Chris Garbutt and TBWA's disruption

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How an unassuming art director from South Africa is helping TBWA get its swagger back.

At the height of the awards show season, shortly before the start of Cannes Lions 2017, Chris Garbutt, 45, the newly anointed global chief creative officer of TBWA Worldwide, was hopeful about the network’s prospects.

"I’m excited about the work we are going to showcase," he said.  "Cannes is a measurement of the industry’s success over the year, but we aren’t the type of company that chases awards. We want to build iconic, famous work for our clients, and the result of that is hopefully winning in Cannes."

Still, winning is good, and awards provide a barometer of an agency’s competitive standing. To that end, Troy Ruhanen, the president and CEO of TBWA\Worldwide, discussing Garbutt’s promotion last month, points to the network’s improved stats at the shows this year. The network won 78 Lions at Cannes last week, including two Grand Prix awards for Promo & Activation and Integrated, a Titanium and six Gold Lions.

It more than doubled its wins at D&AD and the One Show this year and garnered the One Show’s inaugural Penta Pencil, honoring creative excellence in a brand-agency partnership of 5-years or more, for its work for signature client Apple.

"The quality of the work has improved a lot for us," says Ruhanen, of the impact the unassuming South African-born art director has had on the network since he was named TBWA’s global president and chief creative officer of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York nearly two years ago. "We certainly had a great creative image, but the results weren’t being reflected in terms of how our work was comparing against other people’s work. And we’ve seen that that’s risen pretty dramatically."

TBWA’s collection of Cannes wins displays a breadth of product that agency management, three-years-deep in Ruhanen’s mission to make the network "the best creative collective in the world," that he believes signals the beginning of a new era for the storied agency. "There’s a nice creative mojo back at the center," says John Hunt, the co-founder of TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris in South Africa, who passed creative leadership for the network to Garbutt last month, when he stepped back from his worldwide creative director role to become creative chairman. "The creative heartbeat’s back, and now Chris can make it beat even faster."

With a relentless optimism and a roll-up-your sleeves work ethic that has helped reinvigorate a once-beleaguered network, Garbutt and the global community he’s fostered entered a body of work at Cannes this year that is the product of a more confident, collaborative network.

TBWA\Media Arts Lab won 2 Silver Lions in Film Craft for Apple’s 60-second spot "Stroll," featuring a gravity-defying demo of the wireless AirPods performed by dancer Lil Buck. TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles created Gatorade "Serena Match Point," the first Snapchat video game, which took home two Silver Lions and two Bronze Lions in Mobile and Promo & Activation. TBWA\Neboko in the Netherlands won a Bronze for serenaded McDonald’s customers ordering the "Maestro" burger with an opera singer and 60-piece live orchestra. TBWA\Paris created an interactive wallpaper for Castorama to tell bedtime stories for kids. And TBWA\Hakuhodo took two Silvers and two Bronzes for gamifying a night run through the city streets of Tokyo using traffic lights for Adidas, a client that’s made a recent return to the network.

"It's rewarding as a creative director to see not only the energy but the scale," says Garbutt, who leads with an encouraging smile but a firm, guiding hand. "More countries are starting to produce great work and the momentum is growing, which is all about building a new chapter. … The first step is getting our swagger back." 

Disrupting the disruption company
The page was turned at TBWA with management changes at the top, when in 2014, Omnicom named Ruhanen chief executive of the global network. A veteran of BBDO Worldwide, Ruhanen had most recently been charged with cross-agency collaboration at Omnicom, and after a year of breaking down barriers at the holding-company level, was tapped to recharge TBWA. 

When he took the helm, the agency was reeling from years of management turmoil and global client losses that included Kraft, Mars, Visa and Infiniti. Legacy accounts like Absolut Vodka had walked out the door and the 30-plus-year agency-defining relationship with flagship client Apple had grown increasingly frayed. "It was a turbulent time," admits the straight-shooting Australian. "Quite frankly, New York was hurling backwards."

