Ruhanen vows to bring disruption back to TBWA

In a crowded market and after years of drifting, TBWA had lost its edge. Now, its new president and chief executive wants to simplify everything and reclaim the 'disruption' philosophy that the creative network is known for, Claire Beale writes.

Ruhanen: ‘“disruption” is what will give us permission to go and be a great creative agency… I’m very much about taking that word back because it truly is ours for 20 years’
Ruhanen: ‘“disruption” is what will give us permission to go and be a great creative agency… I’m very much about taking that word back because it truly is ours for 20 years’

For a while there, TBWA seemed to be losing its way. The network, which once boasted one of the most successful agencies in London, had withered and its most important client relationship – with Apple – had wobbled dangerously.

Its leadership had lost both momentum and reputation and, in a market of bland international networks with little differentiation between so many of the major players, TBWA had no edge.

Then, in July, just weeks after the breakdown of the planned merger of TBWA’s parent Omnicom with its rival Publicis Groupe, the network’s president and chief executive, Tom Carroll, was bumped up to chairman and a new leader was announced for TBWA. And "phew" breathed through the corridors of TBWA agencies around the world; it’s hard to find anyone internally who wasn’t ready for a new leader they could respect.

Troy Ruhanen couldn’t be less like his predecessor. A family man (four children aged between five and 12) with a tangible passion for advertising, he’s a young, energetic, ambitious, enormous, no-bullshit Aussie, with an utterly believable determination to rebuild TBWA’s creative and strategic credentials after years of near-neglect.

Ruhanen has risen quickly through the Omnicom ranks after joining from Leo Burnett in 2004, and has won an army of fans, internally and externally, along the way.

He ran one of BBDO’s biggest accounts (AT&T) and one of its biggest regions (the Americas) before being appointed an Omnicom executive vice-president a year ago as the company went into merger talks with Publicis. With the deal off, he was ready for a bigger job and TBWA needed him. Boy, did it need him.

Over the past few years, as well as the Apple wobble – said to have been stabilised (for now) – TBWA has lost cornerstone global accounts including Beiersdorf, Mars, Visa and Absolut Vodka. Meanwhile, significant new business has been depressingly absent. The network has lost key senior talent and, across its 323 offices in 97 countries, it has been struggling to find a real point of difference against its competition. So the big man has a big challenge.

There’s a lot of work to do to get TBWA back on course. Did you have any reservations about taking on the role?
I’ve wanted to work in advertising since I was 14. My mum worked at a design company, my friend’s dad was a copywriter – I just fell in love with it at an early age and advertising is what I’ve always wanted to do. I get annoyed when people in our industry complain about it, because it’s one of the greatest jobs you can do: it’s so much fun.

And this was the job I was really after within Omnicom. I wanted this job, I really did. BBDO and TBWA were the two plausibly creative networks in Omnicom that I would have considered.

Where do you see the real opportunity at TBWA?
The chance to revitalise "disruption" is the reason I came to TBWA. At BBDO, we had "the work, the work, the work", but TBWA hasn’t had as much conviction behind "disruption" for a while.

I'm not going to be that guy who says I inherited a box of rocks - there are a lot of strengths in a lot of places

Yet "disruption" is what will give us permission to go and be a great creative agency; it’s a massively missed opportunity. The mistake that’s been made is that we haven’t made more of it; we haven’t owned it. I’m very much about taking that word back because it truly is ours for 20 years. If I can do that, in this day and age of breaking conventions and going to the new space – everyone’s looking for that.

Where does TBWA\Media Arts Lab [the Apple-dedicated unit] fit into your plans?
We’re expanding Media Arts into other markets to serve Apple; it’s performing quite well as a self-contained unit. But we’re also looking at Media Arts as a philosophy and, as part of the rebirthing of "disruption", we’ll be explaining how we can bring "disruption" to life through Media Arts. "Disruption" is the way in which we think and Media Arts is the way in which we do.

What is top of your agenda?
I’m just getting to know what’s in place right now and what needs fixing. The good thing is I’m not going to be that guy who says I inherited a box of rocks – there are a lot of strengths in a lot of places. Then I want to get "disruption" really flying and able to be marketed more broadly, and Media Arts is part of that philosophy.

And I’m trying to simplify things. When agencies lose their way a little bit, they start to try to add lots more things on because they’re searching for something. What I want to do is simplify and put more wood behind fewer arrows, frankly.

What’s your view of the competitive agency set?
I don’t think there are many great creative networks – I just don’t. I don’t buy into the Ogilvy thing: it wins, and it does some good pieces of work, but I don’t think it’s truly a great creative company. I think it is a smart company, it does truly intelligent work – and I respect it for that – but I don’t think it is really the great creative agency it thinks it is. It enters a tonne of work into awards and gets a tonne of shortlisted entries, but some of that work is highly questionable; everyone talks about it behind the scenes, they know there are budgets created just to enter this stuff.

And at BBDO, we always wanted to win on our own merits, on our real clients’ work. We didn’t create artificial budgets to do stuff. And that won’t be what we’ll do at my company either; we just won’t do that.

I admire what Grey has done in a couple of markets. It’s good work, it’s real client work, it’s stuff that I respect.

I always respect Bartle Bogle Hegarty and the work that it has done. If you look at the US right now, I’d say BBDO is an attractive culture and Grey is an attractive culture, and so are some of the boutiques, but the rest of them are just bland. My job is to make sure that we’re one of those most
attractive ones, always.

Are you planning to change the structure of the agency?
There are definitely some clients that don’t like a challenging creative culture and want something that is more servile in some ways, and my issue is that I don’t think we’re in the relationship business – I think we’re in the product business.

We need to be less servile, more rock 'n' roll, have a point of view and fight for it

We’ve built a whole structure that’s less about thinking and more about relationship management or doing and, as far as I’m concerned, more of my dollars are going to go to planning and creative than to account management.

If there’s an area I aim to invest more in, it’s definitely without doubt planning. I want us to be a very opinionated agency.

Some clients want that heavy client service, but I’d rather build an agency with a really strong point of view that’s going to help my client’s business and then go and creatively be disruptive. There’s so much freaking content out there that, if you’re not doing that work today, I really worry about your ability to penetrate what we already thought was a cluttered world.

So what will be your markers of success?
I’m not going to set targets such as being Agency of the Year in Cannes. What I’d really like to do is stop client turnover, to have longer relationships with our clients and have more opportunity to just make the work better and better. I’d also like to be in a situation where great talent is desperate to work at TBWA. If we can just focus on trajectory now, rather than whether we’re number one, two or three, and can fundamentally know we’re getting better, stronger and more thoughtful, then we’ll get to where we need to get to.

Can you sum up what TBWA will be like under your leadership?
We need to be less servile, more rock ’n’ roll, have a point of view and fight for it, have more confidence. The brand character of this agency is going to be rock ’n’ roll. It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be exciting, we’re going to have a point of view – it’s going to be our music.

And I feel like we’ve just been so apologetic, and that’s why the servile thing really gets to me and why I really want to put more behind planning. The more we have a point of view, the more we’ll be in control of our own destiny and the more we can do the kind of work we want to do and the more famous we’ll become. It’s not a really complex business, we just seem to fuck it up royally. So if we can overcome that, we’ll be good.


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