Inside TBWA New York’s Reinvention

After exec changes and account losses, shop aims to become network flagship

Even in the rough-and-tumble New York agency world, TBWA\Chiat\Day has stood out as one of the most volatile shops trying to right itself in recent years. 

 

Creative highs have been followed by virtual invisibility for an office that once helped the network become the most-awarded agency in the business. Top management has been a revolving door, as TBWA's most visible clients—including Absolut, Vonage and Kraft—are gone. As large global marketers like Beiersdorf and Mars also departed the TBWA fold, the New York office lost a share of that business, too.

Enter Rob Schwartz, TBWA's former global creative president, who in January was named New York CEO, succeeding Robert Harwood-Matthews, who had been president of the office for more than two years. Schwartz has a massive advantage his recent predecessors did not. He was handpicked by TBWA's new global CEO Troy Ruhanen, and the two share the same vision for the agency, according to sources—that is, making New York a worthy office working with bigger, more global and more complex marketers. The model is akin to fellow Omnicom agency BBDO where Ruhanen was recently head of the Americas.

The change at the top of TBWA is directly connected to the agency's turnaround, according to insiders. With the global executive offices in close proximity to the New York staff, former global CEO Tom Carroll had involved himself in the running of the shop, leading to confusion, sources said. "Tom would meddle," a former executive related. "It has to be really clear who is in charge." Added another: "Tom likes to manage through confusion, which gave him control." (Carroll did not respond to requests for comment.)

Former executive creative director Gerry Graf, who was behind TBWA New York's award-winning ads for Mars' Skittles and Snickers brands, concurs that Carroll liked chaos. Some people inside the office tapped into that, while others did not. But even as Graf admitted he and Carroll would have screaming matches about work in the middle of the office, he defended Carroll's management, "The creative we did on M&M/Mars was some of the best I had done in years, and I don't think it could have been sold without Tom."

In Schwartz, Ruhanen has a creative executive whose strengths include handling clients, running new business pitches and an intimate familiarity with global marketers. Schwartz's expertise is highly regarded in the industry. Last month, he served on the jury of the inaugural Super Clio Award, recognizing the best in Super Bowl advertising, which went to Snickers' Brady Bunch-themed spot.

A former New Yorker who spent 16 years in the agency's L.A. office, Schwartz understands well the cultural schism between TBWA's coastal outposts, leading New York to often be compared unfavorably to the high-flying L.A. office. "We have a lot of good people in New York who don't realize how good they are," Schwartz said. "We need to reorient them back to the creative product and get the place to be about one agenda rather than several agendas."

Schwartz, like Ruhanen, wants to bring back TBWA's "Disruption" philosophy, laid out by TBWA agency network chairman Jean-Marie Dru but cast aside in recent years. "I don't have to turn around this company—I have to blow on the embers already here," Schwartz said. "This is a well-funded startup, and the killer app is 'Disruption.'"

As far as Carroll's role in the agency's recent struggles is concerned, Schwartz declines to go into specifics but observed: "My grandmother always said a fish rots from the head down, and what happens at the top of the agency cascades down. Tom had to modernize the company, taking it from analog to digital, and that's messy work."