TBWA'S AGENT OF CHANGE: Jean-Marie Dru, the head of TBWA, believes managed 'disruption' is the key to strategic planning. Matthew Cowen meets him at his HQ in New York

As I enter the chrome-lined reception of TBWA Worldwide's Madison Avenue headquarters, one feature stands out.

On a large rectangular block, filling out the space below the main staircase, are 96 substantially sized cacti arranged in neat rows, six by 16. It's an unusual piece of decor that, in the midst of the hip, minimalist furnishings, has the feel of a space-age veg patch. Jean-Marie Dru, for a year now the president and CEO of the network, explains that the reception used to be filled with flowers but they needed changing almost every day. Cacti, he points out, are a far more practical, though less romantic, alternative.

It's tempting to categorise Dru himself as one of advertising's more romantic figures. For a start, he's French - something that sticks out a mile among the industry's Anglo-Saxon-dominated international elite. Tall, broad and silver-haired, he's got natural charisma to compete with Gerard Depardieu and masters the English language with the same soft-spoken but engaging delivery. He's written several books on advertising - a feat which tends to see him categorised as one of adland's intellectuals. However, its not a category that Dru seems particularly happy with. He sees himself as a man of action rather than a thinker.

And though it's hard to believe that his Gallic charm disguises a thorny nature, those who have worked with him attest that Dru is no shrinking violet.

Dru's book Disruption, which pondered the need for continual, managed change in brands and commercial strategy, was published in 1996. It established strategic planning as a central plank of his agency's offering - a priority that he says sprang from the advice of Martin Boase when Dru chaired a Cannes judging panel featuring the BMP founder in 1982. A follow-up book, Beyond Disruption, authored by Dru with contributions from figures throughout the TBWA network, was published this year. But the second book, filled as it is with charts and tools, is clearly more a manual than a philosophical tome.

"All agencies have visions, Dru says. "They want to be very creative and very strategic but in the end the difference comes down to speed. It's how you execute the thinking. A lot of people think about Disruption as an intellectual discipline but it's about how to implement things and be sure that everyone goes about this in a similar way."

Lest that appear Draconian, Dru goes on to explain that his methodology is not imposed too strictly from above. "It's an organic methodology," he says. "Agencies can choose to use one tool, ten tools or none at all."

Again and again in the interview Dru stresses the importance he attaches to the entrepreneurial spirit. "Look at the TBWA board, he says, producing a list of names. "They have something in common - all of them. One day they started an agency themselves. That brings us a sense of reality. Those guys like to see things done as opposed to just talking."

The board has changed significantly since Dru took over the network following the ousting of Mike Greenlees last year. It's a young line-up and one with no obvious focal point for opposites - something Dru arguably represented when Greenless headed the network. The European region has been split, with Paul Bainsfair representing the Northern Territories, Nick Baum controlling southern Europe and Perry Valkenburg, recently relocated from The Netherlands to Germany, representing Central and Eastern Europe. Across the Atlantic, Tom Carroll, who, insiders say, played a key role in bringing Dru to power, has been promoted to president of the Americas. Carl Johnson, the worldwide chief operating officer, who was widely regarded as another force behind last year's changes, is currently absent from the scene on sabbatical in Australia.

Of all the agencies started by board members, Dru's experienced the most dramatic reversal of fortune. Founded in Paris in 1984, BDDP grew at a spectacular rate, entered financial meltdown in the early 90s and ended up being acquired twice - first by Greenlees' GGT and then by Omnicom's TBWA. Could this fabulous fall from grace be evidence of Gallic flair undermined by a lack of hard-bitten Anglo-Saxon realism?

"We had a fantastically successful business strategy and a totally wrong financial strategy, Dru responds. "Our shareholders changed several times but there was solidity in the business model, which was based on strategic thinking, group offer and fast delivery."

Dru is generally critical of French advertising - he says language and culture are less favourable for the trade than in the English-speaking world - but he is incredibly proud of the group structure pioneered at BDDP and he sees a key role for its marketing services network, Tequila, in TBWA's future.

