Will Lee Clow Change The Rules Of The Ad Game-Again?
LOS ANGELES – Chiat/Day has always prided itself on doing things differently. Agency officials readily admit they are driven by the thrill of challenging the status quo. They want to “zig” when others “zag.” One gets the feeling the agency does some things just for effect.
Often, Chiat’s nonconformist approach meets with success and sets important trends. On occasion, however, its attempts backfire – badly. Remember the “Virtual Office” experiment? Yet even in failure, the agency has been a lightening rod for industry change, encouraging peers to question conventional wisdom.
Here they go again.
Three months after being promoted to chairman of TBWA Worldwide, Lee Clow plans to unveil another agency credo this week at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France. This time, Clow’s new dictum – “Change the rules” – is being implemented on a global basis.
While it might sound like more rhetoric, not unlike the previous mantra “Good enough is not enough,” there are elements of his initiative that are original and controversial.
Most notable is Clow’s radical position in the ongoing debate over defining agencies as “partners” or “vendors.” While most executives groan when they hear the word “vendor,” Clow embraces it, arguing that “partner” is not an accurate description of agency-client relationships.
“The idea [of partners] has been overused to the extent that it’s untrue. The client has more at risk than we do,” says the 55-year-old worldwide chief creative officer. “We want to do the best at what we do. And we want to be well paid for doing it.”
Instead, TBWA, a $6 billion network, wants to stake out a position as a “highly valued, highly desired” vendor that provides clients with the big creative ideas they can’t find elsewhere.
Does Clow still want TBWA involved in everything from creative and media to strategy, new products and distribution? Yes. Does he still want the “mutual respect” that “partnership” implies? Sure. Is he worried about getting hoisted on his own petard when some client decides to review all vendor relationships, including its ad agency? No.
“This business is tenuous. New people can come in and decide to review any and all of their relationships – no matter how they characterize them,” he says.
Clow’s vendor position gets strong support from TBWA’s global CEO Michael Greenlees and CEO of the Americas Bob Kuperman. Ad agency rhetoric about partnership stems from a fear they’ve “lost the ears of their big clients,” says Greenlees. “I have no problem being viewed as a highly valued vendor. Protesting that your client doesn’t treat you like a partner is a fool’s mission. We’re in the business of stripping away the bullshit, and we’ve lived in a fog of nonsense for too long.”
Adds Kuperman: “The word ‘vendor’ became this misnomer – we didn’t want to be seen as being in the same line as the guy selling paper clips. We thought our contribution must be greater than that guy. You don’t go to a dentist and say: ‘Be my partner.’ What you say is, ‘Fix my tooth.’ “
If the “vendor” description scares some people, so be it. “It’s about time,” says Santa Fe, N.M.-based marketing consultant Michael Markowitz. “What Lee is doing is acknowledging the real nature of this business – and more power to him.” Here’s another secret, says Markowitz. Agencies themselves are usually lousy partners. “When was the last time an agency indicated to a client they believed the client had a key creative contribution to make?”
Thus, Clow has key new initiatives to “manage and lead” the change:
Change the Credo: Clow is drawing up a new credentials book based on his new motto that demonstrates how TBWA has changed the rules for global clients like Apple, Sony and Absolut. “Change the rules” is “really another expression” of the Apple campaign, says Kuperman. “If we hadn’t given it to Apple, ‘Think different’ would be our anthem,” he laughs.
Change the Structure: Clow is creating TBWA’s first worldwide board of creative directors, which will assemble for the first time this Wednesday in Cannes. The group, which will meet twice a year in Cannes and Los Angeles, is comprised of 20 or so CDs. Their first project? Propose ideas on how to translate the new theme into concrete action at their shops. Clow has also declared the New York office as the business headquarters and Los Angeles as the creative headquarters. “That allows us to break another rule – you can have your creative epicenter on the West Coast,” he notes. TBWA will also likely roll out a new interactive unit.
Changing habits: Clow is readying a global ad campaign using the “Change the rules” theme and will solicit ideas from his creative board this week; the work could break this fall. The early Chiat/Day was “built with ad campaigns” in trade publications, says Clow. “It’s amazing how few agencies do it.”
Change Chairman’s Role: Unlike predecessor Bill Tragos, Clow doesn’t plan to globe-trot. Instead, he prefers to be the agency’s North Star – acting more as “leader than manager” from his base in Los Angeles. “My leadership won’t turn into flying around the world sprinkling holy water on creative departments,” he says.
Change Account Planning: The agency that introduced the discipline to the U.S. now wants to “reinvent” the process. How? By adopting the “Disruption” theory espoused by CEO/international Jean-Marie Dru, which calls for “breaking with what has been done before and rejecting the conventional.” Fiona Clancy, the Paris-based director of strategic planning for Europe, is creating a new worldwide planning group to explore options.
Lee Clow: Chairman Of The Board
Title: Chairman, CCO, TBWA Worldwide
Personal: Married to wife Ilene for 30 years. Likes surfing and playing tennis. Attended Long Beach State University, but didn’t graduate. Served in Army.
Professional: Hired by Chiat/Day in 1973 after campaigning for job with the Line: “Hire the hairy.”
Favorite all-time campaign: DDB’s “Volkswagen is the gold standard.”
Favorite current campaign: “For all kinds of reasons, I couldn’t be prouder of Apple.”
Worst client: “Reebok was horrible.”
How long will you stay: “As long as I’m having fun. I don’t have any desire to go to some island and paint.”
Biggest regret: “None. I’m an optimistic person.”
Should advertising be entertainment or hard sell: “You better do both. They are not mutually exclusive.”
Criticism of the “Enjoy the ride” campaign: “A brave idea can fail for all kinds of reasons. There’s always a group that wants to see people fall on their face.”
Goal for TBWA: “We want to work with tomorrow’s brands, the brands of the future.”
Biggest surprise about new Ad City office in L.A.: “People use the park more than I thought. Even the dogs use it like a park.”
Quotes on Clow:
“This generation’s Bill Bernbach.” – Michael Markowitz
“I’m not sure what that guy said, but he believes it!” – Pizza Hut marketer after Clow’s winning pitch in the ’80s.
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