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Andrew Scott on rebuilding Whybin\TBWA

Last year, Andrew Scott took over the chief executive chair of an agency that was enduring one of its most unstable patches in recent memory. And now nine months into his gig, he's celebrated his first major account win and he thinks there might be a few more to come. We talk to him about what he's done to steady the ship.

By Damien Venuto | July 26, 2016 | features

Whybin\TBWA chief executive Andrew Scott says there are two types of executives in adland.

“You can either be a builder or someone who stands sentry duty,” he quips as we sit down for what turns into a long chat.

He says that of the two, standing sentry duty—or inheriting a big, strong-performing agency—scares him far more.   

“There’s only one way you can go and that’s down,” he says.  

“When you go into a shop that has every piece of business across every category, you have to wonder what comes next. You could maybe grow different divisions, but often you’ll start losing accounts. You see this in agencies all the time. They build up and they go down.”

Scott jokes that standing sentry duty over a big agency that has everything would drive him mad, saying that he prefers to build things from the ground up. And by this measure, he found himself a long way from insanity when he moved across from Melbourne to the Auckland office last year.

He admits he knew that he had a challenge on his hands shortly after arriving.

NBR wrote about five articles about our financial performance in the first few weeks of my arrival,” he says.

“It just so happens that the shit fell on my lap, but I enjoy it.”

Scott admits TBWA has gone through a tough few years, particularly 2013 when it lost the 2degrees account and 2014 when Mercury Energy went across to FCB.

“We didn’t have a good 2014,” Scott says, “and unfortunately, for Toby [Talbot] and Todd [McCleay], managing through those times was tough.”

Both Talbot and McLeay have since left the agency, joining an exodus that has since 2013 also included Andy Blood, Steve Kane and Dave King.

Suffice to say TBWA was in need of a steady executive hand to steer it through this uncertain patch—which is exactly why Scott (right) and executive creative director Christy Peacock were brought into the agency in October last year.

“Christy and I came in to settle the business down, understand what our strengths are and work out what we wanted to be to future-proof ourselves as an agency.”

Scott says this has necessitated an entire rethink of how the agency operates in a bid to make it more complicit with the needs of modern clients.

Removing the lines

He says one of the priorities was ripping down the siloes the teams across the business had previously been separated into.

“We have Whybin, which is brand communications; we have Dan, which is our digital specialist; we have Eleven, which are social content specialists; and then we have Integer, which is shopper-marketing,” Scott explains.

“So, for me, it’s about getting groups of people around the table to allow for an open briefing … We’ve also integrated social into all the teams, which previously sat on the outskirts as a part of PR. With that, you get all the tools at the table.”

Ripping down siloes invariably leads to staff cuts as duplicated roles are laid bare, and Scott says there were a few personnel changes along the way. 

“When you change direction, you have to let certain people go, because they don’t fit with where you want to end up. It’s not easy.”

He says this transition was felt most among back office and administration staff, but also resulted in a reduction of account staff, leading to the agency reducing to around 120 staff across all departments. 

“We’ve reduced in size from our prime year, which was probably 2012,” he says.

“In account service, we’ve shrunk. We now have 14 in account services. It was probably 18 before.”

While this does come off the back of a few tough years for the agency, Scott says the changes have, in part, been driven by a change in the way the account team works alongside strategists and creative.  

“In the past, the account service person would go to the meeting, get the brief, come back, brief the strategist, who would then work with the creative,” he says.

“What you have now is that Christy goes to virtually every brief, so does the key planner and the account services person. Then you do an open brief. Christy will see it from a creative point of view, who sees it differently from the strategist and everyone else. Once you bring all those together, things become more nimble and faster.”

Introducing the makers

Alongside reducing the size of the team, Scott has also changed the way staff operates.

Scott says that as part of the shift, Whybin introduced what he calls ‘makers’.

“Makers are primarily creatives, but that could also include social strategists and the shopper team,” he says.

“The makers don’t necessarily need to know how to make TV ads. They might be coming up with products. They might be coming with an April Fools’ prank. It’s about things that will resonate with consumers.”

While this might seem a largely insignificant semantic change, Scott makes the point that creative possibility has expanded massively from the core disciplines of art direction or copywriting. Creatives are no longer just developing ads; one moment they might conceptualise an app, the next they could create an experiential stunt and, along the way, there might also be a bit of traditional campaign work thrown into the mix.

To further accommodate this kind of thinking, Scott has started recruiting beyond adland.

“I’ll interview anyone, because you never know where someone might fit. Even if they don’t fit now, something might change that could create a gap for them.”

He points to a recent hire as an example. 

“One of our young guys came from MediaWorks and I don’t even know what division he came from. But he came in here and he has a completely different view. It’s fantastic.”

What the hell is D-Live?

Scott says the aim underpinning the recalibration of the business is to put the Disruption Live (D-Live) philosophy at the centre of everything the agency does.

D-Live raised quite a few eyebrows around the industry when it was first mentioned in a TBWA release, with some saying it amounted to nothing more than another piece of industry jargon. However, Scott says this isn’t the case.

“D-Live is about hacking and finding cultural trends that are relevant in the market,” he says.

He walks me through the agency, points out a series of television screens tuned into various news programmes and says the team is constantly encouraged to keep an eye on world events and think about how different brands might be able to tap into these moments in meaningful ways.

Scott attributes TBWA’s recent win of the Independent Liquor account to the D-Live approach, saying that each of the ideas put forward involved some element of culture hacking.

He says many of the ideas came out of a session hosted the day before the actual pitch, and that the client was drawn to the responsiveness of the thinking.  

“Something might just start with a social post, but it can get bigger and bigger and bigger,” he says.

“It’s not about getting a brief that goes to the strategist, who then spends two weeks on it before handing it over to creative, who then spends four weeks on it, before getting it back to the client. It’s about being nimble and flexible.”

Scott says a particularly good example of D-Live in action would be the #equalfuture campaign, which ANZ launched in partnership with Oscar-winning director Jane Campion (the timing of the campaign was so topical that Julia Guillard, the first female prime minister of Australia, agreed to speak at the launch event).

  

Scott also points further afield to TBWA’s New York office, which has been running D-Live for far longer than the other offices.  

“The New York office has done very well, winning a number of pitches along the way.”

Pitch drought

The topic of pitches is one that emerges numerous times during our discussion. It is often used by Scott as a measure of success as he recounts key periods of his career.

Whether he’s talking about his time at Saatch & Saatchi or across at TBWA Melbourne, he consistently drops references to winning this pitch or winning that pitch.

Locally, he has also started off well, winning the Independent Liquor account as well as the strategic business for Manuka Health, a company that competes with Comvita and has plans to go global.

But this isn’t enough for Scott.

“I’m really impatient, and I would’ve loved to have said that we’re sitting here eight months later having won four sets of business,” he says.

The problem, he says, is that there aren’t really all that many pitches floating around these days. 

“As far as I can pick up, there are 11 substantial pieces of business that have moved in the last nine months. There are probably two or three big ones, a few medium sized and the rest are small. It takes time in this market. People are very loyal.”

Scott says TBWA is currently involved in two additional pitches, but wouldn’t divulge any further details.   

“Loose lips sink ships,” he says with a grin, before a knock on a door interrupts our chat.

It’s a team member requesting his assistance with something. Scott stands up, apologises and says he needs to get back to work. It’s a somewhat abrupt end to what was a long conversation. But it seems fitting, given that Scott still has a lot of building left to do. 

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