"The objective is that, three or four years from now, half of our business will be non-advertising, he says. "Today it's only around 15 per cent. This is one of the major things we will do."

Dru identifies the former chairman and CEO of Y&R, Ed Ney, as one of the great influences in his business life. He served under Ney as Y&R Paris' managing director during the 70s, when his mentor was launching companies such as Wunderman across Europe and he's keen to put the same group strategy into place across TBWA. Last month, Tequila was rolled out in the US for the first time.

"I'm happy Tequila has finally arrived, he says. "I've been pushing at it for four years and accelerating it in the last year. I want a group offer in each vicinity specialising in the three major disciplines of advertising, interactive and direct marketing. This should spell interesting times ahead for London, where TBWA/GGT Direct remains outside the umbrella Tequila brand. When prompted, Dru picks out group synergies as the area where TBWA's London operation needs to improve. Will this involve rolling the local DM operation into the global network? "We are working on that, he says.

Before Dru took control, TBWA's attitude to the online arena had been diffident, to say the least. While other networks rushed to launch web-focused agencies, TBWA got only as far as convening working groups, dubbed "digerati", to look into the area. Ironically, with interactive shops now folding back into their parent agencies across the industry, Dru seems determined to push the online agenda. Has TBWA finally made up its mind that this is the way forward?

"Totally, he responds. "The best answer is to look at what happened in Germany. Why did I ask Perry Valkenburg to be in charge there? To establish a real group offering. Now three weeks ago they launched digerati in Germany."

Dru is fond of holding up key, strongly performing agencies as an example of where the network should be heading. Foremost among these is the South African shop, Hunt Lascaris TBWA. The agency has earned multiple brownie points by insisting that clients go through "disruption days based on Dru's books - and charging them for the experience.

Other shops have great strengths as well, Dru's keen to point out. He has praise for the level of creativity in both London and Los Angeles.

However, there remains one market where TBWA underperforms - and we're conducting this interview in the middle of it.

"The most important thing we have to do is enlarge our client base in New York, Dru admits. "It's impossible to build a network worldwide without a strong agency here."

Dru sees New York's relative weakness in the context of a wider problem faced by TBWA. "We have a huge handicap in terms of size perception, he says. "Even clients underestimate our size ranking by 50 or 60 per cent. In America we are seen as very creative and, with the exception of Kmart, we don't have so many typical, large American corporations. That's why Mars is such an important thing. Mars is a turning point."

TBWA muscled its way on to the Mars roster in May, after the long-term incumbent, D'Arcy, was dropped. The initial appointment was of TBWA/Chiat/Day in Los Angeles. However, wider international rewards were always likely and, the week after this interview, news leaked of the network's appointment to petcare assignments across Europe.

Dru's predecessor, Greenlees, used to talk of the dramatic effect international appointments would have in establishing the TBWA network - and, though Dru talks of the need to establish a disciplined group offering in each market, he seems equally convinced of the transforming influence of a few key wins.

"I can see the beginnings of a result with Adidas, Haagen-Dazs and Mars, he says. "I don't think any network has done as well in terms of global new business over the last six months."

Dru gives short shrift to the suggestion the financial problems of Omnicom may undermine such momentum. Dru's take on the situation parallels his analysis of BDDP's failure - business and finance are both separate disciplines that have little effect on one another. It's a view that reflects the removal of himself and the other network heads from Omnicom's board earlier this year.

"This is a short-term thing, he stresses, referring to 12 June's Wall Street Journal article and its fall-out. "Omnicom remains the first company agencies want to come to."

Dru points out that the Omnicom chief John Wren's corner office overlooks his own window from the other side of St Patrick's Cathedral. And, for the moment, he's happy to invite the higher power's judgment of his performance.

"We're seen as the youngsters within Omnicom and it's going to take time to change that. But we've got all the resources and if we are not very successful then it's a problem with the management, he says, indicating himself. "We should be more successful."

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