Calm above the storm: how TikTok's UK boss is helping it to ride with the tailwind

Before and during the pandemic, TikTok has seen staggering growth in the UK in terms of users and employees. UK and EU general manager Richard Waterworth is relishing building something "new and different".

Calm above the storm: how TikTok's UK boss is helping it to ride with the tailwind

If the legacy of Covid-19’s impact on the media industry is that of the "great accelerator" – our lives becoming even more ‘digital’ at an increased pace – you could do a lot worse than use TikTok as your accompanying case study. 

While TikTok’s rapidly increasing popularity may not be news in itself, the speed at which it is transforming itself from a fringe youth occupation to a serious media platform has been one of the most remarkable trends in 2020. According to last month’s Online Nation report by Ofcom, TikTok was on a roll even before the UK went into lockdown, with its reach among adults more than doubling from 5.4 million in January to 12.9 million in April. Not bad for an app in which most of the content is quite regimented in nature; most of it is still typically off-the-wall fare, usually set to music, with a duration of 15 seconds. 

'Every day, every week, we're building at a fierce pace'

Richard Waterworth, who holds the top UK and EU job of general manager, has been on his own dizzying journey. Having barely had time to start handing out business cards as TikTok’s EMEA head of marketing since last August, he was promoted to general manager in December and finds himself in charge of a crucial region for the world’s hottest media property.

It’s telling that TikTok has chosen to bestow a senior role on someone who has made his name promoting and launching new products for entertainment companies, both from the established and challenger realms. The Oxford graduate had spent nearly a decade leading YouTube's marketing across EMEA. He is credited with driving the launch and roll-out of services such as YouTube Premium, YouTube Music Premium and YouTube Kids. Earlier in his career, Waterworth held senior marketing roles at ITV and the Extreme Sports Channel.

So why leave YouTube, a start-up turned juggernaut, which shows no sign of slowing down itself, to take a punt with TikTok? After all, few people in the "real world" had heard of the company when Waterworth joined last August. That was a year after TikTok launched in the UK, having been created as an international platform by Chinese company ByteDance after its purchase of tween-focused social app Musical.ly in 2017. TikTok does not operate in China, where Bytedance operates a sister company, Douyin.

"I could see the raw materials in TikTok that were needed to be successful. A fantastic product; I love the product. I can see a community of creators that identify as TikTok-ers and that gives you a hugely powerful creative centre. I can see a company that has really great principles in terms of integrity of leadership of the company and the ambition of the leadership of the company," Waterworth says.

"I talk a lot to people who are joining about being part of building something new and different... a platform and creative tech product that is doing things differently. For me, that's really exciting. Every day, every week, we're building at a fierce pace and it’s just incredibly interesting and thrilling and a real privilege to be part of. I really try to focus on that for the people we’re hiring. For some people that’s a huge thrill, for others, that environment of constantly building is not for them. For many people it’s a hugely exciting place to be, because you can have direct personal impact; things happen quickly and there’s a continuous sense of building and growing."

'They've nailed the algorithm'

Despite TikTok’s undoubted success as a new UK platform, social-media specialists from big network agencies are somewhat divided on where and how heavy to put it on a major client’s media plan. One WPP executive told Campaign they still regard TikTok as "high risk" and will continue to do so until it introduces third-party verification for its advertising metrics (slated to launch later this year) and do more to address brand safety, given how many teenagers create and watch "TikToks". Stuart Flint, TikTok's head of Europe, global business solutions (and formerly of Verizon Media), told advertisers last month that TikTok is developing partnerships with Kantar, Nielsen and Millward Brown, as well as running beta tests with third-party measurement firms.  

Publicis Media executives are more sanguine about TikTok. Mathias Chaillou, deputy managing director for Zenith Worldwide, insists that "TikTok has made significant brand and user safety developments in the past months".

He says a partnership with OpenSlate and in-feed adjacency controls are "two exciting solutions that put TikTok ahead of other social platforms".

"With the launch of auction buying and a rapidly maturing performance offering, there is certainly an opportunity for clients to diversify their paid social footprint," Chaillou adds.

Another Publicis media buyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says: "I’m a big fan of this product – they’ve nailed the algorithm – it’s probably the most forward-thinking product in terms of creativity and it already has more scale than Twitter and Snapchat… I don’t think you can call it a social platform; it’s a new entertainment business. Snap has tried to do it with Discover, Twitter has sponsored pre-roll packages, but TikTok is leading the way with talent and creativity for the mobile age."

It has also launched the TikTok for Business platform, which advises brands: "Don’t make ads. Make TikToks." It acts as a self-serve system, streamlines all TikTok’s ad formats and services and provides guidance on how to manage campaigns. 

