Close-Up: The new team hoping to revive TBWA

The beleaguered agency now has a spring in its step thanks to new arrivals, Sara Kimberley writes.

It all went wrong at TBWA\London. Well, not quite all, but a succssion of dismaying headlines over the past couple of years suggested the agency was in trouble. From the failed attempt to buy Beattie McGuinness Bungay to the unceremonious ousting of the chairman Tim Lindsay and the departure of the chief executive Matt Shepherd-Smith, the agency seemed to have put its days as one of London's hottest shops firmly behind it.

"Creatively, the agency hasn't been given the chance to get into its stride again, which has caused it problems," one former employee says. Another points the finger at a lack of confidence when going into new-business pitches - while the agency landed the Carbon Trust advertising account in July, it has lost business from Muller, Skype and Haagen-Dazs in the past year.

But working behind the scenes to try to fight the flames is Robert Harwood-Matthews, who was handed the role of president of TBWA\Group in November last year. And having managed to establish a period of relative calm, Harwood-Matthews - known affectionately as "Badger" - has now finally made a series of appointments designed to help take the agency in a new direction.

Earlier this month, Zaid Al-Zaidy, the managing partner of Saint@RKCR/Y&R, was announced as TBWA\London's new chief strategy officer, replacing Tom Morton, who left in July to join Publicis. And the Isobar managing director, Andy De Groose, will soon take on an equivalent role at TBWA. But will the appointments prove more than a rearrangement of the deckchairs on the Titanic?

Harwood-Matthews says yes. "It feels like a start-up here now. Zaid is interesting, disruptive and funny, while Andy has a lot of business experience and has taken more risks in his career than me, which I respect."

With Al-Zaidy and De Groose having deep roots in digital, it is easy to assume that TBWA is making a statement about its direction. But that's not necessarily the case, Harwood-Matthews says. "It was a brave statement, but I wanted to increase innovation and entrepreneurialism, as well as digital, at the agency," he explains. "Zaid and Andy bring a lot of personality and we are confident that we can go to clients and show we have all the skills we need."

A vibrant, fun-loving character, Al-Zaidy's strengths lie in brand strategy and managing teams, according to Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R's chief executive, Richard Exon. "Zaid is a great practitioner," he says. "He has a great background in planning and will be a fantastic figurehead."

And at TBWA, Al-Zaidy will now be reunited with Mark Hunter, the executive creative director with whom he worked when he was a client at Unilever overseeing Sure deodorant's £15 million marketing budget. Al-Zaidy says: "Mark was at Bartle Bogle Hegarty. He either hated me or loved me because he pushed me into the pool when we were on a shoot."

Al-Zaidy will find out which it is when he joins the agency next month. He feels he will be able to offer TBWA a unique perspective, using his background as a client, a strategy director at Mother and a digital head at Saint.

"I never appreciated the power I had when I was a client until I got to Mother," he says. "Then when I was at Saint I found myself as even more of an underdog, with many clients treating digital as the arse-end of a campaign, so we had to work hard to educate clients about the technology market. It was strange but also enlightening."

For De Groose, the announcement of his move to TBWA capped a busy few weeks in his household - his wife, Tracy, also found herself on the front page of Campaign recently when she joined Carat as its managing director.

Mr De Groose began his career in media, too, working for BBH's media arm, before moving on to work at various digital shops, including the now-defunct Deepend.

He then founded the interactive agency Deconstruct in 2001, but stresses that he has always considered himself more of a businessman than a digital specialist.

"I will bring a business-like sense to the agency," De Groose says. "It is a massive opportunity because there is a willingness to do something different. We don't want to be labelled as an advertising or integrated agency. We need to be fluent in all media."

With such enthusiasm from all sides of the TBWA mix, Harwood-Matthews is confident that the agency is finally ready to turn that corner.

"We want to build a strong TBWA culture," he comments. "It is time to show what we can do."


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