TBWA\London's smooth new path to disruption
The network is intent on disruption, yet TBWA\London’s management team is well engineered to take the UK agency to new levels
31 January 2023
Led by chief executive Larissa Vince, TBWA\London's leadership quartet hums with energy around a meeting room at the agency in London's Bankside, right next door to Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.
The latest arrival at the agency is Melody Sylvester, the award-winning producer, who took the role of chief production officer in November after occupying a similar post at House 337 (formerly Engine).
Her appointment follows that of Sandie Dilger, who joined as chief strategy officer from Ogilvy earlier in 2022. Andy Jex, the chief creative officer since 2017, has previously worked with Vince at Saatchi & Saatchi, and Sylvester at Mother.
Vince took the reins at TBWA\London early in September 2021 after two years leading independent agency Now. It seems notable that, in assembling the senior team, she has moved to place such an experienced and talented production person, in the shape of Sylvester, at the top table. An indication that craft and production will stand at the heart of everything the agency does, rather than sit to one side as a satellite department.
Sylvester says she was attracted to the agency by the energy displayed by Vince and Jex, and the positive dynamic between them. The strength of the TBWA brand (it's the current AdAge and Adweek Network of the Year), and its relatively small size (110 people in London) which affords a "collaborative intimacy", were also positive factors in her decision.
She's passionate about emerging talent, and intends to put this into practice at TBWA\London, alongside an emphasis on "making". Sylvester argues that working so closely alongside Jex "gives a message to everyone and makes it easier to do it" as the agency moves to bring producers into closer proximity to designers and creatives.
Sylvester adds that it was production people "who kept the lights on" for advertising during the pandemic: "I've always advocated for us [in production] to be further up the chain, and we got there and we're not going to give that back. Lots of agencies, and heads of production, feel the same way but Andy and Larissa said 'we're not just going to talk about it, we're going to do it.' A seat at the leadership table is really important."
There were similar attractions to the agency for Dilger, who says that she feels "really close to the work, ideas and the clients" at TBWA\London. "The Disruption Company" focus was also a big lure: "The opportunity to come in and make that mean something for today felt really interesting."
Dilger says the team is fortunate to work with an agency brand that "means something", that they don't have to scratch around looking for a point of difference, or a line to describe what they stand for. How exactly does "disruption" work for clients, though? Jex says that it's a "serious process that involves a dance between strategy and creative to get to disruptive thinking."
Vince adds: "There are associations of chaos. But from a strategic point of view, it's about finding white space for growth for clients. Also, it's built on a proven belief that if you do the same thing as everyone else in your category you're unlikely to achieve transformational growth."
Now well-established at the agency, Jex admits that he took the chief creative role because "I knew it was a job that loads of people didn't want. It was a challenge, and I love working on a brand that needs a fucking kick up the arse."
Jex summons memories of the "golden era" of TBWA\London, back in the early 2000s, when he was looking for a start in advertising and it was "Trevor Beattie's agency". Creating award-winning campaigns that were also talked about down the pub, for brands including John Smith's and Sony PlayStation, it was the agency at which Jex most wanted to work. Yet he wasn't able to land a placement.
Now, Jex says, he's optimistic that TBWA\London can once again approach this kind of renown: "It doesn't have to go to the same place, but emotionally it can be that great again," he adds.
There was evidence in 2022 that TBWA\London has started on this journey. Creative highlights included launching the Nissan ARIYA through an "Electrified Art" Metaverse experience, eye-catching work for McVitie's, a Twitter campaign for Ovarian Cancer Action, and reinventing the mechanics of the football kit launch with a campaign for adidas that gave Generation Z audiences ownership to discover new World Cup kits.
In a more traditional vein, the agency's out-of-home activity for pasty brand Ginsters was beautifully crafted.
The agency is growing its relationship with adidas, and new business momentum is also building after the agency's design team won a pitch to refresh Marie Curie.
TBWA\London now faces the challenge of innovating within its own business to fuel growth while, as Vince puts it, "remembering that culture and creativity are the most important things to the agency."
She adds: "This isn't about us wanting to be 500 people in five years' time, because we don't. We want to have fantastic work, and build an innovative agency model that's fit for what clients need now."
TBWA\London will continue to focus on its status as a "centre of creative excellence" within the TBWA network thanks to the supportive nature of its parent, and because other agencies in the "collective" provide different areas of focus that London can tap into when needed for clients. Singapore, for instance, as a tech and data hub, Mexico for efficient production, Helsinki for innovation. "That's a proper use of a network, rather than everyone does everything in every country," argues Jex, who praises TBWA's collaborative culture and spirit.
This emphasis on creative excellence also helps attract the best talent and leads to better work for clients, argues Vince: "If you're an agency, and 70 per cent of your work is in the mid-to-lower funnel, you have to face the fact that most of your talent wants to work in the top bit. So, it's a talent challenge - the more you broaden yourself out, the more it becomes difficult."
Not that TBWA/London confines its strategic and creative thinking too narrowly.
Dilger and Sylvester each talk about production innovation feeding into strategic thinking, the importance of breaking conventions, and exploring new ways for brands "to show up" in a category.
Vince adds: "When we talk about creativity here we absolutely talk about big ideas that transform brands and businesses. But that might work internally or externally, it's not a TV ad. The point is that the idea needs to stretch."
There's no doubt that the agency's team is focused on delivering this transformative spirit for its clients. But a key part of the mission, according to Dilger, is also to ensure that this "starts at home". Given the connection and positive spirit between the four of them, there's every chance that TBWA\London is set on a smooth path to disruption.