Going into Visa's $525 million global creative review last year, global CMO Antonio Lucio was concerned about contender and then-lead U.S. agency TBWA. After all, its reputation as a collection of independent-minded agencies preceded it, and what Visa wanted were collaborators. "Are these people really a network?" Lucio asked himself.
During the three-month process, the Omnicom Group shop showed that reputations can be misleading. Its innovative interoffice collaboration included a Visa "channel" on the agency's intranet site, enabling staffers worldwide involved in the pitch (some 1,000 in all, says worldwide CMO Laurie Coots) to share research, creative ideas and brand knowledge.
The other finalists -- BBDO, Grey and Leo Burnett -- also demonstrated strong global capabilities. But what made TBWA Worldwide the winner of the single biggest pitch in its history was a combination of strategic rigor and strong creative ideas presented by the regional executives who developed them, says Lucio. In short, TBWA -- Adweek's Global Agency of the Year for 2008, its second such nod in the last three years -- cracked Visa's "5-by-5" brief, which asked for work in five business segments (e-commerce, security, affluent, debit and sponsorships) as it would appear in five key markets: the U.S., Canada, Korea, Brazil and Russia.
"They did a phenomenal job in understanding the consumer dynamics in each one of those markets and then delivering work that was actually tested in each one of those markets against some very specific proof points," says Lucio, without revealing the core concept TBWA pitched. (The first work is expected to break in March.) "For us, having a network that could deliver against the local priorities within a global architecture was critically important and they were able to demonstrate that they could do it."
The September win, which came two years after Visa shifted its U.S. account from BBDO in New York to TBWA\Chiat\Day in Playa del Rey, Calif., will roughly double TBWA's revenue with the client, to an estimated $35 million. Just as important, however, is what the win signifies.
The pitch, in which 12 executives from six offices presented strategy and creative, shows that this collection of creatively renowned but at times business-challenged and loosely knit agencies -- TBWA, Chiat/Day and BDDP -- has further gelled via common principles like "disruption" and media arts, and a business discipline instilled by parent Omnicom.
"This is all kind of the result of 10 years of building a culture of inclusiveness, truly wanting to be international," says TBWA's charismatic worldwide CEO Tom Carroll. "We've been doing a good job on other global clients -- Mars and Nissan. We seem to have created a unique corporate culture where it's really, truly collaborative. And it's honest. Nobody has to have their arm twisted."
(Read Andrew McMains' in-depth Q&A with Tom Carroll.) 
Adds Omnicom CEO John Wren: "TBWA's strong performance speaks for itself: deep client relationships, strong growth, great work and successfully embracing digital, plus a seamless leadership transition at the top. They're firing on all cylinders and are well-positioned to keep doing so."
Agency leaders attribute their success to consistently high creative standards set by global director of media arts Lee Clow, one of the giants of the ad industry; the disruption methodology promulgated by worldwide chairman Jean-Marie Dru, which challenges clients to defy convention; and the subtle but palpable influence of Omnicom. And while for several years the network has demonstrated more collaboration among disciplines and its 267 worldwide offices, in 2008 it went further to incorporate siblings -- for example, when it partnered with 180, Critical Mass and EVB to win Adidas' $40 million global digital account.
Another key driver last year was CEO Carroll, the always-on-the-move former worldwide president who, in his new CEO role, spurred his lieutenants to "get going" and produce quickly for clients, even if their work needed to be refined later. "Tom is an accelerator," says Dru. "He understands the business, the clients and he knows everybody in America." Carroll's troops also appreciate his candor and experience, as he has been an account leader at the agency for 18 years.
The shop's pace quickened in Carroll's first full year as CEO, with Playa del Rey joining PepsiCo's roster in April by winning Gatorade ($180 million), then adding Pepsi/Diet Pepsi ($90 million) in November. The shop also expanded long-standing client relationships, adding new assignments from Infiniti, Michelin, Beiersdorf and McDonald's. All told, the agency grew worldwide revenue by 4 percent to an estimated $1.35 billion, on a billings gain of about $1 billion.
The agency's work consistently pierces pop culture with bold, iconic imagery that is steeped in simplicity. In the last year, it injected new energy into existing, high-profile campaigns. The 2-year-old "Get a Mac" effort for Apple, which has inspired many spoofs online, finally triggered a response from Microsoft last September via Crispin Porter + Bogusky's "I'm a PC" campaign. The work served as an answer to the negative PC image spawned by the popular, hard-hitting Apple campaign. "It's always fun when you do work that's provocative enough to make a giant brand like Microsoft react," says Clow, 65. TBWA swiped back with a spot that cast the PC guy as a "Bean Counter" investing all of Microsoft's money in advertising rather than fixing Vista. Online, the Mac hipster and PC guy occupied dueling banner ads where they bantered about Vista's failings.
The agency's 4-year-old "Dogs rule" campaign for Mars' Pedigree, which added heart to the staid packaged-goods category, took to the streets in the form of an eye-catching pop-up store in Times Square. And the agency brought humor to its long-running "In an Absolut world" campaign for the vodka brand, a client since 1985, with a celebrity-driven effort starring Kanye West. An infomerical-style spot offered the star's perspective on the brand's tagline, suggesting that "in an Absolut world" one could take two pills and turn into him. An online component featured short films by blogger Perez Hilton and comedian Zach Galifianakis.
