Former Top Creative at JWT, CPB and Barton F. Graf Joins Tombras

The high-flying indie appoints Jeff Benjamin as first CCO

Dooley Tombras (l.), president and owner of Tombras, and Benjamin. Tombras
Headshot of Doug Zanger

Jeff Benjamin, a former chief creative officer at JWT North America and Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CPB), has joined independent agency Tombras. He is the Knoxville-based agency’s first CCO. Most recently, Benjamin served as a partner and executive creative director at Barton F. Graf, which is closing at the end of the year.

“Jeff is a different type of creative leader. If you look at his work, it’s a greatest hits of advertising over the last 15 years,” said Dooley Tombras, president and owner of the agency that counts Orangetheory Fitness, MoonPie, Zaxby’s, Bush’s Beans, Van Gogh Vodka and others on its client roster. “And it’s not a portfolio of TV work, but a bunch of big, culture-busting ideas. Jeff is the total package and the [best] CCO we could ever hope for.”

For his part, Benjamin has had an award-winning career dotted with impressive stints at CPB, Goodby Silverstein & Partners and JWT. During his time at CPB, he became a partner while working on brands like Burger King, Volkswagen, Mini, Kraft, Domino’s, Best Buy, Microsoft, Coke Zero, Sprite, Virgin Atlantic, Old Navy, American Express, Metlife and Vitamin Water.

Benjamin left in 2012 to join JWT as CCO of North America, where he helped bring in the Puma account and led work for clients such as Nestle, Macy’s, Nokia, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Vonage, T. RowePrice, Kleenex, Tylenol and Royal Caribbean. After departing JWT in 2014, he consulted and ultimately landed at Barton F. Graf in spring 2017 before resigning in February.

Part of the appeal for Benjamin joining Tombras was his desire to lead creative for an agency built with an eye to the continued evolution of modern marketing—marrying data and creativity more closely—and one that demonstrated both optimism and momentum.

“This agency is hungry for things we’re starting to imagine,” Benjamin said. “I came here and realized that [it was] the agency working on Orangtheory, Moon Pie and other brands—work that I liked as a consumer and didn’t connect to Tombras. These are the people I’ve been looking for for years, and it just felt right. Dooley has ambition, is driven and is strategically minded.”

Over the past few years, Tombras, with four offices (Knoxville, Tenn.; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; and Charlotte, N.C.) and a staff of 350, has continued to shift its offering to better connect data and creativity. The strategic changes include building a data and analytics workforce of economists and data scientists, linear and digital media specialists, a content factory, a social media command center, an Amazon-focused practice and a programmatic trade desk.

In Tombras’ mind, being an independent has helped enable growth that includes winning 12 out of 13 2019 pitches and a 40% revenue bump in nine months.

“We’ve made major investments in our building, technology and our people,” said Tombras. “If we weren’t independent, we wouldn’t be making those kinds of investments. Every time we invest, we’re sacrificing several points of margin in the short term—which you can’t do at a holding company—but those bets keep paying off the in the long term.”

To that point, Benjamin noted that Tombras hasn’t been “afraid of change.”

“There’s a great quote [by Eric Hoffer]: ‘In times of change, learners will inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists,’” he said. “To me, that’s a statement that helps you understand why some places are around and some aren’t anymore.”

In terms of how he envisions his evolution as the creative leader for Tombras moving forward, Benjamin noted that he’s not joining an agency that needs wholesale changes or a complete pivot.

“This isn’t one of these [situations] where we have to turn a ship around,” he said. “The ship has already turned and is headed in the right direction. But how do we get there faster? How to put more wind in the sails? That’s what I’m excited about.”

“There’s never been a better time to be an independent agency,” added Tombras. “There is so much disruption, and change can be very uncomfortable for people, especially clients. If you’re independent, you can be entrepreneurial and solve problems for CMOs. We’ve got a pretty good fire going here, and I think Jeff will be a supercharger for us.”

Benjamin begins his new role in October.

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.