AOY ’08: Q&A With TBWA’s Tom Carroll

In 2008, TBWA, Adweek’s Global Agency of the Year (see main story), became Visa’s lead global agency, landed PepsiCo’s flagship brand in the U.S. and, through a partnership with fellow Omnicom Group units Critical Mass and 180, became Adidas’ lead shop for global digital duties. In a 90-minute conversation with Adweek senior reporter Andrew McMains, TBWA worldwide CEO Tom Carroll reflected on those marquee wins, why the Playa del Rey, Calif., office is the “driving force” of the network, Omnicom’s influence on the shop, and why Crispin Porter + Bogusky reminds him of the old Chiat/Day.

Adweek: The Visa and Adidas wins were the product of collaboration among TBWA offices, subsidiaries and other Omnicom units. Could that have been done four or five years ago?

Tom Carroll: No. It couldn’t have been done because it’s just not the way networks work. … What we’ve been doing is redefining what a network can be. If you look at the mother ship, we couldn’t be doing any better than we are right now. But at the same time, we’re very collaborative with [Diversified Agency Services] companies [as well as] 180. What’s making TBWA grow is that we’re redefining how a network can operate, and all it has done has made the network stronger and bigger.

For Adidas, you built a unit to work against the client’s global digital business. Will you be doing that more often?

We’ll do it when we have to do it. The truth of it is, in 2008, TBWA Worldwide had one of the most incredible years we’ve ever had. Probably the best we’ve ever had. So, we’ll build around TBWA first and foremost. That’s the brand that we’re building. But we’re flexible because you have to be. There are so many things that you have to do to deal with clients, to deal with client issues today. So, how did we get Adidas’ digital account? We had to work with Critical Mass, we had to work with EVB, we had to take [chief digital officer] Colleen DeCourcy and put her against sorting that out. Sometimes you can work outside the traditional model to solve problems. That’s what’s happening in the industry. The business isn’t the same, so by definition the traditional models can’t be the same. You have to be flexible and nimble, and I think that’s what we’ve done.

What was Colleen’s role in the Adidas pitch?

What we really needed was a digital leader to go over [to Amsterdam] and collaborate with the 180 guys, who are incredibly bright and open-minded. Once she landed on the ground, it took them about two seconds to realize the opportunity they had in their hands, and for about five months they worked 24/7. They actually literally did. I would be on the phone with them at 8 in the morning, and they had been there until 2 o’clock at night. Then I called the next day, and they had been there ’til 1 o’clock at night. Then I called them on a Sunday, and they had been there Saturday and Sunday. It’s what it took to get there, and Colleen was just the type of personality and talent that she could totally lead and help change an organization’s mind-set. And they did it, and they did it together. But that’s a compliment to the 180 guys, who are just smart.

How do you characterize what they put together?

It’s a client solution. 180 and Riot is one client solution. [Media Arts Lab] is another client solution [for Apple]. And the truth of it is, it all comes back to TBWA. So, while it may have a name around it, it’s still TBWA. TBWA and 180 share the Adidas client. TBWA and MAL just happen to be wrapped around Apple. But all that knowledge and all that learning finds its way back to TBWA, and then it gets disseminated around the entire network. It’s that flexible, nimble, “What’s the best way of solving it for the client?” [approach]. Then I think we put an incredible premium on communicating and exchanging knowledge inside the agency.

Was Visa really about the offices coming together?

Visa is a great example of a couple of things. One, L.A. did what L.A. can do. L.A. is extremely good at putting together those big brand-building exercises using disruption. But the best thing about the Visa win is the way the network really came together. [Playa del Rey executive creative director] Rob Schwartz and [president] Carisa [Bianchi] have this incredible ability to reach out and engage Moscow, Korea, Brazil. … It was one of those experiences where you knew everybody had given 150 percent. It was global, and it was the network at its best. This is all the result of 10 years of building a culture of inclusiveness, truly wanting to be international. Just, it works. I feel like we’ve been practicing for this for 10 years.

TBWA’s problem historically was that it had great creative but it didn’t have systems, processes, unity to bind it all.

The thing that we’ve done is — and Lee Clow will say this as much as anybody — is we’ve kept all those creative standards and principles of Chiat/Day and BDDP, and then you put some of that Omnicom/John Wren criteria against it. At first, you think that’s going to kill the creative. [But] all it has done is make it better, make it stronger. So, Lee will be the first to tell you that Omnicom is the best thing that’s ever happened to Chiat/Day.

Visa was a quick growth spurt, starting with U.S. business two years ago and now having it worldwide.