TBWA, an agency that flew a pirate flag in Los Angeles and trademarked a planning process called disruption out of Paris, had lost its edge, and its work had slipped into the expected. "We lost a little bit of our direction, went a little bit soft," explains Hunt. "Certainly from a creative point of view, there was a lot of safe pair of hands kind of stuff, which was never really been TBWA’s philosophy. We’re the guys who push the status quo."

Ruhanen’s turnaround began with a revival of the agency’s decades-old planning principle, disruption, and a plan to turn the network’s troubled New York agency, which always lived in the shadow of Los Angeles, into a vibrant global headquarters. "It was critical that the company understood it’s not just worldwide finance and CEO based in one location, but the heart of the business, the product, is also being driven out of there and it is perfectly aligned," says Ruhanen. "Having Chris in New York was an important part of the equation."

Lee Clow, the ad legend behind Apple’s "1984" and "Think Different" campaigns, is "still the icon that casts a long and happy shadow across the network," says Hunt. But a succession plan for the creative leadership needed to be put into place. "I am incredibly happy for both John and Chris," writes Clow in an email about the passing of the torch. "Not only are they deserving of this recognition for the work they continue to deliver time and again, but also for the manner in which they have carried themselves throughout their careers. Good people do good."

In Garbutt, Ruhanen found a partner with the right mix of creative taste and management experience and the energy and tenacity required to inspire an organization with more than 300 offices in 97 countries. The Cape Town native had built an award-winning career working for two global agency organizations, Ogilvy and TBWA, on three continents. "We wanted to make sure that we had someone who knew our culture incredibly well," says Ruhanen, "but also wanted to take it to a different level."

After working in Paris for 13 years, most recently as chief creative officer of Ogilvy, Garbutt relocated to New York as chief creative officer of Ogilvy New York in 2014. Less than a year into the new job, Ruhanen convinced him to rejoin TBWA, an agency where he had already spent more than a decade of his career, as an executive creative director in Paris working on Nissan, and earlier in Johannesburg, where he was mentored by Hunt at TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris.

Much of the rebuild over the last two years has been "working to innovate, drive change and move forward as a business and think of ourselves more as a disruption company than an advertising agency," says Garbutt. The challenge for TBWA, says Nick Barham, global chief strategy officer, was "How do you turn heritage into something that is a positive, how do you hold onto the right strands of DNA and yet be nimble enough to be relevant in 2017?" 

The "Knowledge Engine"
The new management team needed to reconfigure the company for a business climate in which descriptors such as "advertising" and "agency" have become outdated, and agencies like TBWA are jostling for projects with an ever-expanding competitive set crowded with sexy young content machines like Vice, in-house agencies and consultancies. The company needed to be built for speed, not with the cumbersome, belabored processes that have become habitual in large, decades-old agency networks. 

The company reoriented itself to the principles of disruption and rallied around a strategic process that was simplified and super-charged with data-driven technology to drive the type of creative product needed to build brands today, everything from the anthemic 60-second TV commercial, elegant print and attention-grabbing outdoor TBWA was known for, to hundreds of pieces of micro-content for social media, or a technology or business solution. 

"Disruption came out at a time when you thought in campaigns. You thought in a three-year plan. ‘Here's our disruptive idea. We'll probably make four executions off it in the next two or three years,’" says Barham. In the years since Jean-Marie Dru, chairman of TBWA\Worldwide, first introduced ‘Disruption’ in the early 90s, the term ‘disruption’ had become common in the business vernacular but essentially forgotten inside TBWA.

A "cookbook" detailing how to create breakthrough work with hundreds of pages of exercises was occasionally still used in workshops in some parts of the world, but "it didn’t really feel connected with the way we’re working now," says Barham. "We just boiled it down to a way of looking at the world, identifying conventions and clichés, and then thinking about how to step outside. … I don’t care how we get there." 

Alongside a streamlined strategic philosophy, the agency launched Disruption Live, a way to regularly feed the network data insights to keep it connected to culture in real time. Powered by client-customizable software developed by Luke Eid, global president of innovation and technology, and first tested in Singapore, "Disruption Live was a way of doing disruption every day," says Ruhanen. "I wanted to build a knowledge engine because I really believe greater inputs drive better outcomes."

