the-line and digital campaigns for some of their biggest clients.

Back in London, she was a creative at Poke (Publicis), where she crafted award-winning campaigns for Heineken, EE, Google and Garnier.

Her words are just as likely to be found in Campaign opinion pieces, Forbes and Buzzfeed as they are in ads. In August 2019, she co-created “Untold Stories,” a column in partnership with Campaign, which invites anonymous stories about the “we know it's there, but we won't talk about it” topics in the advertising industry.

Most recently, she was named one of The Dots’ 100 Trailblazers redefining the creative industry.

“Is everyone inspired right now? Ready to fix shit?”
The pin-drop silence that had fallen over the room gave way to a resounding ‘hell yeah’ as Mara Lecocq, Brand and Community Director of Fishbowl and co-founder of Where Are The Boss Ladies, stepped on stage. 
Yep, you read that right – Fishbowl AND Where Are The Boss Ladies (WATBL). The latter – the largest database of women executive leaders in advertising – helped many of us find the female leaders we now work with. It started as a spreadsheet that was shared on… you guessed it… Fishbowl. WATBL quickly gathered pace and names and now serves as the go-to resource for anyone wanting to work for brilliant female leaders. If you’re in the market for a female boss (who isn’t tbh), consider this a PSA – you know where to start. 
As for Fishbowl, it’s the app many of us have that we don’t tend to talk about with our bosses. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s an anonymous chat app for professionals of the same industry to have transparent conversations about work. Personally, I think anything that makes agencies sit up a little in their seats is bloody brilliant. 

Anything that makes agencies sit up a little in their seats is bloody brilliant.

Who’s on Fishbowl? Probably all of us. I see you, anonymous ‘OP,’ out here asking the important questions, like ‘is my salary fair?’ or ‘what’s it like to work at Gut?’ (if you know, kindly share with the class).
“Who’s got mixed feelings about Fishbowl?” Mara asked.  
“I get it. A place where strangers in advertising share their true, raw, inner thoughts about the industry? I know it can make people feel uncomfortable.”
Exactly as it should. 
We know these conversations aren’t always happening in the workplace, proving the need for such an app. If we’re doubting ourselves, struggling, facing real challenges, we may not always feel able to talk it out in a peer review or with our bosses. We slap on the mask of ‘everything’s great and I’ve DEFINITELY got this under control!’ Note the exclamation points that probably crop up in our emails to make us seem likable and approachable, too.
Lecocq continued, “it’s really hard to be yourself at work.” Word. How can we REALLY be ourselves when workplace cultures aren’t typically designed for frank discussions? Discussions that could make people think we’re not cut out for leadership, cause tensions to rise, or even make us think ‘fuck advertising.’ The pressure to be the ‘perfect employee’ is on and the stakes are high. 
This is where Fishbowl comes in. They’re leading by example, setting the standard for what the industry can and will be – open, frank, and vulnerable. Creating those spaces for support, designing them for empathy, and encouraging tough conversations. There’s something liberating about talking to a complete stranger, free from judgment and preconceived ideas. Just accepting each other at face value.
And that’s just what we all did next: Fishbowl IRL. Mara told us about a post that posed the question ‘what’s your main weakness?’ and how reading the responses – so many, so relatable – made her feel validated, and that a face-to-face version could work that same magic.
Then shit got real, as Mara set the pace.

“As you’re thinking about this before you doubt your ability to share your main weakness with others, I’m gonna start by sharing mine. To 1,000 people. English is my second language, French is my first. My English is pretty basic, not very polished – sometimes I confuse words, sometimes I stutter, I find it sounds kind of clunky most of the time. And I hide behind the it’s my second language excuse. French is my mother tongue and my academic language. So it’s way better on paper.

But in reality, I left France 8 years ago, and now my first language is deteriorating. When I talk to my French friends, they’re like “why do you have an accent now? Why can’t you say a full sentence without throwing in an English word? And I’m like, “Oh! That’s because I speak English all the time.

So here I am, pretending that my other language is better when in fact, I master no language perfectly. 

And I value language so much. My parents were both writers who loved intellectual debate, witty wordplay, and I admire anyone who speaks beautifully. I admire good, literary writing, but I need to come to terms that I’m just destined to mediocrity when it comes to mastering a language. That’s my weakness. What’s yours?”

Applause echoed around the room before fading to chatter, and I found myself leaving my security blanket of familiar FCB faces and walking up to two total strangers. “Is this seat free?” I asked, pointing at a clearly unoccupied seat. So far, so awkward. The apprehension fizzled as we shared our weaknesses, experiences, and stories of all moving from our home countries to the US. This was far easier than pulling up a chair in a meeting room at work.
In the interest of vulnerability, here’s my bit. Nobody likes a ‘bossy’ woman. So sometimes, in certain situations, I hold back on making suggestions. I hesitate when it comes to delegating, and wonder if it’s even my job to delegate yet despite knowing who’s brilliant at what in a group and how we can use that to push for better work. Maybe, sometimes, I care more about being liked when I should probably care more about earning the respect of others by killing it at my job. Because those are two very different things. I’ve worked with plenty of likable people but the ones I really love working with are the ones I respect because of how they behave at work. I speak up and out online and in articles, and this is all very well, but I need to unwaveringly do it in person too. I’m working on it. 
This was one of my favorite sessions for a reason. The whole thing (and writing this, too) was cathartic. 
First, I love an activity. Slicing through the conventional speaker/audience set up and making us step out of our comfort zones (literally, towards two strangers) is a powerful move that shouldn’t be underestimated. 
Second, it was wonderfully liberating sharing something I haven’t shared with my bosses and finding other people have experienced it too. 
Mara left us with one last gem before she walked offstage, “While we’re going through unique experiences as individuals, there are commonalities between all of us. Don’t be a stranger.”