Troy Ruhanen was appointed to his new role as president and CEO of TBWA Worldwide in July 2014. Formerly an Omnicom executive and an ad man through and through, his leadership will surely create a resounding buzz throughout the industry. The first item on Ruhanen’s agenda is to revitalize the company’s core mantra, Disruption, defined as “the art of asking better questions, challenging conventional wisdom and overturning assumptions and prejudices that get in the way of imagining new possibilities and visionary ideas.” Communicate had an opportunity to chat with Ruhanen during his first visit as CEO to Dubai’s TBWA\RAAD office to get his unique perspective on the industry and the region.
Since you’ve come on board as president of TBWA in July 2014, what have been your observations about the agency so far?
I genuinely feel like I’ve landed in the kind of culture I want to be in. I’m a product guy, ultimately; I really care about the creative and about the work that we do and the amount of innovation that we have. I have a strong point of view that we need to be more aggressive on the product front; we need to be more proactive and we need to lead the conversation much more. That way, we will be able to control our destiny much better than some of the agencies, [who] have gotten into a reactive mode and, therefore, could potentially be commoditized. I have no interest in being that. It was really important to come to a place with a point of view.
A lot of people are lacking a point of view and are more into distillation rather than inspiration. Disruption allows you to do that, because you’re really pulling things apart. There will always be conventions in marketing and in advertising and so the opportunity is to look at those conventions, pull them apart and find new space to grow.
What is the definition of Disruption in 2015?
The context that we’re putting it in has evolved; the way in which it used to occur [was with] disruption days. You’d have your big workshop, vision sessions. Today, you have to be a disruption company everyday and that’s what we’ve been working on as a practice – how to bring disruption out of workshops into the everyday practice of the company and how to use knowledge on an everyday basis to be disruptive.
Today, due to technology and social media, work is completely disrupted all the time. How do you disrupt something that is constantly being uprooted?
I think that if you really look [at advertising], there are a host of conventions happening on a daily basis. If I said to you, think of hair advertising, you’re instantly thinking about hair-drop shots, or if you think of car advertising, you think of cars driving on a road.
It’s a fantastic time, from a creative standpoint and an execution standpoint, to go be disruptive everyday. But strategically, [disruption] is timeless. Marketers tend to gravitate to safer places; they tend to replicate a lot of what’s been done before.
Agencies sometimes complain that clients do not allow them to be as creative – or disruptive – as they could. Is there any truth to this?
I don’t hide behind the client. We’re in a partnership together trying to solve problems for each other. The truth is that we do thousands of pieces of advertising and it’s not that easy to be great. But you have to have the aspiration to be, because that will get you to the best places in terms of the ideas. When you claim to be a disruption com- pany – which we do – it grounds you in the reality that you’ve always got to innovate and improve because if you are going to be disruptive, then it’s about finding the new. It’s a restless culture at its best and that’s what you become.
Today, agencies are undergoing an identity crisis: media agencies are doing creative work, creative agencies are forced into media. Is TBWA still a creative agency?
We create great content; it just comes in many different forms these days. We are a creative agency because we believe in the product and we believe great creative drives results. The thing about us is that we don’t have a problem understanding who we are. When agencies are at their worst, that is when they start to ask: “What’s my new vision? What’s my new purpose? What’s my new identity?” And they’re spending an inordinate amount of time on themselves and not on their client.
I know who we are and because I know who we are, I can spend more time on my clients. What I have to do is work on turning Disruption into an everyday practice; not just a visionary standpoint. That’s what we’re doing to evolve ourselves and that will benefit our clients tremendously. It’s not a naval gazing exercise, we know what we’re about, we’re focusing on that and we’re actually very proud of it. I see us not as an agency, but as a disruption company.
What is your opinion of a crisis – like that of 2008-2009 – hitting the industry again?
During a crisis, there’s opportunity. I’m not thinking about the crisis but about what product I have, what talent I have, what knowledge I have and being the best possible agency regardless of whatever time we’re in. Because I’m going to be as valuable in a crisis to a client as during a boom time. In fact, I will probably be more valuable because [the client] will be under extreme pressure and they are going to rely on their partnership more. We base our business on what we have rather than on hope; because that’s just not a strategy.
How does TBWA acquire and retain talent?
Talent is really hard; there are many more competitors. The war for talent is greater than it’s ever been. You have to go out there, secure your talent and build a culture that will reward that talent not just fiscally but [with] more knowledge and training. You have to be willing to make that investment. It’s the toughest time that I’ve experienced; people have gone into different
Some industry players say that one way to attract talent is through winning awards. Do you agree?
I like winning awards; I think it’s great because obviously it means that you’ve done great work. What I won’t do is game the system. I don’t like the way in which some people are gaming awards right now and having a whole database approach to it. I’d rather just focus on being envied. I’d rather do four or five great pieces of work that make people say “these guys are really good”. I don’t care if I finish fifth or first, what I care about is envy – that’s what I’d rather have.
How is global clients’ perception of the Middle East as a market evolving?
People talk about Dubai, Singapore and Shanghai as a triangle and that conversation wasn’t happening two years ago. It shows you the importance of the Middle East. People are very attached to Dubai as a center for great talent, but also to grow into Africa – not just North Africa. Clients are very eager for growth and they’re trying to find more stable economies to grow in.
The trick with Dubai is making sure we can get world-class talent to be here and not just have an expat transit community. The only way you can build that is by having an exceptionally strong culture and network from a really strong company that will help foster and grow careers internationally.
Regionally, the prospects are encouraging right now but I don’t think they’re understood by a lot of people. Changing this will require a bit of marketing effort from the area. The region’s bigger days are ahead of it.
How do you see the region faring from a creative perspective?
Social will be interesting to see from a creative standpoint because it will provide some interesting opportunities. The thing that is still lagging is simply old television. Bringing it back is not that easy to do, or else we’d all be doing it. You need some sort of core idea to [TV] advertising and there needs to be an execution element as well and on some levels the craft is missing on both ends. Design will [also] be a very interesting element. Look at [Dubai] architecturally; it’s fascinating, so it’s naturally coming into the environment and will reveal more over time.
Could the region become the next great place to be in advertising?
I don’t buy into the notion that the great ideas are always going to come from the UK, France, America or wherever else; in the end, it’s a matter of what talent can come up with.
I’m amazed about the amount of change and at the diversity of individuals [in Dubai]. It inevitably inspires many great ideas. It’s good to be here; I’m optimistic about [the region] and I love the energy. There are enough people in the world that admire the problem, so it’s good to be around people that are optimistic.