And building things is what Waterworth's track record points to. During his five-year stint at ITV, he helped launch ITV.com, the on-demand platform that came before ITV Hub. He then arrived at YouTube in 2011, which he reflects on as still being an early time in the video-sharing behemoth’s commercial life (particularly in his remit of EMEA), despite having been bought by Google five years previously. 

"I spent quite a lot of time in those early years hoping to build the business, and work closely between the sales and product leadership teams... [helping] clients and agencies understand what YouTube was about and [how it could] play a role in their marketing and campaigns. So I was quite focused on that area of commercial strategy and growth initially but also where we continued to grow YouTube as a brand, and we were doing all sorts of interesting events to really show the power of a global platform like YouTube."

Those marketing events included Life in a Day, a 2011 feature film (above), produced by Ridley Scott, that stitched together user-generated videos, as well as launching the YouTube Music Awards, YouTube Music, YouTube Kids and YouTube Premium (formerly YouTube Red), the subscription service, which, Google revealed earlier this year, reached 20 million subscribers.

"In both roles [ITV and YouTube] I've always been focused on new services, doing things that were different from a brand marketing point of view, trying to show rather than tell when we were doing that," Waterworth says. Now, he believes his experience of big broadcast TV and user-generated online video is a winning combination for TikTok. "At ITV you see the power of big, broad, mass entertainment experiences that bring people together… With YouTube, you see empowerment of the ‘longer tail’ and empowering these niche communities on a global platform. TikTok does something new and different that combines elements of both those things."

TikTok is a talent magnet

Perhaps the most significant change during Waterworth's tenure at TikTok has been the arrival of Kevin Mayer, the man once tipped to succeed Bob Iger as chief executive of Disney, who joined as TikTok’s global chief executive last month. To attract a media figure of that heft shows the company sees its long-term future as an entertainment business, rather than a pure social-media competitor to Facebook or Snapchat. 

"It’s still very early, he joined just a few weeks ago and we’re very lucky to have hired someone with Kevin’s background. His credibility, experience, list of achievements is phenomenal," Waterworth (pictured, above) says. "We’re all very lucky... he’s fantastic, he’s excited and taking his time to understand the business and all the ways we work and how the teams operate. [There are] no great, huge changes but the ambition for someone like that matches the ambition of the company, which means we continue to do what TikTok is doing for audiences all around the world and make that into a successful business."

Tongues are also wagging with predictions that TikTok could be spun off from its Chinese parent Bytedance and floated as a US public company, as most tech companies have done to fuel a huge influx of investment funds. The prospect of TikTok going public is a huge financial incentive for the company’s executives, many of whom would be paid in share options, as well as key talent the company might want to poach from established tech companies that may no longer be able to offer equity deals quite as lucrative. Blake Chandlee, a former head of advertising at Facebook who is now in charge of building TikTok's US ad partnerships, has been instrumental in raiding Facebook and Instagram for trusted lieutenants, such as Trevor Johnson, who joined as head of marketing, global business solutions, Europe, in December. 

Nor is Facebook the only source of TikTok recruitment. "We’ve lost a bunch of people in the last few weeks," a source at Snapchat confided to Campaign at the end of June. 

These are heady days at TikTok. Since Campaign’s interview with Waterworth, a row about China’s influence over the company has broken out. The US government has raised the prospect of banning TikTok unless it becomes an American company amid claims the platform may share its data with the Chinese government. TikTok, whose parent company ByteDance has had talks with the UK government about establishing its global base in the UK, denies these claims. 

Waterworth is, as one would expect during these coronavirus times, speaking to Campaign over Zoom, instead of from TikTok UK’s office opposite London’s Holborn station. The business has been leasing a WeWork space since launching in the UK in August 2018, anonymously looming above a Sainsbury’s Local that usually teems with hurried office workers. The TikTok operation itself, according to several accounts, is now similarly frantic; Waterworth reports it has more than doubled since the end of last year when headcount stood at 150. 

Many of these people have joined since the UK went into lockdown in March, and Waterworth says he is "incredibly proud" of how the company has managed to bring people on board while working from home. Initiatives include "virtual coffees", in which employees can choose to have a video chat with a random colleague solely to get to know one another, or take part in interest groups, where staff are encouraged to communicate with each other about trends they’re seeing on TikTok or their own personal interests. 

"We’ve put a lot of effort into keeping communication really strong across the teams while everyone is at home and maintain all sorts of different features of our communication and culture, and changing some of those, given that we can’t be there in person. We’ve spent a lot of time on those things and, so far, it’s working. The team feels like they are able to 'onboard' in an extraordinary situation and just as importantly feel part of something – having a strong community with our employees, and people have a shared purpose of what they're trying to achieve. All of that is really important to people, quite rightly, because it shows how successful they can be in their roles. I feel really proud that the feedback we’ve had from those who have joined is they really feel like those things have happened."