We’re growing in three ways. One is, we’re growing because we’re consolidating business. Adding Michelin in the U.S. — now we have it everywhere around the world. We’ve been consolidating Nissan for five years around the world. We consolidated Visa. Then we’re picking up some new clients like Gatorade, Pepsi and Singapore Airlines [the latter in 2007]. And our digital business is growing. That’s the third way. We’re no different than any other agency. We all have the same challenges. I just think we’re moving fast, we’re being nimble. If we do a really good job, we’re going to get more clients. If we pay attention to what we know is right, we’re going to get clients. If we spent too much time wondering what people want, we get caught up in our crap.

Pepsi was a tight time frame.

Extremely.

How did that get rolling?

It was through Gatorade. That was our first entree and exposure to Pepsi. And then, once that happened, it got accelerated pretty quickly.

Was it something that you were anticipating?

Oh, God no. Just fell in our lap. The other thing is, the L.A. guys have proven that they can turn on a dime and do really quality stuff fast. Schwartz and Carisa have built an incredible machine out there.

It’s a positive to have a really strong L.A. operation that in some ways is the center. Or, you can look at it as, if only New York could be that way.

It’s really funny that everybody thinks New York has to be the center. Says who?

That’s different compared to other networks.

I agree. It just happens to be the unique characteristic of TBWA Worldwide. And I think it’s actually very consistent with who we are.

Is that as much about Lee as anything else?

Well, of course. It’s as much about Lee and Apple and Nissan. Remember, those are our biggest global accounts, and they happen to be located on the West Coast. Any other New York network would give their right arm to be that big in L.A. Any network would be more than happy to be that big in L.A. and have Apple, Nissan and Visa as cornerstone accounts. … The other thing is, in this world, it’s a shorter flight to China from L.A. than it is from New York. It’s just as long a flight to Brazil from L.A. as it is from New York. Who said L.A. can’t be the center of a global network? It’s not the center. It just happens to be the driving force of the network. And it’s not just Lee. It’s what Rob and Carisa and Lee and those guys have built together out there. Obviously, you can’t overstate Lee’s role. Yet, at the same time, you’d have to see what goes on to realize just how much other people out there are driving things. He’d be the first to tell you that.

Are you really starting from scratch in New York, with the hiring of Mark Figliulo from Young & Rubicam and the remaking of the creative department?

Many people have had unrealistic expectations for New York when you have an office as big as L.A. That being said, I’ve been in this office twice where we’ve been very, very strong. Back when we did the Nynex Yellow Pages, when Bill Hamilton was here, and as [recently] as five years ago, when we had Nextel and Mars. … Where are we now? Just like L.A. has Apple, Nissan, global Pedigree, Visa — big, global, marquee accounts — New York has Absolut and Michelin. Those are also big, global, iconic accounts.

How do you characterize your strategy in New York?

The strategy for me in New York was, once [former ecd] Gerry [Graf] left, OK, let’s stop and retreat. We were always plugging things in New York over the years, as opposed to just saying, “Stop. What do we have to do to lay down a firm foundation for New York?” You always have to start with creative leadership. In a network like TBWA, you have to have strong creative leadership. So, we took a long time to identify Mark. A lot of people were involved in identifying Mark. Mark just happens to have a lot of things our culture now puts a premium on. One, he has a great creative reputation, and he has done great work. Y&R Chicago was always in the top 10 for awards. He has got a point of view about everything, and he’s a good guy at the same time. … More than anything, he’s creating a culture around New York. So, are we starting over? Yeah, kind of. But I think we’ll get there really fast. New York will create its own identity really fast.

Can you put your finger on the issues in London? What will it take to get them back to being a leading agency in that market?

The story on London is simple. London was flying very high five years ago, and then all of a sudden — like London — everybody left and started their own agencies. [Simon] Clemmow and [Johnny] Hornby went off and started their own agency. And Trevor Beattie went off and started his own agency. Somebody else got hired to be CEO of some other agency. There was a talent drain in less than 12 months. All of the talent that made it a great office was gone. It was a bit of a blow for a lot of reasons. And we had some fits and starts. [Ex-ecd] Steve Henry is a talent. It just didn’t seem to work out.

Why not?

We didn’t seem to have the kind of momentum and success that we expected, right? [TBWA Group U.K. CEO] Tim Lindsay is in, who is obviously a proven talent. It’s just that you can’t turn those things [around] overnight.

It has been years, though, right?

It hasn’t even been two years yet [since Lindsay joined]. So, Tim inherited something, and then the [opportunity to acquire] Beattie McGuinness [Bungay] came along. It seemed like a really interesting opportunity, simply because we’d had a lot of success with those guys five years ago. So, why wouldn’t you look at it? Why wouldn’t you consider it? At the end of the day, it was probably a blessing in disguise that it didn’t happen. When we talked to Beattie McGuinness, it was no comment on Tim and the management of London. It just seemed like one of those things that you had to look at.

