TBWA still hasn't answered the question posed by its founding father, Jay Chiat, who famously wondered how big the agency could get before it got bad.
|Illustration: Robin Eley|
The shop poured on about a billion dollars in billings in 2008, winning major marketing accounts for such storied brands as Pepsi, Gatorade and Visa, and grew revenue 4% globally and 3% in the U.S., numbers that likely will see Tom Carroll's shop climb the Ad Age tables from its current position as the 10th-largest agency in the U.S. Yet, unlike many of the agencies it now rivals in size, TBWA still appears to breed creativity rather than killing it in the quest for scale.
Its campaigns for Apple are arguably the best body of work for a single client, with ads that always know when to get out of the way of the product. And the agency's Starburst and Skittles campaigns are as fresh, funny, twisted and effective as anything in the package-goods field.
Just as important, TBWA's offering has evolved beyond just advertising, as many think of it, to influence its clients' products and corporate cultures. For instance, TBWA's global media-arts director, Lee Clow, is credited with the idea for Apple's Genius Bars.
Mr. Clow and his colleagues also had a big influence on Mars' Pedigree pet foods, turning the company from a dog-food manufacturer into what Mr. Clow called "a company that loves dogs and believes that every dog should be well-fed and have a good home."
"When we look at an agency, the most important thing is the quality of its work," said Mars President Bob Gamgort. "Does it improve brand equity, purchase intent, and ultimately grow the business? The answer across the board with TBWA is yes, which is why we keep giving them more work. But in the case of many situations they've gone beyond that, and Pedigree is a great example of that."
Pedigree moved to a new building so it could have dogs in its offices and reworked its recipes and production processes to focus on quality. And the agency came up with an adoption drive designed to raise money for shelters around the country through donations and sales of Pedigree products. Pedigree sales hit their highest points during the drive, and while precise details were unavailable, the agency credited the program with boosting sales by a "double-digit" percentage, and the client verified that margin.
TBWA is trying to work similar magic for new client Gatorade, a brand that still dominates its category but is watching rivals take bigger bites out of its market share. The agency is trying to broaden its perspective from a narrow focus on athletes to one that sees anyone who is active as a potential buyer.
TBWA started its work on the brand with a packaging and point-of-sale makeover. The new-look bottles feature a big, bold G more prominently than the word "Gatorade" and sports phrases that capture athletes' emotions -- "Shine on" and "Bring it" -- more prominently than flavors. "We wanted to get them away from thinking about flavor and toward having a point of view," aid Rob Schwartz, executive creative director at Chiat, Los Angeles.
TBWA's ability to persuade clients such as Mars and PepsiCo (owner of Gatorade) to let it take such a wide-ranging approach owes much to "Disruption," a convention-challenging philosophy outlined in the book of that name by TBWA Chairman Jean-Marie Dru and adopted by the agency as a way of working.
Disruption Days -- designed to get clients to redefine, in TBWA's parlance, "how they operate, what they offer and how they communicate" -- get everybody onboard to implement the changes. The agency has performed more than 500 Disruption Days, and often the disrupted end up pushing for more-challenging or more-creative solutions rather than deviating back to the norm, said Carisa Bianchi, president of TBWA/Chiat/Day, Los Angeles. "We actually get clients asking us if they're being disruptive enough," she said.
'Not an ad agency'
The agency has married "Disruption" with Mr. Clow's "media arts" thinking, the creative legend's way of driving home the need for everyone in the TBWA network to look at any connection between the brand and the consumer as their business. "We're not an ad agency, and I don't want to be an ad agency," Mr. Clow said. "We're a media-arts company that expresses brands through many forms. It shouldn't be one company does ads, another does PR and another does packaging or architecture."
The shop has built teams around clients, rather than around its own discipline-based departments. And there's no insistence that each team or even agency unit has to look like the others. Being a looser federation than other networks has also allowed TBWA to add agencies such as 180 to the network and spin off shops, such as Chuck McBride's Cutwater, that enable creative talents to take some control over their own destiny, rather than feel like they're just part of a huge agency network.
"Jay [Chiat] had this desire to keep proving himself, to keep growing," Mr. Clow said. "My mission was to make sure that however big Jay made this thing, the work would still be good. I have that same responsibility today."