In another move that demonstrated the agency's knack for seizing buzzworthy opportunities, the shop captured the moment at the Beijing Olympics for Visa, creating a congratulatory spot for U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps that aired in the first pod after he won his record eighth gold medal. In promoting Adidas' sponsorship of Euro 2008, TBWA put a dramatic spin on outdoor creative, erecting a 196-foot image of star goalie Petr Cech on a Ferris wheel in Vienna and creating 55-foot statues of 11 other top players, all sporting Adidas, in a Zurich train station.
The Adidas digital win redefined collaboration for the 13-year-old network, with worldwide chief digital officer Colleen DeCourcy leading the charge. With the client seeking a dedicated digital agency, TBWA and 180 -- partners on the global ad business since 2001 -- set out to create something new. DeCourcy worked with 180 co-founder Chris Mendola on what would become Riot, a collective of digital creatives, project managers and planners.
Riot's blueprint was drawn up one June afternoon in Amsterdam's Vondelpark. Mendola and DeCourcy sat on the grass, sketching ideas for how such an operation would be structured. DeCourcy suggested enlisting sister shop Critical Mass as a broad-shouldered, established digital partner. Typically, a big network will try to stay within its own operation to solve client problems. But DeCourcy's approach was, "Let's just find the perfect elements and put it together," recalls Mendola, whose agency was acquired by Omnicom in 2007. "It was pretty brave and contemporary for the chief digital officer of a network."
DeCourcy, 43, a free-spirited Canadian, is relatively new to TBWA, having joined from JWT in September 2007. As such, she wasn't shackled by TBWA's traditional aversion to hookups with siblings (180 was an independent when the pair won Adidas eight years ago).
In the review, Adidas had a choice between established shops-including Droga5 and Isobar, both of which had done work for the client -- and this new entity. Mindful of that, Riot's July pitch demonstrated just how it would operate. The group produced work the week before, the idea to "enact it live" -- be it ad units, pieces of content, film, blogs or applications, says DeCourcy. Riot picked up the account, with revenue estimated at $15 million. The shop now has about 30 staffers culled from Critical Mass, 180 and TBWA, and plans to add 20 more. (Pitch partner EVB, an Adidas roster shop, won't be part of Riot.)
TBWA and 180 "know us better than any other agency, so of course there's a lot of confidence," says Adidas rep Thomas van Schaik. "But there's also an enormous challenge. So, the ambition levels are high."
Critical Mass CEO Dianne Wilkins, whose agency partnered with TBWA for the first time, is aware of TBWA's traditional preference for flying solo. But, she says, "everyone we've worked with has been open and [collegial]. It's because we're trying to do it in a very different way. There's no room for turf" battles.
DeCourcy, who likens the partnership to "the Vikings burning their boats," sees such linkups as essential to TBWA's digital evolution. "This is the way we intend to move forward in general: carving out units around clients, bringing the best talent to bear on the work, being nimble and strategic, selling solutions, not headcount, and then passing those learnings back to the network," she says. "The common theory behind it we're calling, 'Advertising at the speed of culture.'"
Speed was a factor in Playa del Rey's pursuit of Pepsi and Diet Pepsi -- an opportunity that arose after Clow and office president Carisa Bianchi presented their plan for revamping Gatorade. After a meeting at PepsiCo's headquarters in Purchase, N.Y., Americas Beverages CEO Massimo d'Amore took Clow and Bianchi aside and invited them to tackle the flagship brand, which had been at BBDO since 1960.
That was Oct. 3. Six weeks later, a team led by Clow, Bianchi and Playa del Rey ecd Rob Schwartz presented their vision for Pepsi with "refresh everything" as a key theme. Clow describes the approach as "re-examining equities in a way that would be true to the brand and also be kind of a reinvention." He adds Pepsi "has always been a brand about young people and we layered in that kind of young people's optimism." (The first work, including a TV spot, outdoor ads and guerrilla marketing, broke last week.)
While TBWA faced competition for Pepsi from incumbent and sibling BBDO, its initial PepsiCo win, Gatorade, came without a pitch. Much like Mars in 2002 and Procter & Gamble in 2007, PepsiCo was drawn in by TBWA's creative rep and disruption methodology. "The thing I am most proud of is we've built a company with a strong reputation," says Dru, 61, who handed off the CEO role to Carroll, 53, in December 2007. "Three of the top blue-chip companies in the world came to us without a pitch."
The L.A. operation was at the center of much of 2008's success, as it has been many times in the past. The 750-person office is anchored by Clow, but owes a lot of its energy and determination to Bianchi, 50, president since 2004, and Schwartz, 43, ecd since 2003. "It just happens to be the driving force of the network. And it's not just Lee," says Carroll. "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."
L.A.'s success was crucial given the New York office's downturn after the loss of Sprint Nextel in 2007 and London's inability to regain market leadership after years of top talent walking out the door. In September, Carroll took a stab at reclaiming some of that talent when he talked to former TBWA\London cd and chairman Trevor Beattie about acquiring his 3-year-old agency, Beattie McGuinness Bungay. (The shop wound up selling to Korea's Cheil Communications instead.) In New York, Carroll installed Mark Figliulo from Young & Rubicam in Chicago as chairman and CCO after ecd Gerry Graf left for Saatchi & Saatchi last February.
Carroll -- a self-described "dumbfuck from Schenectady" -- has brought something more "visceral" to the job than Dru, who comes at creativity from a more intellectual angle, according to Clow. "He has the 'We love the work' thing," says Clow. Or as Coots, 51, a 26-year veteran of the agency, puts it, "More people are walking the walk than were before. There's just a lot more intensity."