John Hunt is a year into his tenure as the worldwide creative director of the $9.7 billion, 237-office TBWA global network. The founding partner of the South African hotshop TBWA\Hunt Lascaris is also responsible for restoring the creative sparkle to the tarnished New York office.
The softly spoken, low-key Zambian native sits in TBWA\ Chiat\Day's New York office, pondering his lofty title, which, as he points out, is usually seen as a joke. "We need a fundamental strategy change," he says. "Globally, the biggest challenge is how to set the compass for celebrating ideas. We have to get the network to think less about ads, and more about ideas and 'what if', and away from an advertising system geared toward 30-second commercials and the traditional copywriter/art director set up. I'd love TBWA to be in the vanguard by going into uncharted territory."
As examples of such ideas, Hunt points to London's fcuk brand recently launching a radio station to promote itself; to Japan, where the agency dangled two soccer players from ropes to play a mid-air game in front of a soccer pitch board; and in New York, where, in possibly the product placement coup of the decade, Absolut Vodka nabbed a starring role in an HBO Sex and the City episode.
Then there's his SWAT team initiative involving sending creative teams to trouble spots around the globe. "Clients say they want a global agency to work on their business but we get stuck in geographic silos," he says.
"I see myself cross-pollinating and it works great on a global account such as Nissan. There's an urban myth that creative people don't travel well, but this is a reward and it's going terrifically."
So is the 49-year-old Hunt, if Lee Clow, TBWA's chief creative officer, worldwide, is to be believed: "Over the years, we've had some pretty interesting choices of leadership. Everyone from Tom McElligott, who was there for all of 15 minutes, to Marty Cooke, Dick Sittig and Bill Hamilton. But I haven't felt this positive in years. My challenge to New York was 'go do fucking work that blows us off the wall'."
Hunt, who was educated in England and South Africa, spent eight years backpacking around the world, before launching Hunt Lascaris with his partner, Reg Lascaris, back in 1983. The agency won a host of awards for accounts such as Nelson Mandela's African National Congress party, Bic, BMW and Range Rover and became a jewel in the TBWA network, winning accolades and global admiration. So why leave the helm of one of the most respected shops in the world? "After 20 years there, I'd reached a time when it was more of the same," he says. "I wanted to try new things. And it helped knowing both Jean-Marie (Dru, the president and chief executive of TBWA\ Worldwide) and Lee."
For the first eight months, Hunt's focus was New York, the agency's global headquarters, seen as the problematic and less creative sibling of Clow's Los Angeles powerhouse. It helped that a month after Hunt arrived, so too did the $200 million Nextel account. "It was a terrific way to start," he says. Next, he recruited Gerrey Graf as New York's executive creative director. Graf used to work at BBDO and is well known for his award-winning work on 1996's Snickers campaign "Not going anywhere for a while?" and E*Trade's 2000 Super Bowl dancing chimp spot. Shortly after that, Masterfoods' estimated $25 million Skittles account followed him over from BBDO. Then came a new global assignment from McDonald's. Negatives, however, include losing the $270 million Kmart business, resigned because of a legal dispute; then there are the pitches that did not convert into wins, such as Fidelity Insurance.
Other initiatives included the launch of a Young Blood scheme, now in its second year, which searches out raw talent from ad schools and offers them jobs. Based on a similar scheme in South Africa, it's being introduced in Los Angeles and is planned to roll out globally.
Creatively, New York is still a work in progress. Word on the street is that the Hunt/Graf team is helping to energise New York. The Absolut work, approaching its 25th anniversary, continues to innovate. In March, the brand launched Level Vodka and last year produced an Absolut mini-movie, Mullit, a Bollywood satire. A new comic campaign for Nextel, the number-five wireless phone, was directed by Joe Pytka and focuses on the concept of "done" rather than talk, as competitors do. "There's good work on Nextel and it's getting better," Hunt says.
The recent arrival of Skittles, he comments, is also motivating creatives. "It's very difficult to get creative work out of scared people," he says. "Fear is not a good motivator. But there's a different atmosphere here now. People seem revved up." New-business priorities include a financial and airline account.
"The first year, we built a launching pad," he says. "The second year is one of conversion. But it's all talk and jabber, until it shows in the work."
Clow adds: "He's one of the best people on the planet and I always thought 'if only we could get him here, to the epicentre'. It's one of the best hires I ever made."