Global Agency of the Year: TBWA Is Once Again in a Golden Age of Disruptive Creativity

Under new leadership, the network has created culture-influencing work across the globe.

Jean-Marie Dru (l.), chairman, TBWA\Worldwide, and Troy Ruhanen, president and CEO, TBWA\Worldwide Kevin Scanlon for Adweek
Headshot of David Griner

When it was a creative powerhouse and fearsome pitch competitor circa 2007 and 2008, TBWA\Worldwide was the envy of the agency world. Then all that progress seemed to unravel amid internal disarray and an exodus of talent.

But with the arrival of president and CEO Troy Ruhanen in 2014, TBWA has been quietly rebuilding, assembling a strong roster of leaders across its global operation (which it refers to as a “collective,” reflecting the sovereignty given to each office).

And now, a decade after last being named Adweek’s Global Agency of the Year in 2008, TBWA\Worldwide has again reclaimed the honor for 2018. Only this time, the network seems to be enjoying the first days of a new golden age rather than receiving the title while teetering on the brink.

In 2018, from London and Los Angeles to Helsinki and Dubai, TBWA produced some of the world’s best advertising, grew its client roster in multiple regions, deepened its increasingly diverse leadership bench, expanded its foothold in key areas like China and built out new offerings that help redefine the value agencies can bring to clients.

It was an incredibly strong year for flagship branches like TBWA\Media Arts Lab, its multinational agency solely dedicated to Apple, which produced the instantly iconic short film Welcome Home.

TBWA agencies created culture-influencing work in the Middle East, Finland, South Africa, France and beyond, while in the U.K. the network invested in reviving its once-revered TBWA\London office and saw tremendous work come out of its recently acquired agency Lucky Generals, which created Amazon’s beloved “Alexa Lost Her Voice” Super Bowl ad.

Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone at the network, including its top execs, who feel they’re already at the top of their game.

“TBWA went through a period of time where it lost a bit of momentum and talent, lost a bit of the way forward and the priority of the product,” says global CCO Chris Garbutt. “I get worried that we’ll settle and think we’ve arrived. And for the truly creative, you never do. I think that’s the culture we’re really encouraging and growing in the collective—people who’ve got a spirit of innovation and ambition and still feel like they haven’t achieved everything.”

The Ruhanen era

Much of the humility that defines TBWA’s current era likely stems from the network’s rapid rise and fall a decade ago.

When named Adweek’s Global Agency of the Year in 2008, TBWA had just won the hard-fought Visa global creative account, its “Get a Mac” campaign was a cultural phenomenon and its Adidas work was putting the brand on equal creative footing with Nike. Most promisingly, TBWA’s creative leadership included a pantheon of rising stars such as Colleen DeCourcy, Gerry Graf, Craig Allen and Rob Schwartz.

But this roaring era for TBWA wasn’t to last long, and soon the agency’s reputation had gone from consistent creative excellence and new-business dominance to something far spottier, with occasional flashes of genius at offices around the world being the exception more than the rule.

Agency insiders from the time say TBWA\Worldwide CEO Tom Carroll, who had just been promoted to the role in late 2007, created an atmosphere of rancorous internal politics that chafed several creative leaders.

The ensuing chaotic period saw many of TBWA’s up-and-coming talents—and high-profile clients, including Visa—leave for other shops. In 2014, parent company Omnicom stepped in to stanch the bleeding by naming a new global CEO: BBDO veteran Troy Ruhanen.

He set about shoring up TBWA’s New York operation by moving global creative president Rob Schwartz into the role of CEO of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York. Since then, the office’s revenue has soared 300 percent, Ruhanen says, with consistent yearly growth. This year, managing director Nancy Reyes was also promoted to president of the New York office.

“TBWA\Chiat\Day New York had a tremendous year in 2018,” Reyes says, “and we are headed into 2019 with momentum, passion and creativity. We will be expanding into data, design and social listening services that will make our offering even more compelling.”

Nancy Reyes, president,
TBWA\Chiat\Day N.Y.

Ruhanen also worked across the globe to bolster TBWA’s talent, modernize its offerings and diversify its leadership—all while maintaining a “founder culture” that makes each office feel empowered and independent. He named or promoted women into key leadership roles at many of the network’s most important offices and, in 2017, made a key strategic move in acquiring London creative agency startup Lucky Generals.

Creative quality can be a notoriously hard thing to measure, especially at global awards shows where rankings can sometimes say more about an agency’s size or marketing budget than its pound-for-pound ability.

That said, TBWA’s performance at the Cannes Lions is one indicator of how the network has, under Ruhanen, slowly worked its way back up the industry leaderboard. In 2015, TBWA was ranked 10th among all networks at Cannes. The next year, it was eighth. Then sixth. This year, TBWA ranked fifth.

Blunt and focused but also positive and approachable, Ruhanen’s leadership style has resonated well with both his team and his clients.

“I love working with Troy because he’s a no-nonsense straight shooter,” says Tor Myhren, Apple’s vp of marketing communications. “We have direct conversations that end with tangible action plans. And he gets things done.”

