TBWA\Worldwide president: creative is much harder than what people think

Troy RuhanenThe creative space is evolving. TBWA\Worldwide president and CEO Troy Ruhanen sits down with Miranda Ward to talk the threat of procurement, redefining creative in a more competitive world and the impact of the failed Omnicom-Publicis merger. 

“Australia has been a much better advertising market than when I left, the talent is very strong down here and it plays well overseas based on an Australian’s ability to be quite transparent, hardworking and objective but also very creatively driven and integrated. The talent is stronger down here then it has ever been,” Ruhanen told Mumbrella.

“The creative has improved, there’s been many more consistent years of creative expression. As a marketplace its matured in terms of its advertising capabilities. Therefore the clients have, they are getting an appetite and understand better work.”

Ruhanen is speaking to Mumbrella during his first trip to visit the Australian offices of the TBWA network since being appointed to the CEO role in July last year.

The Australian born CEO began his career with Clemenger BBDO in Melbourne before moving to Leo Burnett Sydney in 1994. He spent ten years with the agency in Chicago, Asia-Pacific and Sydney before being named MD of the Sydney office in 2000, a role he held for three years before heading to the US to take on the MD role of BBDO New York.

Ruhanen said the Australian industry is very much a reflection of what’s going on in the US and the UK currently, with more and more creative companies launching which are potential competitors to the likes of TBWA despite being outside the traditional advertising agency pool.

“I don’t just look at is it Grey, is it Ogilvy, is it Weiden, is it Droga, I look at Vice, I look at new media, I look at consultancies firms. The competitors are much broader then they have ever been before,” he said.

“I don’t just look at the ‘traditionals’ in terms of my observations of the marketplace, I also look at the outside influencers on many of our clients right now and some of these people are gaining a lot of attention in the client eyes right now.”

The broadening of the creative landscape is also making it more competitive to secure the right talent, Ruhanen said.

“There are so many opportunities to express yourself creatively, so talent is a key issue. You want to be able to secure an unfair share of the world’s best talent, so how do we go about doing that and retaining that talent and let them do what interests them and express it in many different ways.”

Migrating talent is a problem the Sydney branch of Whybin\TBWA were faced with just last year, when Special Group poached its executive creative directors Dave Bowman and Matty Burton in September.

“You build a company, you don’t rely on two people, you just don’t,” he said when quizzed on the impact of the duo’s departure. “There are a lot of people in this building who have actually done the work and produced the work. It’s not a creative department, it’s a creative company.

“You have to make sure your base is much deeper than relying on two people. If you do that you go out of business and this business hasn’t gone out of business, it continues to do well.”

The variety of creative companies available is also a “temptation” to clients, Ruhanen said.

“To think that you can just go to any company now because there’s so many choices and get the right creative answer, we’re all susceptible to temptation from clients. They think they can go about doing that, that’s a concern, just because there’s choice right now doesn’t mean you’re going to get what you like.

“Creative is much harder then what people think,” he added.

Speaking on the challenges faced by creative agencies today, Ruhanen also named procurement and the risk of creative being thought of as a commodity as key concerns.

“I don’t compare myself to the median, when they say everyone gets paid x percentage profit, I don’t want to get paid the same as everybody else, I don’t believe we’re the same as everybody else, I think we’re much more of a premium brand,” he said.

“The fact that procurement likes to commoditise entities is a bit of a concern for good creative agencies because there is a premium for getting that kind of talent into your organisation.

“Some of them are very much they buy potatoes and they buy agencies. They very much see you in that commodity sense,” he added.

Moving onto the continuing full-service debate, Ruhanen said the industry goes through “cycles in performance as well as in habits”.

“Media was included, then it wasn’t, now it is again,” he said. “It was a good thing that media went out for a period there, it build up specialist skills but I think there are parts that do need to come back in, our clients are asking for that.”

When pushed if TBWA was looking to move media in-house, he said it wasn’t necessarily the case, but the model needs to be more inclusive of media.

“There are some instances where we have holding company models – Nissan United or Apple where we have Media Arts – we have a very inclusive culture of media with us,” Ruhanen said.

“We do it with OMD so in that instance we don’t see it as it has to be inside TBWA but the model has to be much more inclusive of media. That’s why both those brands do so well, it’s a very united front.

“It’s less about we have media people at TBWA, that’s one solution to it. If it’s inside of our holding company, if we have OMD or PHD people embedded into our agency and culture and our way of working and they have careers back and forth of their agency, that’s critical to me.

“It’s too fluid now, particularly with digital. You have to be able to move accordingly, plan accordingly,” he added.

“A lot of the ideas we are doing today are inside 24 hours – it’s not the five month campaign, a lot of it is immediate.”

In line with his thinking is his focus on planning.

“I do believe in planning but I think it can get misinterpreted,” he said. “What we’ve looked at as a company, I believe in thinking versus doing and there’s a clear delineation.

“I am prioritising thinking dollars and they are not just confined to the planning department. We have very clear instructions to our client service people about ‘you have to be a thinker not a doer’, and we have to work out the delineation between what is project management and what is business leadership.

“I expect as much out of my client service people and my creatives to add to the thinking as I do out of my client service people and my planners to add to the creative.”

Quizzed on if the market could expect TBWA to beef up its planning departments, similar to that of M&C Saatchi Sydney, Ruhanen said: “It’s not just a line in the sand for me.

“The problem you’re going to have if you just build up a planning department, what you’re going to end up doing is you’re not going to have a thinking culture,” he continued.

“You’re going to have a siloed mentality. What you have to do is build the whole company around thinking, which is why disruption works because it is an involved process where everyone comes in to examine conventions and disrupt it accordingly.

“For me, the prioritisation is on thinking not on departments,” he added.

When taking on the CEO role of the network Ruhanen wanted to “revitalise” the disruption positioning, with the network looking at how it can transform it from a mindset into a way of operating every day of the year.

“It’s been a process literally since the day I got there,” he said.

“I felt like that was the reason to come to TBWA, there was a point of view and there was a way to get great creative work. A lot of creative agencies leave it to the creative department to solve their problems, I believe in being a creative company not just outsourcing.

“For me, disruption was the magnet to do that because there was a way to break down conventions and find new space to grow. And so I was really attracted to that and the rigour that was behind that.”

Prior to taking the top job at TBWA Ruhanen was the executive vice president of the Omnicom Group, a role he held for 11 months during which time the proposed Publics-Ominicom merger was called off.

The deal would have created the largest advertising holding group in the world with assets worth more than US$30bn eclipsing WPP.

When asked on how the failed merger had impacted TBWA and the industry Ruhanen was adamant it hasn’t, arguing it was not a necessity for Omnicom.

“Absolutely zero. There was the initial week after it occurred where you were doing some explaining, but most clients just went ‘you’re my agency, you’re my partner, lets go’,” he said.

“Our performance results have gone well, you can see how we have continued on. We never had to do the merger, we thought it was a good idea. Until you can get all the constructs worked our when you go through that process it either works or it doesn’t work.

“The fact that it didn’t work out doesn’t matter, you kind of get on to the next phase,” he said.

Miranda Ward is the creative reporter for Mumbrella. 


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.