Global AOY: TBWA

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.