12 Campaigns That Show How
TBWA Sparked Conversations
Worldwide in 2018

While 2018 wasn’t a flawless year (TBWA most notably lacked a massive global-client win on par with sister agency BBDO’s success in the Ford review), the network showed both stability and creative potency worldwide, with growth among key clients like Nissan and McDonald’s and a litany of regional wins.

“TBWA has been a great partner to Nissan around the world for many years, but 2018 was a standout,” says Roel de Vries, Nissan’s global head of brand and marketing, “with the agency embracing our continued acceleration toward precision marketing while delivering strong creative work in key markets around the world.”

TBWA doesn’t release revenue figures publicly but says its growth has remained ahead of the U.S. GDP growth rate, which was approximately 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2018.

“While I’m really pleased we made a major step forward this year,” Ruhanen says, “I still see us as in progress. I’ve got a lot more to do. We have a lot more to do.”

Back in the London limelight

One key area of focus for TBWA in 2018 was London, where Sara Tate, recently named CEO of TBWA\London, and Helen Calcraft, founding partner of Lucky Generals, are leading TBWA’s two-pronged reconquest of a city that was once the brightest gem in TBWA’s creative crown.

In 2018, TBWA\London scored a high-profile win in March by landing client Harvey Nichols, the retailer whose advertising was made famous by longtime agency adam&eveDDB. TBWA\London did, however, go on to suffer its own client loss with supermarket chain Lidl putting its account in review after five years with the agency.

For Lucky Generals, 2018 was not only its first year under TBWA ownership but also its most high-profile year ever. Kicking off 2018 with Amazon’s widely acclaimed 90-second Super Bowl ad, “Alexa Lost Her Voice,” the 5-year-old agency also talked Mariah Carey into starring in a hilarious long-form spot for Hostelworld and created the powerful “Where Do You Draw the Line?” campaign for anti-harassment initiative timeTo. Lucky Generals also won the pitch to be Celebrity Cruises’ global creative agency of record.

“Does the world need another agency? No,” says Calcraft. “Does the world need more good agencies who do crazy work that’s memorable? Abso-bloody-lutely.”

Growing globally with Apple

(L. to r.) Lee Clow, chairman, TBWA\Media Arts Lab; Katrien De Bauw, global president, TBWA\Media Arts Lab; Brent Anderson, chief creative officer, TBWA\Media Arts Lab
Dominic Miller

When Chiat\Day and Steve Jobs partnered to create “1984,” they forged a rebel alliance that would flare into a creative inferno after Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. By then merged into TBWA\Chiat\Day and soon spun off into TBWA\Media Arts Lab specifically to service Apple, the agency would go on to create some of advertising’s most memorable campaigns, including “Think Different” and “Get a Mac.”

As 2015 drew to a close, both client and network were undergoing creative transformations, with Ruhanen taking a hard look at TBWA’s talent pool and Apple announcing the hiring of agency-world leader Myhren.

In 2016, Ruhanen established a new global leadership team for the expanding agency by recruiting Saatchi & Saatchi COO Katrien De Bauw as global president of TBWA\Media Arts Lab and tapping TBWA\Chiat\Day veteran Brent Anderson to be its global creative chief.

With new leadership, a daily mandate for disruptive ideas and an increasingly global footprint, Media Arts Lab and Apple have entered a new era of creative ambition.

The best example? Welcome Home, Media Arts Lab’s stunning short film for the Apple HomePod, directed by Spike Jonze. At this year’s Cannes Lions, the four-minute film won the Grand Prix in Entertainment Lions for Music.

“MAL has gone through radical change in a short amount of time. They have moved quickly in reshaping their talent and evolving the kind of work they’re capable of putting into the world,” Myhren says.

“‘Welcome Home’ demonstrates this evolution. Like most of our ad work, this film was a tight collaboration between Apple and MAL. And what started out on paper as a 30-second TV ad transformed into a short film to launch HomePod—as well as a full-length music video by Spike Jonze, a hit single released on Apple Music by Anderson .Paak, and a breakout performance by FKA twigs. The shape of this idea was quite modern and multi-dimensional.”

Thanks to the strong run of mega-hits by Apple and Media Arts Lab, 2018 marked a turning point for the agency in terms of where it looks for creative inspiration, says Global Creative Chief Brent Anderson.

“We know we’ve succeeded when we have made an impact on culture and created culture on behalf of the brand,” Anderson says. “Fortunately we can look at some of our best work over the last 12 to 18 months, and we’re not having to point outside of MAL to say, ‘We want to be doing that.’ We’re able to point to things we’ve done on the inside to say, ‘We want to do that and even better,’ and, ‘We want to do that in more places and in more ways.'”

In 2018, Media Arts Lab invested in revamping its Singapore office, opened a new Miami location to act as its Latam hub, saw its Shanghai office honored as Spikes Asia’s Agency of the Year and named new managing directors in its key offices of Shanghai, Japan and Los Angeles.

“We’ve had an unbelievable 2018,” says De Bauw. “Having the talent we have in place now, we’re incredibly lucky and grateful to have a big team of people who work relentlessly for the Apple brand. Going into 2019, if we can continue to build for them a bespoke network with amazing talent, then we can only go from strength to strength. What we did this year was great. Let’s do even better next year.”

Check out the rest of our 2018 Agency of the Year coverage here:

This story first appeared in the December 3, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."