ASB’s departure leads to digital comings, creative goings and a new focus for TBWA\

The big news in agency land recently has been the large ASB related cloud hovering in the TBWA\ atmosphere. And it’s just experienced some more inclement weather after its creative director Guy Roberts and his creative partner Corey Chalmers decided to up sticks and head across to Droga5. But as TBWA chief executive Dave Walden says in his inimitable style: “You’ve got to look at the silver lining in every fucking cloud”. And the silver lining on this one is the promotion of digital guru Ross Howard to creative director of Tequila\ as part of an explicit decision to up the agency’s digital ante.

Roberts spent eight years with TBWA\, winning plenty of awards along the way, and Chalmers was there alongside him for four years. And while Walden and Blood are obviously disappointed at the pair’s departure, they both agree that spending that long in one agency is almost unheard of.

“They’ve been tapped on the shoulder and you can’t stand in their way,” Walden says. But while it could be seen as a case of rubbing a bit more salt into a fairly fresh wound, it also seems strange for ASB to go through the pitch process, decide to shift agencies and then have the same creative team implementing all that fresh ‘new thinking’.

No-one from TBWA is saying anything about the whole weird situation just yet, but it’s obvious there’s plenty of juicy stuff still to come out, presumably at the end of the contract in October, about how this panned out.

Walden says ASB was always a client that was front and centre, a client that defined the agency and often demanded a ‘yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir’ approach. But while he’s obviously disappointed at the loss of the account and thinks it’s unfair, he’s being very philosophical about it. And he believes this professional approach is what’s required if the ad industry actually wants to be taken seriously by the wider business community.

He’s not sticking the boot in (at least not yet) and doesn’t want TBWA\ to be seen as a “bunch of prats” after losing a piece of business. He will, of course, keep saying irreverent things, but he thinks the old Saatchi & Saatchi mantra of ‘it’s not enough just to win, you have to make sure someone else loses’ is unnecessary.

“It’s only advertising, not a cure for cancer… This business doesn’t do itself any favours when it’s churlish and nasty,” he says.

While a big client like ASB obviously offers plenty of financial rewards, Walden and Blood say the news of its departure has given them time to breathe, to look at what it can do for its other notable accounts like Mercury, Adidas, Visa and 2degrees, to start looking for another good financial client and to find out what needs to be done to please clients and appeal to consumers in this rapidly changing marcomms landscape.

Walden says TBWA has established a reputation as a brand building agency, but he now believes the best way forward is to have equal competency in digital. And for him, an ad man with a bit of length to the tooth, it’s an exciting (and probably fairly scary) time.

“It’s like a whole new industry. I’ve made hundreds of TVCs, but I’m still learning about all this. It’s the exciting part of the business at the moment.”

Blood, who has taken time to write something of a TBWA\ manifesto, says the future of the agency’s creative model is about bringing digital into the centre of the communications mix, whether that means making advertising more interactive, or making better content for the digital realm. And this is why Howard is now sitting at the desk next to him.

“It’s my belief that Ross is one of the smartest creative brains in the business, having been hugely influential in the success of Shift\ and cementing its position as the pre-eminent digital outfit in the country [Shift\ made the very well-received iPad app for NZ Herald],” Blood says.

Prior to joining Tequila\, Howard worked across blue chip clients such as Tourism New Zealand (picking up two webbys) and Lion Nathan and he was also the lead digital creative on the recent award winning work for adidas adisynth and Visa go.

Carl Lough and Chris Childerhouse, who have joined from AIM Wellington, and Jeff Harris, who was part of the Tequila\ network 15 years ago in London and has an impressive direct marketing and digital track record, have also been brought in to bolster the digital arsenal.

“Change in our industry is happening at a phenomenal pace. And so in many ways the changes in the creative department now mirror the changes we are making in other parts of the agency, following the conclusion of our relationship with ASB at the end of October,” Blood says. “We’d always envisaged reconfiguring the TBWA Group after having lost an account of that size. The internet and digital technology in all its forms have been hugely instrumental in changing the advertising environment. And it’s fair to say that Tequila\ has been at the forefront of our digital capability over the last while. So with Ross at the helm, some new, exciting talent on board and other big signings in the wings, we’re confident we can take yet another creative leap forward.”

At this stage, there are no other casualties to report, and Blood doesn’t believe there will be any announcements to come. But one imagines those decisions will be made closer to the time of the final ASB handover.

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