'We are proud of the culture we're building in UK'

Many businesses during lockdown have grappled with how to keep employees engaged and supported in a working-from-home environment that can feel isolated and remote, particularly for younger workers who may rely on work for a social life more than older colleagues. This is even more of an issue at a fast-paced tech start-up on a high-growth mission, which is backed by Chinese owners (Bytedance) with working practices that have been thrown into question. Last year Bytedance was among several Chinese tech companies named by developers who accused the companies of forcing workers to work long hours, known as the "996" pattern of 9am-9pm for six days a week.

One agency leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says: "TikTok's culture is true of marketing tech in China as a whole, they're hard taskmasters. People do sleep at their desks. We have worked with TikTok in EMEA and they were really tough, asking us to do briefings on Sundays. It was really difficult... it broke a lot of our team."

The aforementioned Snapchat source says they had been told that a TikTok employee had been sent instructions via email in Mandarin on a Sunday evening and was expected to reply in less than two hours – barely enough time to translate the email into correct English.

"That’s not something I recognise," Waterworth says in response to reports of UK workers supposedly being set unrealistic demands from bosses in China, including the "Sunday email" anecdote. "We are really proud of the team we are pulling together and the culture. People are very proud to work at TikTok, so, for sure, we’ve all seen the challenges in working from home and maintaining a healthy work/life balance, but we are setting a local culture for the UK and for Europe. That’s part of the reason why the company has been hiring people like me and [other] senior management roles in the UK and Europe. We are setting and managing a culture that we want to be absolutely set for the UK and those countries in which we’re operating. It's a big focus of mine, having a strong culture where we work together and try to build a culture that is as diverse as possible."

Proud Brit who 'empowers' people

When he says "people like me", one can’t help but notice the various posters arranged around Waterworth’s home – an eclectic mix of high literature (Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises) and modern art (a Lucian Freud drawing). But most prominently of all on the wall, virtually perched on his shoulder, is a series of murder weapons and suspects taken from The Awdrey-Gore Legacy by crime author and illustrator Edward Gorey. This is not the interior design of your typical "tech bro".

"Rich is a really super-smart operator," according to Jim Coleman, chief executive of social-media marketing agency We Are Social. Coleman knows Waterworth well, with YouTube Originals having been a client of his agency for three years. The pair got on so well that they’ve remained good friends since.

"He’s a real breath of fresh air; very fair, reasonable, measured and balanced," Coleman says. "He’s a good balance between being a clear, strategic thinker, like a chief operating officer type. But he’s also practical, he wants to do the right thing. If there’s any suspicion of anything untoward, that will worry him."

Rather than being a "ruthless" leader, Coleman thinks, Waterworth is probably the kind of boss that "empowers people to do this or that, set a clear direction, but [tells them to] go away and deliver it… it’s interesting to see how that will work in a big-pressure, high-growth Chinese business. He’s quite chilled out, not what you’d call a classic A-type personality." 

This placid, Zen-like aura would place Waterworth in good company among fellow UK leaders of the big tech companies, who have become very good at exuding calm in the face of recent media controversies, such as Steve Hatch at Facebook or Ronan Harris at Google. 

Coleman tells an illuminating story that sheds light on how Waterworth likes to operate as an agency client. "When we first met, we were pitching for a fully integrated campaign, including above-the-line work. He came to me after the pitch and explained how we were an outlier. He said: 'Strategically you get us but you don’t have a history of making above-the-line creative. How can you convince me? Why don’t we talk to each other every couple of weeks so we’re aligned?’ 

"He wanted to make sure you’re focused on his account," Coleman explains. "Even though he says all we’re going to do is have coffee and talk for 30 minutes, you have to turn up as an agency CEO and know what’s going on. Only a few other clients do that, it’s a brilliant tactic. It absolutely focuses me on what’s going on with the account, even though I’m not involved day to day. It ended up being a monthly meet."

One can see that subtlety of approach from Waterworth himself when he explains his vision for the UK business, which comes across as if he is describing a franchise-like model in which regions root themselves in local culture, rather than the centralised cookie-cutter approach favoured by some multinationals.

"Look, the UK is a nation of creators. The UK – and I would say [this] as a proud Brit – has a role in global culture that far outweighs its size... One of my ambitions, and our ambition, is to really connect TikTok to the breadth of that creative spirit in the UK from the established creative industries to the new creative community of users that are expressing their wit and humour and typical British characteristics. So it is my hope that [with] TikTok, this purpose of allowing people to express themselves, creatives will connect with the amazing creative spirit that exists in the UK and I want that to create a fun and engaging experience for people in the UK but also to travel around the world."

This specific act of "unlocking people’s creativity" is the touchstone Waterworth goes to when talking about how he will be judged as a success in the role. "On the user side I want us to be a platform where you have people being creative in new and unexpected ways, and creative trends and moments that are defining and redefining what’s happening in culture. We want something similar for our employees; space to be creative and have a really diverse group of employees who come together in unexpected ways to create new experiences."