Why was it a blessing in disguise?

CARROLL: Trevor sold his agency to a Korean company, so obviously Trevor was after something other than building the TBWA network, helping be a part of the TBWA network. Which is fine. I mean, I love Trevor. He’s one of the unique talents. I love guys like Trevor. I think it’s what makes the industry fun. It makes the industry interesting. So, I’ve got a lot of time for Trevor. But that’s not what he wanted to do. Talking to us and having conversations with us, and then signing 49 percent of the agency to a Korean organization, suggests maybe we weren’t in the same place. So, it’s probably a blessing.

Visa CMO Antonio Lucio said TBWA pitched work that was strong strategically, adaptable regionally and “almost finished.” What did he mean by that?

Because creatives are very much part of the disruption process — the smart ones — we tend to get pretty bulletproof by the time we get to execution. It seems to be very consistent — the strategy and the execution. So, yes, we did close-to-finished work because as a group we worked together.

Was there a point in the process where you felt like you really cracked the brief?

There were two stages, and we had a very good response after the first stage. But that’s always dangerous when you get a really positive response after the first stage, because it gives everybody else [in the pitch] room to improve, and it gives you an opportunity to go backwards. What happened was, Carisa, more than anyone, was possessed. She had the strategy and the brand just pumping through her veins every minute of every day, and there was no way that woman was going to let us lose or let us do anything but improve. It was really her leadership and passion. … I think of L.A. like the Lakers. She’s like Magic Johnson. She can shoot, she can pass, she’s the emotional leader. Schwartz is like James Worthy. He’s like a power forward who can score, rebound, defend. And then I’ve got Kareem [Clow] in the middle, who’s the veteran who can get you 30 a game, never makes a bad pass and knows what winning looks like. So, when you’ve got power like that, I’m another dumbfuck from Schenectady who just happens to be at the right place at the right time. You know Pat Riley is from Schenectady?
 
Was Visa’s decision as much about the strategy and idea as it was about credentials and capabilities?

I think [Lucio] truly bought the idea and the work, period. Because, remember, he has a long history with BBDO and a lot of success. He also admired the work that Grey was doing, and he admired work that Burnett was doing around the world. And he made it clear to us from the beginning that this was wide open. It was a level playing field. I’m not sure I believed that at first, because you don’t know. But what we basically decided to say was, “Let’s just focus on winning the pitch,” and forget about whether both politics and our relationships mattered. That probably had an awful lot to do with our winning in that they all saw we were single-mindedly about their business. There was no conversation about anything else. I’m a New Yorker, so I’m always worried about agendas. The guys in L.A. don’t spend any time worrying about agendas. They just do. That’s the beauty of L.A. — they just do.

What does the Omnicom business approach bring to TBWA?

The problem with Chiat/Day in the past was, we would do this brilliant creative, and then we didn’t have the business discipline to protect it and grow it. So, we’d do this brilliant work, and we’d get fired. And everybody would go, “Well, that’s ridiculous. How could they do such brilliant work and then get fired?” … It’s not that the lunatics were running the asylum. It’s just that Jay [Chiat] was always afraid of strong account people and didn’t realize that that’s what protects great work and great creative. So, these disciplines that being a part of Omnicom brought to the table, like [recently departed worldwide CFO] Jonathan Ramsden, who has as much to do with our success in the last 10 years as anybody because he had this steady hand, [have been key to our success].

Being part of Omnicom also opens doors to Mars and PepsiCo.

Without question.

That’s what you have to give Crispin Porter + Bogusky credit for. You can’t say that MDC opened the door to Microsoft. So, in a good way, they remind me of the old Chiat/Day.

I look at Burger King, and first of all, I think the work is genius. But more than anything, those guys have unlocked something about that brand that the brand couldn’t have done without Crispin. The King is genius. I think they’re talking to their target brilliantly. They really identify who they want to talk to and why. They’re selling burgers, and they’re building that brand. And they’ve done a great job on that. What else have they done that I really love? I love the VW stuff. I don’t how you cannot like the VW stuff. The Microsoft stuff — it reminded me of Chiat/Day. That’s what Chiat/Day would have done. Well, they’re not afraid. And they know what their job is. It’s to bring the best out in their clients. And that’s the characteristic that drives our company the most. I don’t think we’re afraid at all of anything. And we’re very clear that our job is to bring the best out of our clients. I look at Crispin, and I feel they do the same thing. They’re not afraid. And neither are we. And that’s a really important thing.