Walden begins hunt for successor, but he’ll ‘be around for a few Christmas parties yet’

When David Walden left the relative safety of the multinationals to set up the Auckland office of WhybinTBWA back in 1997, there were more than a few doubters predicting its swift demise (see the NZ Marketing profile by Vincent Heeringa republished below) or claiming it would simply be a postbox for the international network. Those doubters were wrong, of course, and the agency has become firmly ensconced in the upper echelons. But he’s not going to be around forever, and Walden, one of the most enigmatic characters in the ad industry, is making preparations to hand over the reins. 

Walden, now in his early 60s, has sold all of his 16,804 shares in TBWA back to Omnicom (“I’m not bloody telling anyone what the figure was,” he says) and while an NBR story pegged it as the departure of Devo, he says it’s simply a prudent move to ensure a smooth succession. 

Photo: Paul Statham

“It’s simple. When you get to this stage you’ve got to take steps to ensure an orderly transition,” he says. ”But I’ll still be round for a while.”

The ad industry doesn’t cover itself in glory when it comes to such transitions, he says, but he sees the departure of Roger MacDonnell from Colenso BBDO and the handover to Brent Smart and more recently Nick Garrett as a good example of a well-planned, and pretty well-managed exit strategy. 

Being part of a global network means selling shares can often take longer than expected, he says, so as well as wanting to get some equity out of the company to focus on a few other investments, he says removing any financial interest he has in the company means he can pass the torch immediately when the right replacement is found. And, as far as timing goes, the agency seems to be in good health at present, with the loss of ASB well and truly accounted for in the form of ANZ and Tourism New Zealand (as a global company of a certain size operating in New Zealand it needs to file financial returns, and in the latest return submitted to the Companies Office that covered the period up until the end of 2010, the TBWA Group finished up with $822,000 of total comprehensive income, up from $616,000 the year before). 

“What you don’t want is that [ownership issue]hanging around. If I sell some of my equity that frees me up for the succession plan so that when the time comes it’s not pie in the sky, or a case of ‘it will happen when I sell my shares.'”

As for who the replacement might be and when they might arrive, he and Scott Whybin are looking seriously at a replacement and there are some plans in place. So Walden says he hopes to have someone in by the end of 2013—and hopefully earlier—who can take over part of his role. But, as he told his clients—and by extension, his competitors—while he may have sold his shares and while a protege is on the horizon, he’s “certainly not going to disappear”. 

“It’s a process and it’s the prudent thing to do. We’ve got to refresh the business.” 

And the restaurant trade will be relieved, because he says he certainly has no plans of retiring from lunching. 

On Walden’s Pond

When David Walden opened WhybinTBWA in 1997, Vincent Heeringa wrote an article predicting its swift demise. At the time, the big man joked he’d sue unless he was taken out for lunch. Almost 14 years later, he’s at the helm of an agency group that employs around 100 people, works with the likes of ANZ, Tourism New Zealand, 2degrees and Nissan and had consolidated billings of more than $43 million in 2011. So Heeringa finally did the honourable thing and chowed down on some humble pie with one of the industry’s most lovable rogues for an interview that featured in the March/April 2012 edition of NZ Marketing.

Vincent Heeringa: I was wrong.

David Walden: Well, I’m pleased. We all have the right to be wrong. I tell you what, there were interesting predictions around the time because I remember when I resigned from what was in those days the FCB and Mojo Group, [Mojo’s] Graeme Wills said ‘mate, you’ll only ever be a postbox for a bit of international business, it’ll be a nightmare.’ And I said, ‘ah, come on Graeme, I think it’ll be better than that.’

And has it?

Walden circa late ’70s. 

One of the advantages of having a strong global network is that you get resources, but if you have a strong trans-Tasman link you get the best of both. When we pitched for Tourism New Zealand we presented as one agency with two doors, because they spend a lot of money in Australia so they need to have an agency that can really help them in that market. But they also need an agency that understands New Zealand.

Despite my pearls of wisdom, you took a big risk to launch a new agency. Why?

Walden and co. outside the offices of WhybinTBWA in late 1997. 

I’ve never been afraid to take on something. I guess I was forty at the time and I was earning good coin running Saatchi’s. I had school fees coming out my ears and mortgages and all of that stuff. But, you know, despite my taste for adventure, I also did a smart deal. It wasn’t me having to mortgage the house again, because I said the deal was, ‘TBWA, you pay me a lower salary and I’ll do this for you. Give me a budget that allows me to hire some people, and then after two years if we’re making money you can take out fifty-one percent.’

Great deal!

I wasn’t as brave as I could’ve been, but I think at least I did it. I had to prove to myself that I could.

Why? To yourself, or to your dad?

No, I don’t think it was to my dad. My dad was a baker. So I don’t think it was that. I’d come from agencies that had been very creative. But you never know how good you are, because someone else is running it.

Who did you hire?

I hired Andy Lish as my first creative director. And unfortunately we had to fire him about six months later. That was hard. When you work for a big multi-national and you have to fire somebody, you go: ‘Aw mate, look I’m sorry, it’s not personal, it’s just the fucking place, you know.’ When it’s your own place, you actually have to say, ‘Mate, you’re out of here.’

But you don’t have to do this any more. You can stop now.

The age thing is really funny, isn’t it, because people say to me: “Why do you still want to do it?” And if I’m really honest, I don’t have to, so the only reason is that [at 62]I’m still having fun.

And it’s creative, right?

If you’re not creative, you shouldn’t be in it. For those people who say ‘it’s just a business, it happens to be advertising,’ I say ‘bollocks’. Run a frickin’ rental car company in that case. If you want to be in publishing, you’re in publishing, it’s not just a job for you.

