‘We’ve had no problem growing’ – How TBWA is bucking retrenchment

Lindsay Bennett
By Lindsay Bennett | 12 July 2018
Troy Ruhanen

The doom and gloom surrounding the industry can be frustrating, TBWA global CEO Troy Ruhanen said over a coffee at the Martinez at Cannes Lions, because it creates a negative shadow over agencies that are in fact, thriving.

It’s been four years since Ruhanen took the helm of the global TBWA business and during that time he said the business has had “no problem growing”. 

Turning its focus to new divisions, including PR and production, and acquiring booming independents like Lucky Generals in 2016, TBWA has avoided the retrenchment facing other large agency networks.

“I'm a little frustrated right now about how much people are ignoring the real problems in the industry and instead are talking about holding companies and consultancies and frenemies and all this. It frustrates me because you just need to be really good. And when you're good, you grow,” he said.

“Those who are concentrating on the doom and gloom are concentrating on the wrong thing.”

Instead, Ruhanen has continued to focus on TBWA’s reputation for 'Disruption', which has been its tagline for more than 25 years, as well as adding more creative firepower to its global teams.

After tracking the best performing agencies within the TBWA network, Ruhanen found the more successful are those with a strong creative staff north of 44%. Drawing from his past experience at networks like Clemenger and Leo Burnett, he said the creative payroll sits at around 30% within creative agencies.

As a result, migrating the payrolls to favour creatives over suits has been a priority under Ruhanen’s leadership.

“Why do agencies still not invest where the difference really is, which is in planning and creativity? There's too much of the payroll that's another line,” he said. 

“Too many other companies, I want to call them multinational networks - they're too much about client service and every other bit of shit that doesn't really matter in the end.”

Its newly bolstered creative teams likely contributed to the TBWA network having one of its best performances at Cannes Lions this year. The network won Gold or higher in 10 distinct categories and brought home a total of 70 Cannes Lions, representing 21 different offices from around the globe. 

The business has also achieved its mission to create a more diverse workforce and even out the gender balance in its creative teams. See AdNews' Diversity edition in August for more on TBWA's diversity efforts.

A part of this initiative is a mentoring program, called Circle of Women, which aims to train, retain and guide young female talent.

TBWA\India's 'Blink to Speak' was awarded the Lions Health Grand Prix at Cannes

PR, production and other ventures

While creativity has always been what inspires Ruhanen throughout his extensive career in advertising, previously the managing director of Leo Burnett Sydney in the early 2000s and later the CEO of BBDO's Americas business between 2011-2013, he realises it now comes in more forms than just a 30-second TV spot.

Eleven PR is an example of how TBWA has diversified its portfolio, Ruhanen explained – a division that was founded in Australia and after success Down Under, is being rolled out globally.

In Australia, Eleven was founded in 2012 off the back of the NRMA Insurance business win. Since then, it has grown by 30% every year. TBWA's other PR business, Fleishman Hillard, also grew by 40% last year.

The PR divisions have been so successful that TBWA has altered its model to reflect the growing demand for these services, melding creative, strategy and PR to form a new integrated model.

“I’d never been in an agency where we had a PR function that was a true business. But now, if you look at what Eleven has achieved in Australia, it's pretty incredible and it's a great business which we're now exporting across our company. So, it's born in Australia, now it's going out everywhere,” he said.

Another Australian-founded division is Clue, which launched in Melbourne 12 months ago as a “data engine” for the agency.

Ruhanen said Clue has driven new business for Melbourne but has also helped TBWA expand its remits on current clients across AUNZ.

Four years in the making, Clue developed out of TBWA Melbourne in partnership with Annalect, Omnicom's data science agency. TBWA describes it as an "evidence led insights platform for strategic and creative development" and clients like ANZ and Medibank use its services on a daily business.

Like several other big agencies, such as Ogilvy and Leo Burnett, building internal production capabilities is a big focus for TBWA.

