TBWA's New Approach to Digital: Digital Arts Network

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Just two years after dismantling Agency.com -- its digital agency brand that once was a star in the interactive space -- Omnicom Group's TBWA is placing its bets on a new approach to meeting clients' ever-growing digital advertising needs.

TBWA is launching Digital Arts Network, a new umbrella organization to unify the digital specialists currently working within TBWA -- a number the agency claims is around 700 people. TBWA will also use the new structure, which the agency says can offer a range of digital capabilities including creative technology, e-commerce, social media, user experience, content, mobile, analytics and search, to help recruit more digital talent.

Units at TBWA that previously housed digital work, such as Tequila, are now being housed within the Digital Arts Network. The only sub-brands that will be left are TBWA's specialist labs, such as the creative technology lab at TBWA in Los Angeles, where some 40 technologists work. That entity and a few others concentrate on bespoke projects and aren't in charge of holistic marketing for clients.

By dubbing the new network Digital Arts, TBWA is trying to piggyback on its now well-established Media Arts Lab philosophy, which has been evangelized by the agency's longtime creative guru, Lee Clow. The philosophy states that everything between a brand and an audience is media.

Two leaders have been appointed to oversee the Digital Arts Network. They are Charles Clapshaw, who will serve as its president, and David Lee, who will serve as the network's worldwide executive creative director. Both will report to Tom Carroll, president and CEO of TBWA Worldwide. Chief Operating Officer Emmanuel Andre has been a key architect behind the new model as well, so he will likely be heavily involved in the network's setup and marketing to clients.

The Digital Arts Network will be headquartered in New York, but to start it will have a footprint within TBWA offices in 19 markets, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, China, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, UAE, U.K. and the U.S.

Mr. Carroll told Ad Age that the formation of the Digital Arts Network was the culmination of intense conversations over the past couple of years about the right approach to digital advertising for TBWA. That entailed briefly weighing the purchase of a standalone shop (as some of its rivals have done in recent years, with JWT buying Digitaria and Lowe buying Huge), and debating whether it should pour more money into Agency.com.

"We could have either invested in Agency.com and built that around the network, or we could bet on TBWA being a digital provider," said Mr. Carroll. "We made a conscious decision to have digital integrated within the agency network, and we asked all our major offices to make sure they had digital capabilities on their own. We weren't going to bring in any outside solution. Eventually it was all going to be integrated."

So, is this TBWA's way of making a declaration that standalone digital shops are a thing of the past? Said Mr. Carroll: "I don't know if they are a thing of the past, but I can only judge based on what we're seeing in the market and what prospective clients are asking for. ... More and more [requests for proposals] and our clients are asking for integrated digital in our offerings." According to Mr. Carroll, seven of the last 10 RFPs TBWA has gotten from prospective clients have asked for integrated digital capabilities, and recent wins, such as work for Four Seasons and for Adidas, required that TBWA deliver both traditional and digital creative work.

"It's not like digital is some voodoo that people inside the agencies aren't familiar with."

That statement echoes the mantra of Mr. Carroll's boss, Omnicom Group's CEO John Wren. In contrast to adland's seemingly insatiable acquirers of big, pure-play digital agencies -- rivals Publicis Groupe, which owns Digitas, Razorfish and Rosetta, and WPP, which owns 24/7 Real Media and as of this week AKQA -- Mr. Wren has long touted his preference for digital capabilities being integrated into Omnicom's creative shops.

The risk is that many clients may not be truly ready to turn to shops that have historically been known for TV spots, print ads and out-of-home campaigns to now also handle web, social media and mobile needs.

"What we want to do for our clients is end-to-end solutions" and "have upstream strategic conversations but also go all the way down to delivery," said Mr. Lee, whose role is making sure that the agency's overall digital creative output is up to snuff. TBWA is hoping that increasingly, clients will be willing to turn to them, as opposed to the standalone digital shops of the world. "We're in an interesting time where we've made our bet on integration," Mr. Lee said, "but if the clients aren't matched up on their side, we will be hit with a wall of siloed organizations and siloed thinking."

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