Why would you get out of bed in the morning?

Abso-fucking-lutely. Actually, if we hadn’t seen the whole digital thing happen I think I’d have gone. I think you’d get bored. 

What’s different about digital then?

I still learn new things every day. I think it’s a whole new kind of media and it’s keeping me interested because it’s quite fun and you don’t quite know how to do it. We just finished a new spot for 2degrees and the call to action at the end of it is to go to a Facebook page.

The reason I was critical when you first started was because I thought advertising as we know it was finished. Are you still in the advertising business?

We still make ads, but that’s not all we do. I mean, I think the advertising business is now too narrow. [Executive creative director] Andy Blood, when he starts, he goes, ‘Righto, we’ve got this problem, let’s get a really killer idea and the last thing we’re gonna do is write the TV ad.’ So you do everything else before you then get to a point of how you’d express that idea in a television commercial. Like Andy says: “Talky-talky don’t cook rice.” 

So the job of the ad agency hasn’t fundamentally changed?

Mate, you gotta sell shit. It ain’t creative unless it sells. I think I was lucky. In the seventies we were pretty self-indulgent, and the eighties were even better. But you can’t afford now to go: ‘Oh well’, shrug your shoulders, ‘that didn’t work, but never mind we’ll have another crack next year.’ Because you don’t get another crack next year. It has to work. 

Why’d you lose ASB?

I think there was a change of chief executive, there was a rule being run over all suppliers and there was a mood within a part of the organisation for change—and we were swept up in it. 

The rumour was that [former TBWA staffer turned ASB marketer]Deborah Simpson played a part.

I think that probably Deborah had an influence, but at the end of the day, the bank went through a process and decided they wanted to go somewhere else. 

And when you look at what they’ve done, do you think it’s an improvement?

I think that it’s really hard when you have the campaign that all others are measured against, and the one that has been seen by people as breaking a whole lot of boundaries in that area, to come up with a follow-up. It’s a really tough ask, so…


Yeah, it’s a no.

What would you do with Goldstein? I mean we were kind of sick of him.

Goldstein was on his way out, and we had a plan to move him on in a different way. 

Can you tell us about that?

No, I don’t want to talk about that, I’d rather talk about what we want to do with ANZ. 

Aww, c’mon …

Look, I think there are chapters. Some things are cyclical, like with awards. We had a great run with ASB and they’re still terrific. But you can’t fart against thunder. Sometimes things happen. 

What was the mood in the office when you lost ASB?

Oh, it was like a death in the family. It was just appalling. People sometimes talk about times that test you in your career, and having to take the agency in a room and say, ‘hey, our biggest client has decided to move on’ is tough.

Did you have to lose people as a result? Did the business shrink?

Luckily we had won 2degrees and some other business so we were able to redeploy some. But yeah, we had to lose people, and it hurts. This business has only two real levers: premises and people. Which is why the business pays pretty well—because there are some risks associated with it. It’s not a job for life.

Has 2degrees replaced ASB for you? 

In terms of profile it’s been good for us. But also, remember, ANZ’s terrific—and big. It’s a great bank, with good people there. So life moves on. When you’ve been around as long as I have, you know at times what goes around comes around.

Nissan is your orginal client, right?

Nissan was a global client and it had been a big client in Australia. It was a relationship which we formed with a guy called John Manley, who’s still the managing director today and still a great client and friend. When we started I was working out of a bedroom at home. So I needed to get some premises that would allow me to present the agency. I knew a film company that had gone into receivership and their premises were vacant. I did some dodgy signs, asked all of my friends and my wife to come and sit at desks and look as if they were staff. I even got people to walk up and down outside, so there were people moving around. He felt we were much more substantial than we really were. But you know, you’ve got to do that, this is a confidence business. The reason that I took the Public Trust building was that I wanted to imbue the fledgling agency with a veneer of stability and solidity. You know, if you look like a bank, people might think you’re there to stay. 

How long have you been there?

Since 1998. We started off with one floor, then we took half of another floor. Then we took the fourth floor, then we took the ground floor, and now we’ve taken the basement, and we’re just refurbishing the roof, so we’ve got the lot now. You’ve got to keep working at it every day. And you have to just keep going. 

Okay, meals are coming. Oh look, here’s my humble pie. It’s time for highlights and low lights. 

Highlights, that’s easy. Winning new business. ASB, Sovereign, 2degrees, ANZ, Tourism New Zealand. It’s always great to win; winning two Grand Prix at Cannes a couple of years ago for ASB/Pago and Adidas; winning the Best Place to Work  for companies with less than 100 people a few years ago; winning Agency of the year very early on.; being ‘People’s Choice’ in AdMedia for something like 34 months out of 36 for Goldstein; buying Shift and seeing the agency get a huge injection of digital thinking and expertise; assembling a pretty impressive management team like Andy Blood, Jean Arlove—the best bean counter in the business and now head of operations—Ross Howard and Geoff Deveraux, creative director and managing director of our digital agency Tequila, Che Tamahori and Mark Zeman at Shift, and Kelly Bennett, managing partner of our PR arm Eleven. When you accumulate that talent under one roof, my job becomes even more enjoyable. 

Ahem, the low lights?

Losing ASB. It was a real kick in the guts. And I guess the other would be the death of Squeeze (Paul Jeffreys), who we had enticed back into the business after his absence following his exit from M&C Saatchi. Squeeze was a great mate and his loss was deeply felt by everyone. Interestingly, I think it reinforced the ‘family’ feel our place has in a very real manner, so I guess some good comes out of every unfortunate situation.

But shit, this isn’t an exit interview is it? Let’s eat. I’ve still got work to do today.  

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