AUNZ CEO Paul Bradbury established Bolt, TBWA’s production offering, three years ago. The business, which TBWA describes as an 'agile content business', has its own direct clients and also works on projects for TBWA, Eleven, Fleishman Hillard and Integer.

“The production side is really important now. This is the thing about agency compensation. It's an interesting time for that because we're producing more work than we've ever produced in all of our lives,” Ruhanen said.

“Procurement may be trying to push prices down but what clients should do is take money out of their media budget and put it into production because you’ve got to make more content today to be a successful brand.”

Earlier this year TBWA launched its consultancy business, Disruption Labs, which Ruhanen said is thriving. It has more than 600 current live projects across 35 clients in India, South Africa, Sydney, New York, Paris and more.

The problems Disruption Labs is tasked with solving sit outside the traditional remit for agencies, Ruhanen explained.

“They’re not your traditional ad-like briefs. Instead, it’s people asking how they get engineers to work for their bank firm because they can’t attract new staff. Or how do make the experience better from taxi to aeroplane seat,” he said.

Creating their own consultancy offerings is just one of the ways ad networks are fighting back against the likes of Accenture, PwC and Deloitte, who are encroaching into their turf. 

Moving into less traditional territory may pique Ruhanen’s interest, and enable creatives more access to the boardroom, but the Aussie expat still appreciates the beauty of mediums like TV, radio and outdoor, pointing to TBWA’s Apple work as its best in class example.  

TBWA's work for Apple's HomePod with Spike Jonze was highly awarded at Cannes Lions

How does TBWA Australia stack up?

Ruhanen considers Germany, New York and Australia among its strongest offices right now. New York has grown 300% in the last three years; Germany has been named Agency of the Year in the market consistently and TBWA Australia, across its Sydney and Melbourne offices, have produced strong work and landed clients like Amazon, Woolmark and Pepsico in the last 12 months.

If you ask local CEO Paul Bradbury, he’ll tell you the agency is on the up and Ruhanen tends to agree now that the agency has its leadership team in place with the recent addition of chief creative officer Andy DiLallo.

“Australia has done some good work since Andy has now come on board in Sydney. Paul's done some good work with Gay ATMs has always been a standout of good disruptive work.

“We want more of it and I'm encouraged. We've got some different people in. I can see Sydney and Melbourne are both doing really quite well from new business they're performing well. 

“So, from an Australian standpoint, I'm looking forward to the next 12 months and looking at the work. There's some really good work coming out of Woolmark, which will drop later this year.”

TBWA's first work for Amazon

Acquisition trail and future focused 

As for the next venture for TBWA, Ruhanen isn’t ruling out acquisitions, like that of Lucky Generals, off the table. Last year TBWA took a majority stake in the London independent, which boasts clients like Amazon and Hostelworld, and leveraged its leadership to recruit a new team for TBWA London, which had lost its way in recent years.

“We're definitely inquisitive,” he said.

“Are there other areas where we might be interested to apply certain disciplines, like design or shopper marketing or any of these? If the right group of people present themselves, absolutely. 

“We wouldn’t buy another advertising network in Australia. We don't need to. We've got two really good brands in Australia right now.”

When asked what’s the next ambition for Ruhanen, he said it’s hard to predict what the next big thing would be in an industry that’s evolving so rapidly. But he’d like to see agencies shift away from being “caught in the service business” and productise their services.

Despite its recent accolades and positive gender shifts, Ruhanen admitted he doesn’t believe the network is yet to hit its full potential. He also humbly said he doesn’t think he’s reached his full potential in his CEO/president role. 

“I don’t want to be sort of disruptive… Our work is getting there and we've definitely improved over the years and I still want to get better,” he said. 

“I want to live up to the disruption principles. I want to be as disruptive as we possibly can because I think that's a great place and a motivating place for our talent.

“It's going to be the difference in the end versus the other agencies. So, that's my one guiding thing that I'm always trying to go against.”

Ruhanen previously shared his bold views on Publicis’ Marcel and revealed what it was like to be part of the failed Omnicom and Publicis merger back in 2012. Read more here.

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