Advertising Interviews

Tom Carroll

President & CEO | 13 Nov 2009

We have done better than 99 per cent of the global networks in terms of new business, consolidating with our global clients and the quality of our works. But every market has been hit hard, there isn’t any market that has escaped the global crisis. The good news is that we’ve been incredibly resourceful in terms of continuing to invest in what we think are priorities and we haven’t ducked in any changes. So why we are excited about 2010 is because we can see the great shape that we are in as a network as well as in India.

Tom Carroll is one of the key architects that transformed TBWA from an agency of great creative shops around the world into one of the most effective networks in the world. His leadership and influence have helped the network revitalise and expand its relationships with existing clients like Absolut, McDonald’s and Nissan, and grow the client roster with new brands, including adidas and Mars.

During his tenure with TBWA, the network has been recognised by both Advertising Age and Adweek as ‘Global Agency Network of the Year’, and is consistently ranked as one of the top-five most creatively awarded networks in the world.

Carroll began his career in 1978 at Mathieu, Gerfen and Bresner, working on the US launches of Perrier and Moosehead Beer. In 1983, Carroll met Jay Chiat and discovered his passion for creating big ideas that could literally change the world. He worked at Chiat\Day advertising in both New York and Los Angeles leading the General Electric, Pizza Hut and Miller Brewing accounts. In 1989, Carroll founded Weiss, Whitten, Carroll, Stagliano, whose clients included Guinness Import Company, Citibank and Rossignol Skis. In 1995, Carroll moved to MVBMS, where he was a partner responsible for Dunkin’ Donuts, Evian, Oppenheimer Funds and Universal Studios.

He returned to TBWA in 1999 as President of the Los Angeles office. In April 2001, Carroll took on additional responsibilities as President of the Americas, with oversight of the network’s operations in North and South America. He moved back to New York at the beginning of 2002 to concentrate on his new role. He was promoted to Vice Chairman of TBWA Worldwide in 2004, President in 2006, and was named President & CEO in 2007.

Carroll is Chairman of the AAAA Board of Directors; he currently serves as a Director of Advertising Week, the largest annual gathering of advertising and media decision-makers in North America.

Today, Carroll is helping transform TBWA once again by orchestrating the implementation of Media Arts Model into the network by challenging the entire network to understand, brand by brand, how people are using media across their lives. Grounded in Disruption, Media Arts is a philosophy that puts all the ways a brand connects at the center of what the agency creates.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Tasneem Limbdiwala, Carroll speaks at length about TBWA’s India plans, growth targets, creativity in India and battling slowdown.

Q. How happy are you with the progress seen in India in the last so many years – in terms of global achievements of the agency, in terms of creativity, business wins and other developments?

I am extremely happy about India for a number of reasons. We have the strongest management in India with Shiv (Sethuraman, CEO, TBWA\India) and his team. The work is better this year, and we are better prepared for the future than we have ever been. Unlike other multinationals, who merely have their offices in each market, here in India, I feel that we have a TBWA\India office that looks like TBWA, talks like TBWA, acts like TBWA and understands what we do for global clients. So, what we do for our global clients is easily applied to local Indian clients as well. That said, this is the most open-minded, globally tuned in TBWA\India that we’ve ever had.

Q. You had last visited India in June 2008 during Omnicom buyout deal time. Any specific reasons for your current trip to India? Would we see any special announcements from TBWA\India during this visit?

India is an extremely important market for our global clients as well as the TBWA Network. We have to be world class in India. Thus, there have been some dramatic changes by bringing on Shiv (Sethuraman) and other senior management. We have to be good in India; we can’t be a global network unless we have a fantastic India operation.

2009 has been a tough year for everybody in the industry. And the purpose of coming here now is to see our changes in person, and we are anxious for 2010 like everybody else and want 2009 to end. So, everything looks positive and exciting. Hence, the visit is just to catch up on things, and to view the dramatic changes that have taken place.

Q. The year 2009 has been a tough year too. Has the slowdown deterred your plans?

We have done better than 99 per cent of the global networks in terms of new business, consolidating with our global clients and the quality of our works. We couldn’t have done any better during a tough year. But every market has been hit hard, there isn’t any market that has escaped the global crisis. The good news is that we’ve been incredibly resourceful in terms of continuing to invest in what we think are priorities and we haven’t ducked in any changes. So why we are excited about 2010 is because we can see the great shape that we are in as a network as well as in India. Thus, when we are in a good shape and have a good team, we want to be on the field in full form like a fit athlete.

