Close-Up: The latest twist in TBWA\London's tale of turmoil

After a failed rebrand and Tim Lindsay's sacking, can Robert Harwood-Matthews restore order at TBWA?

Tim Lindsay had just begun his opening remarks at the start of a TBWA management awayday last week when his phone buzzed with an incoming text message. He was being summoned to an impromptu meeting downstairs with Perry Valkenburg, TBWA's president of Europe.

Just 15 minutes later, someone was sent back upstairs to collect Lindsay's bag and coat because he had been fired and marched off the premises. One person described it as "brutal": "It was like some Mafia killing at the end of dinner."

And so once again TBWA was plunged back into drama and turmoil, hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons and sending waves of shock and surprise through the London village.

Where once TBWA was a bastion of managerial and creative excellence (its glittering alumni include Trevor Beattie, Garry Lace and Johnny Hornby, all of whom have left to find success - and notoriety - with their own agencies), now it looks like a floundering schizophrenic suffering an identity crisis.

And the last point can be taken literally, following last week's news that its rebrand to TBWA\Media Arts in July this year has been reversed, leading one insider to describe its global management as "completely cack-handed".

It has since emerged that Tom Carroll, the worldwide president and chief executive of TBWA, twice gave the rebrand the green light but overturned the decision after Lee Clow, the TBWA creative legend, said it had to be changed.

And it has to be remembered that this comes just a year after the botched attempt to buy Beattie McGuinness Bungay - which was set up by the former TBWA trio Beattie, Andrew McGuinness and Bil Bungay - and reverse it into the agency without telling any of the management.

There are clearly some TBWA-ers who feel the global chiefs have played a real part in destabilising London. One insider says: "The global management just continually try to trip you up. They shoot a wheel out, you get it fixed and get going again, and they shoot another wheel out."

Valkenburg is quick to point out that he was not specifically involved in the BMB talks and describes it as a "storm in a teacup". He also denies that the rebrand happened at all, despite the fact that it was PR-fed to the press.

"It was a way to promote our new strategy of bringing the agency together under one culture. Robert (Harwood-Matthews, who has replaced Lindsay as the chief executive of TBWA Group UK) will need to instil this quickly and effectively," he says.

Although he does admit that their handling of the situations could have "been better", he does not admit that there has been, and remains, a feeling of instability and low morale at the agency.

Not surprisingly, the industry is now awash with rumours about the future of some TBWA clients - especially the recently added Skype business - and about what will happen to Matt Shepherd-Smith, the TBWA\London chief executive who Harwood-Matthews reported to when he worked there earlier in the decade.

It has emerged that Shepherd-Smith has been offered three choices by the global management: to work with Harwood-Matthews, take a global account director role, possibly based in Toronto, or run a conflict shop.

At the time of writing, he has yet to make a decision on his future, and it remains to be seen how tenable these options are, with many saying that once you have got on the wrong side of the global management team, it's hard to fight back.

It is thought that this is one of the main reasons why Lindsay was given the boot. One former employee says: "He stood up to the management, which never goes down well. If you mess with the Mafia too many times, you get shot in the head."

On the other hand, Harwood-Matthews, or Badger, as he is affectionately known, is seen by many as a golden boy in the network. So, is he a "yes" man who will simply run London by obeying global diktats?

Valkenburg strenuously denies this. "Yes, we love him in the network, but that's because he's proved to us he is the best man for the job. He cares about people and clients and doesn't overpromise. A good agency needs a leader, not a manager, and that's what he is," he says.

A TBWA employee adds: "All this stuff undermined the agency, but, in Badger, we have someone who has track record and respect with the management."

He certainly knows the ins and outs of the network, having worked in it for almost ten years. The 38-year-old began his career in the London agency, eventually rising to client services director before being parachuted into TBWA\Manchester as its chief executive.

After this, he moved to Los Angeles in December 2008 to launch and head Infiniti, a global office set up to run Nissan's luxury arm. In truth, Nissan is probably Harwood-Matthews' trump card. TBWA is determined to keep its grip on the car giant and Harwood-Matthews is seen as the man to lock them in in London.

Added to that, there's perhaps a sense that TBWA has shunted him around inelegantly. When the global economy went into meltdown and car manufacturers were crippled, Infiniti was closed and Harwood-Matthews was moved to run PHD West - which, because of the TBWA\London role, he only held for about two months. As one former employee says: "I truly believe Tom Carroll feels that he owes Harwood-Matthews something for moving him and his family from Manchester to run a luxury car business just as the recession hit."

However, Enyi Nwosi, a media partner at MCHI, who worked with Harwood-Matthews at TBWA\London, says: "The speed at which he has shot through the TBWA ranks is more testament to his ambition and skill than to any sort of favouritism."

But the question on everyone's lips is: "Will that ambition and skill be enough?" - especially as the struggling London business now includes an advertising agency, a DM agency and digital businesses, and totals around 350 staff. There's no doubt that Harwood-Matthews will be stepping into very big shoes and will be taking on one of the toughest challenges in town.

The man himself, though, seems undaunted by the magnitude of the task ahead. Harwood-Matthews says: "I integrated three businesses in Manchester, so this is nothing new to me. As for the supposed lack of experience, people can say what they want. I'm going to come in and lead from the front and let the results speak for me."

He also brushes off fears of the likelihood of factions within the agency: "There is always office politics. There are still a lot of people there who remember me and I'm sure everyone else will realise that I'm serious about the job from my energy, commitment and loyalty."

Tom Morton, TBWA\London's executive planning director, adds: "Rob always leads from the front. He has a Colonel Tim Collins, stand-on-top-of-the-tank style of leadership. It breeds loyalty in everyone who works with him."

But Harwood-Matthews is still very much an unknown quantity in the capital and will have to work very hard and very quickly to instil belief back into his battered and bruised agency.

However, he and the global management seem to have nothing but confidence in achieving this. And if confidence counts for anything, then Badger has made a good start.


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