Exec balances agency's two cultures as he tries to expand New York base
Robert leplae could have been a tightrope walker.
Ever since he joined TBWA/Chiat/Day six years ago, he's managed to steady the agency through difficult challenges, holding onto what has become the network's biggest client, Nissan, and diversifying the client base of its flagship Southern California agency. He's also balancing TBWA's two cultural trajectories: the creative genius of TBWA Worldwide Chairman-Chief Creative Officer Lee Clow, and the "Disruption" strategy of TBWA Worldwide President-CEO Jean Marie Dru.
Along the way, he's disrupted some other Omnicom shops, landing some work for Budweiser from DDB, and from sibling BBDO Worldwide, a $20 million Pepsi iTunes assignment. Just last week it nabbed BBDO's $340 million Visa USAaccount.
Now, Mr. LePlae, 45, recently promoted to president of TBWA North America, has been tasked with running an operation of 1,000 employees and billings of about $2.4 billion. That encompasses not only the Playa del Rey, Calif., and San Francisco offices of the agency, but Tequila, the promotion, interactive and direct shop already in California he will be trying to establish in New York.
The Big Apple been a tough market to crack for TBWA, which opened there 25 years ago and has created acclaimed Absolut work but has struggled in recent years with turnover. It's only recently begun to show signs of moving forward by winning some Mars assignments and a shootout with Publicis & Hal Riney for the $300 million launch of the merged Sprint/Nextel brand.
"New York has been a challenge since Jay Chiat moved there," said Mr. Clow. "No way can you be a great agency if you're not great in New York," said Mr. Dru.
Insiders believe LePlae is up to the task. "He knows how to build a TBWA office," said Tom Carroll, TBWA vice chairman. "And he has really good horse sense."
He used that sense to become something of TBWA's Mr. Fix-it since he was hired from Rubin Postaer & Associates, now RPA, where he worked on Honda and other accounts. When TBWA/Chiat/Day's "Life's a journey. Enjoy the ride" branding campaign won at ad shows but failed to register sales, Nissan President-CEO Carlos Ghosn consolidated advertising between TBWA and Hakuhodo. Mr. LePlae then moved to Tokyo to found G1 Worldwide, a joint venture between the two shops and participated in one of the biggest automotive turnarounds in recent history.
"He never lost sight of Nissan," said Jan Thompson, VP-marketing, Nissan North America, while he "has taken TBWA to a new level."
During Mr. LePlae's tenure as head of the Playa del Rey, Calif., office, the agency shut the revolving door where big accounts sputtered in and out. Mr. Dru's disruption and connections planning strategies were implemented, and the complexion of the agency's roster changed with the addition of package-goods businesses, including Mars' $125 million global Pedigree account, and $60 million in business from Sara Lee.
Mr. LePlae also helped solve another TBWA/Chiat/Day headache: the San Francisco office, a pet project of Mr. Clow's but one struggling with one-two punch of the loss of founding client Levi Strauss and then the dot-com bust. Today, the shop is anchored by the global Adidas business and other clients such as Panera bread. But it also has retained its creative chops: It holds six Cannes lions for Adidas.
In a shop with a reputation for tumultuous relationships between creative and account management, Mr. LePlae is credited with "maturing" the Southern California agency operating under a pirate flag. "It was out of whack and balance on the creative vs. the management side of the agency," said Mr. Clow. "He's very thorough and thoughtful, a smart leader who gives everyone a sense of confidence in the judgment of management."
Known as a coach and team-builder, Mr. LePlae puts his ego aside and focuses on business objectives, said Rob Schwartz, executive creative director who likes to joke about Mr. LePlae's Belgian heritage as being "like the French but not as romantic." Nevertheless, he thinks Mr. LePlae even has a "good shot" at Mr. Dru's job one day. "He wants to be the commandant of the pirate fleet," said Mr. Schwartz tipping his hat to a Jay Chiat line. "In a Sarbanes-Oxley world, he's a prototype CEO."