The tough year began in 2008, so we have gone through a rough patch of almost 18 months now. You can’t drag the second half of 2008 and 2009 into 2010. When you hit a rough patch, you need to make the necessary downsizing and changes, so that when you hit 2010, you can get back to running a profitable business.

Yes, we did take some stringent steps like downsizing and watching our expenses, but at the same time, we have also made some acquisitions. And what we basically did was get the most out of what we had. Since we saw it coming, we were prepared and started taking measures early. Still, when it came to downsizing, it has been painful.

Q. Any specific acquisitions in the pipeline?

There isn’t anything that’s imminent. But we are always in the market for a good acquisition. However, as of now, there is nothing in specific that I could speak on.

Q. What is the revenue growth targeted for TBWA\India for 2010?

We have been ahead of the industry curve and we have been keeping that distance as far as growth is concerned. It’s hard to put a number in this environment. However, as far as the network is concerned, we’ve had some real growth in terms of income like the Nissan and Visa businesses that came into our kitty.

Q. There are many other international outfits like BBH and BBDO that have forayed into India. Taking this point further, many clients are moving their businesses due to global affiliation benefits. As there been any impact from the India point of view given the fact that there is international competition?

Very few people have the reputation for creativity that we have. We compete with everybody, big or small, and we compete with all our global networks. So, we don’t see anyone that we can’t compete with. We are as good as any global network, if not better than most, and we can compete with any creative company – be it local, regional or global. Not many agencies have the creative and global network reputation that we have. Look at our global client list – we have Nissan, Apple, Adidas and many more. Yes, I do not deny that there are older networks with a broader client list for many years. But dynamic brands that are moving in a market place, I can’t think of many networks that have a client list like us that acquires great creative and global management. We have the most dynamic brands in the world and so we think our company is different.

Q. Any such global clients that you are in talks with for TBWA\India?

There are global clients that we talking to, but not necessarily working with in this market. But I bet India will see two major global clients in the next year. However, I can’t divulge much now as there is very little that we can share.

Q. What are some of the other markets apart from India that are keeping you busy?

Some of the markets that have been keeping us busy are Western Europe that has been tough this year. We have currently changed our leadership in Japan and have been having new leadership in many other regions. We have seen 2009 as a year of opportunity to change the way we can do business. It’s a business of talent, it’s not one that you can fake.

Q. Having seen Indian creatives, what do you think we lack and what is also unique to our creatives as compared to other countries?

We have a large global client and we look at 10 commercials from 10 markets around the world. And I absolutely believe that the work that comes out from here (India) is my favourite and the best among all. But am not surprised by them because I have been exposed to new creatives from this country for a long time and they are very good. Thay have their own style and way of communicating that is world class. Therefore, that’s another reason why I am excited about my trip to India.

Q. Any specific work that you have particularly liked from India?

The Visa work is good. The Set Max cricket work is over the top. However, among all the Visa work, the work coming from this market has been phenomenal. The Visa Debit Card work that is done from here is my favourite and I have given this feedback to my global client as well. So, when I see the quality of work, I see the quality that the talent is thinking.

Q. According to you, has India really embraced the Disruptive theory in the right way compared to other parts of the world?

Yes they have. Over the last couple of months, we have spent a lot of time with Shiv and his team and training on Media Arts and Distruptive theory. And there is definitely good response coming on that. We will see in the course of the year a load of evidence of the kind of work that comes from the training.

Q. It’s now been almost a decade (13 years to be precise) for you with TBWA Worldwide. How has the journey been so far from your days a President of Los Angeles office to CEO of TBWA Worldwide? Any memory that you get all nostalgic about?

Yes, I think I was extremely naïve about the world 13 years ago. I didn’t know how spectacular the world is, no matter where I am, whether it is India, China, or Brazil… there is one thing that I have learnt is that there is no shortage of enthusiasm in the global economy. The world and the various cultures in it are beyond interesting and fun. I love the way different cultures express the world, friendship or humour. I think our industry is a very fortunate industry as it deals with these cultures from different parts of the world.

And if I have to speak from a TBWA point of view, 12 years ago, we were the 13th largest network in the world, this year we are the fifth. I don’t know anyone who goes from 13th to fifth in 12 years, where the business is competitive as us. The journey has been phenomenal and beyond my own expectations.

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