A year ago this month, TBWA Worldwide chief digital officer Colleen DeCourcy unveiled the network’s latest digital initiative, TBWA\Digital Arts, in a decidedly new school way: She tweeted about it. DeCourcy introduced Digital Arts and, one by one, the members of a superstar team of what would grow to 10 digital pros.
The idea was for Omnicom Group’s TBWA, never viewed as the most progressive of agency networks in the Web world, to use this roving band of digital geniuses to serve as a center of excellence to help the organization marry its creative with Web savvy. It was to be “advertising at the speed of culture,” in DeCourcy’s formulation.
The road, however, has been filled with potholes, with several sources saying the initiative has a mixed record. Digital Arts has never cohered at TBWA, they said, beset by the typical agency bureaucratic infighting, turf wars and, perhaps most importantly, the realization that injecting digital into hulking organizations like TBWA is a task much harder than hiring a crew of hotshots. “I don’t think everyone in the company had clarity about how it was to work,” said a source.
For their part, TBWA executives said Digital Arts has had its ups and downs.
“We played with certain things, we experimented with certain things, and some of it has worked and some of it hasn’t,” said TBWA Worldwide CEO Tom Carroll. “We get better every day. We learn more every day.”
The Digital Arts ranks have lost key members. Last week, Scott Witt, brought in from Droga5 as cd of digital media, left to take a job with Apple (sources say it’s to help develop its iAd platform). Earlier this year, Digital Arts gm Nicole Souza left, becoming director of operations on Johnson & Johnson at JWT. A third digital artist, Hashem Bajwa, executive director of strategy, left last year after just six weeks — saying the position wasn’t a good fit — in favor of leading strategy for Droga5. But with new hires, the team’s overall head count has remained steady at about 10, according to DeCourcy.
One of the goals for the group is to produce digital work for clients to serve as inspiration for the local agencies in the network.
Jonathan Nelson, Omnicom Digital CEO, pointed to work digital artists did for Nissan, TBWA’s largest global client, as a successful model. Called “A Journey to Zero,” the social media-intensive initiative promotes sustainability and has been used as an example of a best practice for building robust digital campaigns in TBWA offices, Nelson said. Digital Arts also has collaborated with local offices on brands such as Tassimo, Twix and Pepsi.
“I see a big difference in the level of digital work across TBWA in the last year,” said DeCourcy.
The downside to the initiative, according to several sources, has been that Digital Arts never found a home within the sprawling TBWA structure. It operated at the worldwide level as part of the Media Arts unit. This led to financial questions when it plugged into local agencies, such as whether the billing for the well-compensated digital artists would come out of a local office’s budget.
Also, according to sources, some offices viewed the digital artists as competitors, not collaborators. One source groused they “parachuted in” on projects, taking too much credit. The group has also been caught in the middle of TBWA’s struggles to integrate its existing digital assets, Tequila and Agency.com, into the network.
“It’s always more challenging when you peek under the hood and try to maneuver through the organization,” said a source.
While Digital Arts has hopscotched around the globe, plugging into outposts in Berlin, London and Los Angeles, TBWA is now folding its talent into the New York office of TBWA\Chiat\Day, according to Carroll, to address operational issues like billing, and as part of a drive to make digital part of all the agencies rather than a separate silo.
The travails of Digital Arts point to the struggle taking place at many agencies that are trying, by fits and starts, to adjust their models to the digital age. Digitally focused agencies like R/GA and AKQA are adding more traditional brand-building capabilities, while shops like TBWA and BBDO are trying to apply digital to their organizations. Both scenarios face challenges, according to Nelson. That’s particularly true in large companies; TBWA has 11,000 employees in 267 offices across 77 countries.
“The expectation is so great to transform a company,” said a source, “that they forget that it’s tough to make the elephant dance.”
See also: “Digital Shops Caught in Transition”