Agency A-List 2008

Tom Carroll: Account Guy Makes Good

The TBWA Worldwide Chief Is Ad Age's Executive of the Year

By Published on .

It's not an easy time to be a middle-age white guy in the ad business. What was once a comfy throne of privilege is now ... something diminished. Advertising's peaceable kingdom of account barons and creative lords has been stirred up by any number of forces and it is no longer the land of easy profit.

Tom Carroll
Illustration: Robin Eley

So it might come as a surprise that the person who best embodied the spirit of leadership in the agency business in 2008 is Tom Carroll. After all, there's no earthly reason why someone like Mr. Carroll should still be relevant. At 53, he's nearing the age when most executives are just trying to feather their retirement bed by not screwing up too badly. And, as an account guy in the oldest sense of the word -- boozy, schmoozy and suity -- who came of age in the 1980s and '90s, he could so easily stand as a graying symbol of what might go down as advertising's last halcyon period.

Not Tom.

In 2008, Mr. Carroll put down any doubt that this native son of working-class Schenectady, N.Y., is fit to run a relevant-as-it-gets global network, let alone one with a significant chunk of DNA coming from France. You'll see if you read the surrounding articles that TBWA is our global agency of the year, so named because of its uncommon success in marrying global scale with tremendous creativity. Jean-Marie Dru, his predecessor as chief executive of the network, had this to say: "We have spent 10 years designing a great instrument. Now with Tom, we have a wonderful musician to play it."

But being good at your (highly-paid) job is just fulfilling a baseline requirement. What really set Tom apart last year was his commitment to improving the ad business when so many of his peers were too afraid to do so. Many thought Tom crazy for taking on the post of chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, a much-maligned organization that traditionally has successfully lobbied on two issues: 1. against ad taxes and 2. for the kind of complacent view of the ad business you get after 18 holes and a few scotches.

Fired up
In a very brief time, Tom made that association mean something -- and he basically did it on his free time, probably on cocktail napkins. First, he shaped up the program of the annual conference, even using it as a soapbox to give a fiery speech sparking us at the time to describe him as "one of the few senior executives in advertising who visibly enjoys working in the business."

He also led the search for a new CEO. It ended up being Nancy Hill, who has already impressed many not only with her understanding of how the industry needs to improve but her willingness to talk about issues publicly. Just look at last week's Ad Age and you'll see she not only attended a press conference where damning evidence of pay inequality between blacks and whites was adduced but she actually acknowledged the problem. This sort of thing might not save the ad business, but at least it's a few steps in that general direction.

What makes this all the more interesting is that just four years ago it would have been easy to write Mr. Carroll off. In the summer of 2004, Mr. Carroll, then head of TBWA's operations on North, Central and South Americas, was sidelined, stuck with title of vice chairman and stripped of most of his operational duties. He was pushed aside, people say, in part because his inability to sort out TBWA's New York office woes. That was made crystal clear when Mr. Carroll's appointment to the job had to leave because, um, she went to jail for crimes committed at another agency.

He was left with global account-management responsibilities and running businesses like Adidas and Absolut isn't a bad gig. Especially when you consider Tom's rep for being a client handler, which as just about anyone will tell you is surpassed by few.

"He's told me when we've got it wrong, when we've overlooked something that he thinks is a big idea," said client Bob Gamgort, president of Mars. "But, unusually, the reverse has been true too. There have been times when we're in meetings and Tom's taking my side on something I don't think is a big idea. You should see the faces of his people when that happens. But the point is that it really drives his credibility that he takes the right side, no matter whose side that puts him on. He has his own internal compass."

Keeping creatives happy
But not only that, he is the rare suit who is good at relating to (or staying out of the way of) creatives. "To be close with accounts in his role though is rather obvious, but more importantly, he was always well respected by his agency people (at least the ones I was close with) as the motivator and enabler to do a great job for agency and accounts," wrote Ulrich Becker, global marketing head of Reebok International and former Adidas client, in an e-mail. "Not to forget, Tom is well respected by Lee Clow, which again helped me in my role."

It became rather clear pretty quickly that Tom wouldn't stay on the sidelines. By 2006 he was named TBWA's president and, in late 2007, he rose to CEO. How it's gone since then is pretty obvious from the surrounding articles, but if you ask Tom about his tenure, don't expect the kind of felicitous metaphor Mr. Dru used.

Said Jordan Zimmerman, a friend and head of Omnicom sibling Zimmerman Advertising, which reports up through TBWA: "If you ask him what his greatest accomplishment has been since becoming the CEO Worldwide, he will probably tell you he has learned how to say 'fuck' in 22 different languages. That's Tom."

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