SINGAPORE — Troy Ruhanen, global CEO of TBWA, sat down with Campaign Asia-Pacific in Singapore recently to talk about the network’s progress since he took charge, Asia's part in that progress, changing agency culture, fighting for talent and going after awards.
Ruhanen doesn’t have a "holy grail" brand that he covets for TBWA’s portfolio, but there are a couple that he wants to win back.
"There are ones I want back," he says. "I want Adidas, I want more of it, in more markets. We do a great job for them in markets like China and Russia, but I want more of it and have control. We love that brand and want that back."
Another brand Ruhanen really wants, back is Absolut, an account the agency handled for decades and put on the map with its famous bottle-centric campaign but lost to Sid Lee in late 2012.
"I want Absolut back fully to ourselves, we love that brand," he says. "We spent a number of years with both brands, we helped make them, and we believe we can help them going forward."
Ruhanen had no qualms about making his intentions public and even took the opportunity to throw down the gauntlet.
"If the incumbent agencies feel uncomfortable about that then so be it, do better work and don’t allow me to take it," he says. "But we’re going to come at it."
That declaration to retake the brands that have played big roles in the agency’s history and body of work is probably not surprising, given Ruhanen’s stated determination to rebuild TBWA’s creative and strategic credentials when he stepped into the role in late 2014.
Having risen quickly through the Omnicom ranks, garnering a reputation for turning around businesses, his still-short tenure has already made an impact in the North American market.
Naturally and not for the first time during an interview with media, he points to the string of new business snagged in the course the last year or so, a list that includes brands such as GoDaddy, Airbnb and Netflix.
"We won16 pitches in a row. I’ve never done that in my life ever, and I will never do that again by the way," he adds. "I don’t think that’s possible but that’s just a huge sign of the progress we’re making."
When it comes to the progress the network is making, Ruhanen has no doubts that its Asian operations play a big role, pointing out that there is already a lot of innovation coming out of the region.
"If you take the Singapore office for example, what they’ve achieved with Digital Arts Network has been pretty amazing," he says. "We’re using those models around the world to inform and help us operate better."
Adapting new modes of working from across the globe is necessary for Ruhanen, as the need to "adapt for the change that’s happening" is critical. The change in the last six months alone has been "incredible" with the movements in the consumer media landscape now being mirrored by the directions clients are taking.
"It allows us to evolve our structures into more dynamic ones, and Asia has been great at that," he adds.
Ruhanen has great confidence in the APAC leadership team that is now in place, alongside the creative talent it now has within its ranks.
"Just look at Kazoo [Sato] in Japan," he says. "He’s amazing, envied by many in the network and hugely influential. Whenever we have creative director meetings, he’s always got something to show and a huge inspiration for the network."
In April, TBWA Hakuhodo Japan promoted Kazoo Sato to the role of chief creative officer, from executive creative director — a role he has held since 2012.
Ruhanen also points to the agency’s Greater China team, with Nils Andersson stepping in as president and CCO in March of last year, along with the promotion of Joanne Lao to the CEO role.
"We have a managing team in place now that will make the impact that is required of us," he adds. "China is a market growing faster than the rest of the world. It’s a dynamic market to be a part of, with consumer behaviour changing really rapidly and we need to be part of that change."
But it’s not just the major or matured markets in Asia that has Ruhanen so bullish, as there are "great surprises" to be had across the region, such as the Philippines for example.
"Philippines is a market I enjoy going to, and has a great talent base, just look at Melvin [Mangada]," he says, referring to the chief creative officer of TBWA Santiago Mangada Pun.
"Most of the work his team comes up with is envied within the network," he adds. "I’ve never bought into the notion of the ‘we’re a small market’ kind of thing, no. Melvin proves it time and time again that you can do it. We’re spoilt for choice in this part of the world."
Ruhanen was in India during the start of the year to mark a new chapter of the agency’s presence in the market. Govind Pandey stepped in as CEO of TBWA India, while Subramanian Krishnan was named chief strategy officer.
In an interview with Campaign India, the agency admitted it had a lot of work to do in the market, with Philip Brett, president of TBWA Asia saying that India has been "very involved in pitches for Twitter, Go Daddy. Hopefully, in a year, we’ll have a better story to tell."
Ruhanen says that Pandey is already driving change in India, and adds that confidence in the market is changing. "I think in 2017, there’ll be some great things to tell."
For Ruhanen, getting China, Japan and India "right," coupled with the momentum coming out of the Singapore operations in terms of new business collectively paints a strong picture.
The agency does work for the Singapore Tourism Board, Singapore Airlines, Standard Chartered Bank and Apple out of the Singapore office.
