What You Can Learn From Dru's 'Disruption' (Part 3)

Mark Tungate Reviews the TBWA Chief's Third Telling of His Theory

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Every agency needs a shtick to hit its clients with. Few agencies have wielded one as effectively as TBWA with its concept of "Disruption." In case you still haven't grasped the theory, TBWA Worldwide President-CEO Jean-Marie Dru has just released his third book on the subject, "How Disruption Brought Order: The Story of a Winning Strategy in the World of Advertising."

Disruption is about breaking the rules. It's about challenging conventions, turning them on their heads to unearth something entirely new. To wit, Dru explains how McDonald's took a quality-of-goods positioning in France; how SK Telecom promoted cell phones in South Korea by avoiding discussion of technology; and how a soup brand in Holland managed to hijack the nation's four o'clock tea ritual.

Despite its inciting nature and intention to drive change, the practice of Disruption in the decades following its origin has become rather timeless. While Dru's first book on the subject (in 1996) laid out the concept -- in short, an idea that bridges the gap between challenge and recreation -- and the second illustrated its effectiveness with case studies, this one tells a story. Here we learn how Disruption transformed TBWA from a loose confederation of shops into one of the world's most admired global networks.

In fact, the book is something of a vindication. One surprising nugget that emerges from its pages is how easily TBWA could have missed out on Disruption entirely. Dru conceived of the idea at his old French agency, BDDP, which TBWA bought three years after the group had absorbed Chiat/Day in Los Angeles. The result, as Dru explains, was "an impressive group of talented people," including Lee Clow in Los Angeles, John Hunt in Johannesburg and Trevor Beattie in London. But the network sought "a catalyst, something for these talents to rally round and bring us inexorably together."

Dru offered Disruption -- and it was rejected: "The method and its underlying culture were too closely linked to one of the agencies that had been absorbed. The buyer rarely embraces the culture of the acquired," he observes. Unwilling to force the idea on people, Dru expected it to wither away. That was until John Hunt, of TBWA's South Africa office, began staging Disruption Days for clients. As news of the success and popularity of these brainstorming sessions spread around the agency, the TBWA board finally bought in.

Eager to share the secrets of the network's success, Dru guides us through a typical Disruption Day, replete with warm-up exercises, conventions to identify, role-playing games and the like. It all sounds pretty innocuous for a strategy that has helped brands like Nissan, Absolut, Nivea and Pedigree redefine themselves; with a closer look, though, it's easy to spot the innovative strategy behind the fun. "For an hour or two, [participants] become Richard Branson or Steve Jobs. They have to think like that person..." Pretending to be Steve Jobs for a while does sound like a good way to pass the time.

For readers who don't work in advertising, Dru is careful to put Disruption into context, with pithy chapters about the history of TBWA and an overview of creative advertising itself, as well as the emergence of digital media. A clear message of evolution persists; Disruption, too, has changed with the times.

More than anything, the book reminds us how much any organization can benefit from a clearly defined and universally-adopted company culture.

"Articulating a big and defining brand idea helps to change the way a company thinks of itself," Dru writes. He could be describing his own network.

Mark Tungate is the author of Adland: A Global History of Advertising.
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