For many 11-year-old companies, the loss of a highly respected, well-known CEO responsible for so much growth and corporate culture would trigger at least a few steps back. In 2008, TribalDDB, which last year became the first digital agency to win Ad Age's Global Agency Network of the Year award, suffered just such a loss and didn't lose any momentum.
|Illustration: Robin Eley|
Instead of spiraling into a leadership void when longtime CEO Matt Freeman departed in June, the Omnicom Group-owned digital network consolidated its reputation as the kind of agency that offers more than just online expertise. It added global accounts such as McAfee and SunPower, two companies for which Tribal will act as the lead agency, creating multimedia efforts in multiple markets. Those are dream accounts for elite digital agencies like Tribal, allowing them to strut their stuff as brand strategists in the broadest sense and perform in a variety of media, both online and offline. Of course, it helps that Tribal has already demonstrated it can operate at this level, most notably with a TV spot for Deutsche Telekom that its top marketer called "the most successful commercial in the history of the company in every respect." Not bad for an agency that got its start designing websites and banner ads for clients of the famed traditional agency DDB.
That spot for the telecom giant was prime evidence of how a marketer can benefit from getting its most important marketing communications from an agency with a digital background. The spot was a highly emotional effort that showed people responding to an average schlub belting out an aria on "Britain's Got Talent" on any number of wireless devices. The sight of all these averages joes -- and Simon Cowell -- getting misty-eyed over the operatic effort picked up tons of PR and led to more than 500,000 hits on YouTube. By its fourth week on the air, spontaneous brand awareness passed the 71% mark, said Hans-Christian Schwingen, senior VP-brand strategy and marketing communications. "The commercial boosted the relevant image factors -- competence, innovation and simplicity -- more effectively than previous campaigns."
While he doesn't call Tribal his lead agency, Mr. Schwingen describes it as a "multichannel agency" rather than a purely digital one. In fact, Tribal's German office is full service (as is its newly formed Prague office, which acts as a media-neutral coordinator for other partner agencies and clients). In addition to communications work, Tribal DDB does technology consulting and implementation for Deutsche Telekom, as well as process consulting and management. "We need service partners who can handle the complexity of communication tasks in a networked world," Mr. Schwingen said.
One person who does regard Tribal as a lead agency is Brad Davis, chief marketing officer of solar-power company SunPower, which selected Tribal after a search for a "network powerhouse" that also led to it examine general-market agencies. After a long hunt, Tribal won out and is working on a major multimedia push that will come next year as SunPower tries to take advantage of increased consumer and business interest in alternative energies. Mr. Davis didn't give up much about what Tribal is working on but did say the agency is overhauling SunPower's website, working on online creative and mass marketing.
Tribal Worldwide CEO Paul Gunning said knowing how to listen to consumers online and seeing how brands are perceived there is increasingly useful in the shaping of messages for ads in broadcast and in print -- not to mention in understanding traditional ads' effectiveness. "We use our digital knowledge to track what consumers are doing and then use that to affect other kinds of decision making, like copy points in offline ads," he said. One unsexy example he cited was a redesign of Pepsi's corporate website with a predictive search capability that will not only help customers find the information they're looking for more quickly but also kick back data to Pepsi on the language being used in search.
Mr. Gunning, a longtime Tribal executive, was handed the global job upon Mr. Freeman's departure. Also bumped up was Liz Ross, who ran Tribal DDB's West region and now wears two hats as president of its U.S. operations and global CMO. While Mr. Freeman's abrupt departure indicated to many tension between Tribal and the DDB mothership, the team of insiders showed it wouldn't miss a beat, with a strong new-business performance that netted major pieces of business from Novartis, Unilever, Hasbro, Johnson & Johnson, Wrigley and others.
The new team inherited a booming business that had already done much to grow a global footprint that had sprung from DDB's sprawling network and clutch of multinational clients. That footprint continued to grow in 2008 with the openings of 10 new offices, including one in Moscow. This year promises to put a few more dots on the map, Mr. Gunning said, with multiple openings planned for Latin America. The task ahead for the network, which grew about 20% globally in 2008, is to get these new outposts off the ground and build out operations in fast-growing markets.