How disruption brought order

Jean-Marie Dru, the president of TBWA, has transformed a cluster of divergent advertising agencies into an elegant global network.

There's a hint of a smug smile on Jean-Marie Dru's face. He's here to tell a story and that story is the transformation of TBWA\Worldwide from a cluster of local fiefdoms into an elegant global network.

The transformation occurred under his watch. When Dru took the helm of TBWA's global operations in 2001, it was a network composed of very independent local agencies with a strong creative pedigree, but little concern for their sister operations overseas.

Today, it's handling global briefs for Nissan, has taken Grey's place in Mars' affections and is in the running for a place in the crucial global Persil pitch - an opportunity to join Unilever's roster in a high-profile position.

As you'd expect from the head of a successful global business, Dru is a slick operator. He's statesmanlike and chivalrous. He's tall and broad and has a graceful manner that is known to make the ladies swoon. He uses his heavy French accent to his advantage, often charmingly making out that his English is less fluent than it is.

He asserts that being French has not put him at a disadvantage in the US, where his compatriots are sometimes known as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys". In fact, he says: "It's not an issue. I believe you learn by differences. I believe I can bring something by being different. Nissan has built a business about multiculturalism."

Philip Purdon, the chief executive of Lowe Paris, used to work for Dru as the head of TBWA's Paris office. He says: "I find him un-French in some ways; his intelligence is pragmatic, not intellectual, something that in France leads to little action."

Dru doesn't dress his ideas up as groundbreaking when they're not, casually admitting that there's often little to distinguish one network from another. "We're not trying to do something different. We believe that this business is about achieving a balance between creative and strategy."

But behind this humility lurks brains, cunning and ambition. He secured the network's worldwide leadership from Mike Greenlees in 2001 by bringing in the global Nissan account. Senior TBWA staff at the time say Greenlees, away on a business trip, was outmanoeuvred. While Greenlees lacked proximity to a major global client, Dru had acquired it.

Purdon testifies to Dru's cunning: "He always thinks three or four steps ahead. If he played chess, he would be a Grand Master." And this ability to get what he wants has gone on to see TBWA achieve phenomenal growth: $900 million in global billings in 2004.

The network is strengthening its presence in Asia. It has recently opened its sixth Indian office and is setting up shops in China in cities beyond Shanghai and Beijing.

Not only does the network need to be ready to tap the economic boom in the region, it needs to serve a growing list of international clients.

Dru is very proud of the global campaigns TBWA has been producing for key clients. He talks about Nissan's "shift" campaign, iPod's "think different" and Adidas' "impossible is nothing".

They are all the result of TBWA's "Disruption" process. And that's Disruption with a capital "D", which Dru invented in a book published in 1996, and something he promotes constantly throughout the interview. In simple terms, it is TBWA's planning process.

Masterfoods has participated in about 25 Disruption days since it hired TBWA in 2002. Disruption on its Skittles brand altered its marketing from being about a candy with a rainbow of colours and flavours into a brand that can be enjoyed by all the senses. The resulting endline: "Experience the rainbow."

Disruption days require clients to contribute thinking to the strategic process, giving them ownership of the resultant idea and making them feel close to the agency. It has become the network's calling card, giving it a strong identity in a crowded market.

It seems Dru's proselytising has paid off. "We had a reputation in America to be very creative but not so strategic. It was wrong but that was our reputation." He believes the Mars appointment recognised that TBWA had struck the right balance between creative and strategy. (Others, however, believe Mars came in on the strength of the work from BBDO, that it was Omnicom's reputation that swung it.)

Although he has worked hard to establish the network's planning credentials, it's clear he believes the network's creative reputation should prevail. As you'd expect, he holds Lee Clow, the network's chairman and chief creative officer, in high esteem, and you're left with the impression that Clow is the second-most important player in TBWA's story. When asked which networks Dru believes are his closest rivals, he doesn't hesitate before naming BBDO and DDB, his Omnicom stablemates that trade on enviable creative reputations. "It has to do with rankings in creativity worldwide. That's the only reason."

He adds: "Clients know that they are not supported by markets that are growing by 15 per cent a year any more. They understand the limitations of external growth and want more organic growth, the only kind that is solid and more healthy long term. When they come to that conclusion, they understand they need more creativity."

Dru is also preparing the network to meet the fragmented media landscape by rolling out its "Connections" communications strategy. He says there are two ways to supply interaction between creative channels. The "scientific" model involves developing econometric models to improve the allocation of resources, while creatively transversal ideas need to be identified.

He does not fear the demise of the 30-second TV ad, because he thinks TV is pivotal in broader communications planning. "You always need an ad at the middle of it," he asserts.

In January, the US publication AdAge named TBWA as its network of the year for 2004. Campaign, meanwhile, named Bartle Bogle Hegarty. The distinction can, perhaps, be explained by geography. In London, TBWA had a difficult 2004, losing its biggest client, 3, and falling from seventh to 15th in the agency rankings. In 2005, things have worsened, with the agency losing £22 million in Abbey billings in addition to its £20 million News Group loss. But Dru shows no sign of worry: "It is the fastest-growing agency in Europe in revenue and profit and creatively you know how good it is."

Dru is now 58, so preparing for his retirement will have crossed the minds of his bosses at Omnicom. He has relocated his family to France, saying simply "I live in France and I work in the US", something that indicates his ambition is slowing.

A likely successor is Paul Bainsfair, the network's European president.

Europe, in revenue terms, is the network's most important region, but a speedy recovery in London is needed. The other contender is Tom Carroll, the vice-chairman of TBWA and a "drinking buddy" of Omnicom's president and chief executive, John Wren.

Dru took the helm at TBWA at just the right time. His skill has seen him take a set of already strong agencies and turn them into a strong network. It's an achievement that most of his peers would envy.