Q&A: TBWA’s Carroll

NEW YORK Last week, TBWA hired Colleen DeCourcy to fill the new post of global chief digital officer as it looks to sharpen its interactive offering, said worldwide president Tom Carroll. DeCourcy, formerly the chief experience officer at JWT, starts next month and will lead the digital efforts of TBWA and its direct and interactive unit Tequila.

In an interview with senior reporter Andrew McMains, Carroll discusses the purpose of the new position, where he sees TBWA in the digital race and the challenges that DeCourcy will face as an outsider taking on a global leadership role.

Q: Why does TBWA need a chief digital officer?
A: It’s not that we needed a chief digital officer. We already have tons of digital things going on at TBWA, Tequila, Media Arts Lab. We’re already going at 90 miles per hour in the whole space. It’s just [that] Colleen is this rare talent that you run across and . . . if you see an exceptional talent, why wouldn’t you take it? It’s not as much chief digital officer as it is, what’s the best role for her talent?

What’s her core mission?
To be a catalyst for a lot of different types of disciplines, people and companies. And try to find some common languages and common ways of thinking. Just bringing it together so we’re all on the same path.

Can you give me an example?
She comes from a creative background, but she also has an incredibly deep knowledge of technology and how it works. She understands how audiences work and the whole audience planning thing that we’re playing in. . . . And she brings a lot of thinking that’s going to blend perfectly with all the initiatives we have going on already. She’ll help us accelerate things. Why do you have to have a chief digital officer? Because right now that kind of works. It works for her unique talent. We weren’t trying to fill the chief digital officer spot. We ran into somebody who’s going to deliver a certain degree of insight. When you find somebody that smart, you don’t wait around. You move. It’s all going too fast.

How much time will she spend on clients?
Ninety percent. Here’s my point of view: Everybody should be spending time on clients. Anything that we do in this arena is driven towards delivering better thinking and better ways of doing business for our clients. Ninety percent of her time will be on clients. Ninety percent of her time will be spent on doing and not talking.

Which clients in particular want what she brings to the table?
I don’t know if we’ve sorted that out exactly, but obviously we’d start with our largest global clients.

Nissan?
Yes.

Mars?
Sure, right away we’ll start with assessing what our clients need. Hopefully what she’ll help us do is generate the right thinking, strategies and apply the right resources. I mean she might identify things that we need to get. If she comes to me and says, “You know what, Tom? There’s a spot and we need, blank.” Then we’ll evaluate it and we’ll see what we have to do.

Who else besides you will she work closely with?
Global account directors. Right off the bat, [Playa del Rey, Calif., office executive creative director] Rob Schwartz and [Playa del Rey president] Carisa Bianchi and [New York ecd] Gerry Graf and [New York president] Corey Mitchell. The people who run the offices and work with clients every day. What I won’t let her do is get trapped in management.

What do you mean by that?
I just won’t let her get trapped in meetings. I’d rather she was outside helping people do things for clients.

Does that also apply to new business?
Sure, of course.

Initially, what are her main priorities—to try to assess what you have?
Exactly. I think what she’ll do is listen for the first couple of months . . . Listen, get to people who drive the businesses and are the smartest people in our company and then come back and say, “All right, here’s what I think I see.”

What are the biggest challenges that she faces?
We have a lot of really smart, very accomplished people in the network. And [the] first [step] is gaining credibility with those people—which I have no doubt in my mind she’ll do. And then, building those relationships inside the agency and then with clients, so that we can get the stuff done. I think everybody’s biggest frustration as all this stuff evolves is stop talking about it, start doing it . . . We’re all trying to adapt to a new digital world and so that’s what she’s going to help us do. She has got to gain credibility first.

I had the impression that you guys were behind the curve when it came to digital. You beg to differ?
Oh, absolutely.

You don’t feel like you’re on the leading edge though, right?
I don’t think we’re behind, but we’re not ahead. So therefore we’re behind. Whether it’s creative or strategic planning or thinking or media, we’ve always had very high standards and always felt like we were ahead. Right now, are we behind? No. Are we ahead? No, we’re probably like everybody else, so we’ve got to work twice as hard to get ahead.

Who do you think is ahead?
I don’t think anybody is ahead. I think some people have better PR than others. But the proof is in the pudding. Who’s maximizing their media dollars and who’s bringing the brands to market in the ways that are using all these technologies? You need compelling ways to build businesses. I think there’s a lot of hype around a lot of it. And what it’s just going to take is a lot of hard work, a lot of good, honest evaluation and then the path will start to become clear. Right now it’s still evolving as we speak.

How do you get your staffers to embrace the new world order?
You have no choice. The truth of it is [that] the guy who’s most enthusiastic about all this evolution in digital and the guy who gets up every day all over-excited is [worldwide chief creative officer] Lee [Clow]. So if Lee can change and Lee is embracing it and Lee is excited about it, I think any creative who can’t follow that lead probably doesn’t have a bright future.

Would it make sense to blend Tequila into the main agency?
We already are [blended]. We already work hand and hand.

I mean do you need a separately branded interactive agency?
The head of Tequila [in Los Angeles] reports to Carisa in Los Angeles. The head of Tequila [in New York] reports to Corey Mitchell in New York. So we’re already operating together. There is no church and state; there’s just a church.

So why can’t it just be part of TBWA?
Well maybe one day it is, (but right now) there’s no compelling reason to change it.

Is that one of the things that Colleen will look at?
Maybe.

What about Agency.com—you see her having any interaction with that shop?
Right now she’s going to start with TBWA and we’ll go from there. That’s enough.

Did you have any other bona fide candidates for this post?
No. We’ve talked about different ways that we’re going to organize and strategize. We have meetings about it all the time. It’s not like we’ve been sitting on our thumbs for the last two years. So, we’re [on] it. Media Arts was one expression of that. And that’s Apple’s house. But TBWA Worldwide, certainly L.A. and a lot of offices around the network—Paris, London, Germany—everybody is on the case. It was just that one person came across and I said, “Jesus, this is a unique opportunity. Let’s jump on it.”