The proprietary product gave the agency the ability to respond to cultural trends and engage with audiences and clients in real time. Daily Disruption Live morning meetings share the information and videos produced out of Los Angeles that shares trends from the planning community across the globe. "Every morning when you wake up, cultures redefine the world. It's an ever-moving goal post," says Garbutt. "Disruption Live is how we keep up to speed with culture."

It also gave the network a powerful new business tool, says Rob Schwartz, a 20-plus-year creative veteran of TBWA, who was named CEO of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York in early 2015. "When you were going to pitch a client, or work on existing business, you didn't just take their deck from Millward Brown, and sift through it, and try to take the same six ingredients and come up with a different burrito." And the creative execution is shifting from a macro approach to a "micro-content to mega impact" approach. For example, to launch Izze Fusions, a new assignment from PepsiCo, TBWA produced more than 75 pieces of content for social media.  "We realized that the idea is not in the manifesto films we’re been writing, or broad outdoor campaigns," says Schwartz. "The idea was in this tweet." 

A center of gravity
Garbutt, a high-energy, optimistic leader who pushes ideas with an "It’s going to be great!" enthusiasm, has increased the agency’s creative bench strength throughout the network. Among the additions, Garbutt orchestrated the return of Erik Vervroegan, a former boss and the creative chief at TBWA\Paris who led the agency to three consecutive Agency of the Year honors at Cannes, and most recently served as worldwide chief creative officer of Publicis, as global head of art, and recruited Wade Alger, who led Geico’s "Skippable" campaigns. "Troy had the vision of a network being a collective, Chris made us want to join it," says Nancy Reyes, managing director of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York. "It’s one thing to state the vision. It's another thing to want to be part of the club."

The agency’s clients are responding as well. The creative chief  "transmits a sense of things really mattering," says Colin Mitchell, global VP of brand at McDonald’s. 

"Brands really mattering. Craft skills really mattering. That’s truly infectious." A strategist who joined the fast food giant last year after nearly two decades working at Ogilvy & Mather, Mitchell has seen Garbutt in action on both sides of the fence. "He elevates everything," he adds. "He sees the brand in the best possible way and then can show a client a path to how to be that." 

For Michelin, the agency delivered work that is "different for the category and nourished both the heart and the mind," says Andrew Meurer, VP of North America for Michelin Earthmover. The effort, a new visual approach teased in a last-minute Super Bowl ad earlier this year, turns a logo into an idea using the protective arm of the Michelin man. "The strength of the most iconic work TBWA does is that it's reductionist," says Garbutt, discussing the brand’s new visual language. "It travels globally, it connects with different cultures in a very quick, impactful way."

Moving clients, work and a global level is an arduous process that requires a resilience and tenacity that Garbutt has displayed since his teen years as a competitive gymnast. "He can play the long game," says Hunt. "A lot of creatives are brilliant, but they kind of fizzle if it doesn’t work the first time."

It took more than a year to get Adidas back into the fold, a piece of business that is culturally significant for the agency. Clow had spearheaded the brand’s "Impossible is Nothing" campaign that famously featured Muhammad Ali, but in more recent years, TBWA and its corporate sibling 180 had lost its grip on the business. Recently, the agency launched the brand’s "Hit this ground running" campaign for the new DPR shoe out of New York.

"Chris is particularly skilled at nurturing creative ideas, bringing them to life and maintaining their integrity throughout the creative process," writes Philip Schapitz, director of communications for Adidas Running, in an emailed statement. "His simple approach and ability to break down barriers to get to the core of an idea ensures he always focuses on the fundamentals of great work. This approach, combined with Chris’ passion and dedication delivers strong creative output time and again."

For Ruhanen, that commitment to creativity and craft is what will continue to set TBWA apart. "Humility, energy, drive, vision, belief, these are the things that are going to separate us from the other guys," he says,  "because we will simply outwork them."