The Singapore Tourism account was awarded to TBWA Singapore late last year, with the agency now the global agency partner for integrated creative, digital and production services.
"We have four major regional clients coming out of this part of the world, that’s something most other agencies would kill for," he adds. "The Singapore Tourism one was a great win, it was always a prized account and we’re so lucky to have won that, it’s energized the agency."
Culture the biggest competitor
"Progress" is a word Ruhanen uses often, as efforts to strengthen TBWA’s position start to bear fruit. And he believes the agency is in a very good position as opposed to other agency networks that are currently questioning their place.
"I think for us we’re lucky, we don’t have an identity crisis," he says. "Other networks are trying to figure out what’s their vision, what do they stand for but we know we are the disruption company, and we’re innovating around that."
In other press interviews, Ruhanen had stated his desire to make TBWA a "place to be envied" and when asked about how close the agency is to that ideal, says it will never be.
"I think we have to be the masters of restlessness, if you’re going to be the disruption company you can never settle," he adds. "There’s always change in the world so you can never to be satisfied with your place in it and operating in status quo."
Focus on the product has been an important one for agency and Ruhanen points to some big moves the agency has done to improve its offering.
The first is the implementation of Disruption Live, which the agency bills as a practical way of working in today’s fragmented and fast pace.
"We’re looking at all the daily triggers and creating edges of trends occurring on near horizon," Ruhanen explains. "We’re working very hard to become the most knowledgeable agency in the world because if you want to be the best creative agency in the world, then you have to be the most knowledgeable."
With culture considered the agency’s "biggest challenger" and there have also been many changes to the way the agency deals with talent.
"I’ve spoken about need to work on talent and I think this industry going through large amount of change yet we expect the same kind of people to able to adapt to that," says Ruhanen. "The fact is, some are built for it and some aren’t. Most of the agency networks harbour the average for too long."
At TBWA, the company looks at turnover as a healthy and necessary thing, with a mandate to focus on product and delivering results and to not be a service business.
"Because there is no one point in time that you can have 100 percent of the world’s best talent working in your agency in that marketplace," he adds. "And there’s always new talent and new requirements coming in."
The company has been "honest" with its people and changed staff evaluation forms, simplifying the process to enable conversation about impact.
"You’re now measured on output: What impact have you made in the company this year? That’s really the only question on the form, there are no others," he adds.
Ruhanen says the agency expects its people to deliver, to let go of those who aren’t and hire people that share its ambitions.
"We’re looking for people who want to shape culture, and not be a spectator," he adds. "People who want to make a dent in the universe, and if you don’t, why would you come to work with us because that’s our ambition."
The company is also taking diversity in leadership seriously; its Take the Lead Project 2020 campaign launched last year aims to increase women in leadership roles across the TBWA network by 20 percent before the year 2020. Erica Hoholick, president of TBWA\Media Arts Lab, leads the initiative.
"The only way you can know if you’re making progress is you have the measure it," says Ruhanen. "You just can’t philosophically talk about it."
He reports that in the last 14 months, of the 45 major promotions and hires that happened within the network, 20 have been female.
"I think that’s a pretty good sign of progress as a company," he adds. "And we’ve been clinical about how we measure it."
Ruhanen is adamant about the fact that the agency doesn’t any hire any females "just because she’s female," but rather the team goes out of way to aggressively look for great candidates.
"We don’t subscribe to that talk about there not being a big enough talent pool. There’s not enough of them, because you don’t know them," he says.
"Our job is to go out and really look for great female leadership and we’ve been finding them and we’ve been making sure they get real senior positions that will impact our company and culture."
Asked about this year’s upcoming Cannes Lions Festival, Ruhanen notes that the work the agency has done is better than what it was two years ago.
"Am I satisfied with the work? No, I think Cannes will be a good one, not a great one," he adds. "I’m looking for what we had last year with the iPhone gallery where you get the Grand Prix. We know that’s fantastic work, and want more of that."
Ruhanen repeated his oft-expressed stance that he does not look at the "point chasers" at Cannes with much respect, adding that he doesn’t need nor has the desire to finish first at the festival’s awards.
"Would I like to finish first? Of course — who wouldn’t? But the way they go about it, I have no interest in playing that game," he says. "I would rather have four or five pieces of work that the world is talking about then 100 shortlists."
A large part of it also has to do with the recent influx of new leadership in many markets, with Ruhanen rattling off a list of new creative directors in the Netherlands, France, London, Middle East and China amongst them. With new talent means time is needed to really get things going.
"So if you ask me are we there yet, no. Are we on the path to getting there, yes," he adds. "I think we can expect to have a really good Cannes in 2017."
This article first appeared on campaignasia.com.