Inside: Whybin\TBWA

There have been plenty of changes at WhybinTBWA over the past few years, both in terms of staff and clients. But after winning a few pitches, including the Auckland International Airport business, trying to establish the right model and operating as part of a trans-Tasman team, chief executive Todd McLeay and chairman Scott Whybin reckon it’s on the right track.  

Whybin, who founded WhybinTBWA Australia in 1994 and was recently inducted into the AdNews hall of fame, says he wanted to open a New Zealand office not only to service big clients like Nissan and Apple, but also because it was a fun market. 

Image via AdNews

“You basically get access to the CEOs. They’re as interested in marketing as the marketing directors. And that’s great because as soon as that happens it goes down the line faster.” 

He also had a close association with Dave Walden, who he worked with at The Campaign Palace in the halcyon days of the 80s, so he had a soft spot for the country. And, after it was opened, he says the Auckland office quickly became “the pin-up girl of integration”. 

“People were still thinking 30 second TV ads, radio and posters. I started Tequila in 1997 and it was old style people and new style people coming together. I’ve always believed New Zealand had the best template for that and the best execution.” 

There’s a lot of talk about resource sharing within networks these days, but not too much evidence of it. It stands to reason that local agencies are more interested in fighting local fires and there is often competition between agencies in the same family. Whybin admits that’s often the case, but he genuinely believes the Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland offices complement each other.

“Over the last few years it’s grown up a lot. Winning the ANZ business regionally it’s been very important that it’s three doors one agency. I know it sounds like an ad wank thing to say, but I really want one shop with specific skillsets in each office. I don’t want to duplicate.” 

McLeay says the best example of that model in action is the work it does on Tourism New Zealand. While the majority of the above the line advertising work is now done out of Australia, a lot of the platform work and digital strategy is run through DAN, which is led by Che Tamahori. These days it has a much greater focus on digital. But agencies still have egos and they like their work to be seen. So is seeing that high-profile advertising work head over to Sydney an annoyance?

“Not at all,” says McLeay. “Some of the best work that we’ve done over the last year has been on that account, you just haven’t seen it.” 

Whybin says it would often use overseas directors for regional Australian tourism campaigns. And it also makes sense for an Aussie agency to be talking to Australians given it is New Zealand’s biggest market. 

“Sometimes the best way to do tourism advertising is get people with fresh eyes. We see New Zealand like you guys don’t,” says Whybin. 

McLeay says coming from the client side to replace Walden has been an interesting process. But he has got his around it and he thinks the model is starting to bear fruit. 

“I know a lot more now than the day I started. But what I think sets us apart is that half of our business is digital business [DAN], which is essentially a UX led digital design company. Each day the value of designing digital experiences, customer experiences, channel experiences, touchpoint experiences that are easy and in tune with the needs of customers becomes more important.” 

McLeay says the advertising and digital parts of the business have largely been left to do their own thing in the past, although there have been various attempts to bring them closer together over the years. But the key learning for him has been how to work out where they overlap.

“The airport is a great example of this. Their mission is literally to make great customer journeys. There are times when you just want to make it easy and that’s when service design comes into play. Then that liberates you to engage the consumer and take them to new places. And for so many brands getting that combination right is essential. Getting it wrong completely screws them. I honestly believe we’ve got the jump on that particular thing. That doesn’t mean they don’t operate independently. You have to have the ability to distil out what is the essence of a brand and bring that to life. Then you need to improve some of those experiences. And knowing when you need to do which of those and how they work together is an exciting and emerging area and that’s the sweet spot for our business.”

  • Check out our interview with Auckland International Airport’s Jason Delamore here

Whybin says he embraces digital, and he understands that it “is so much a part of the partnership we have with the consumer,” but there is still some cynicism there, as evidenced by his question: “how many of the greatest brands we know have been launched online?” 

“The white page has not gone away. It’s got more important. I love solving problems. I’d be a dickhead to walk into a client’s boardroom without understanding the importance of UX or taking a customer by the hand in a new digital space. But it still comes back to distillation of strategy. A brand should be like people you know. Brands have voices and they should be consistent. That means digitally, they need to respect strategy as much as above the line, rather than hide behind technologies. The old fashioned virtues haven’t changed, the ways of communicating have. And that’s an important point … Did you deliver what Bill Bernbach would have wanted in 68? One brand that I feel I know as a person in every channel. We’ve got 60-80 channels now, so we better get it right.” 

In many ways, digital has become a support mechanism, he says. And ‘traditional’ media channels and big ideas still have resonance, something he says Steve Jobs understood intuitively when it came to launching new products. 

“That was the genius of Jobs. He understood the marketing nuance of not looking like you’re just another product, but to go beyond.” 

Whybin believes there are probably just 3 or 4 creative agencies in Australia and New Zealand that are able to distil strategy into great creative executions across all channels. And, not surprisingly, he thinks WhybinTBWA is one of them. 

In addition to the airport, McLeay says it has won three other smaller pieces of business recently that it can’t discuss. And that follows on from a thorough review last year of all the pitches it had done to date.

“We developed a whole lot of learnings and since that it has fundamentally changed what we do and what the outcome was,” he says.  

Whybin says revenue in New Zealand is up since McLeay started at the agency in early 2013 and staff numbers are about the same at 90, with a few senior contract teams brought in recently to work on the airport business until it figures out what it needs to service the account permanently (creative directors Lisa Fedyszyn and Jonathan McMahon announced their departure early this year). And while there has been some speculation that McLeay was looking around for a new role, he says that rumour isn’t true and has been started by competitors. 

He says the reason he took the job was to create a better model. He feels like he’s done a lot of the hard work around that. But it’s not done yet. And it wouldn’t be right to leave before the goal is achieved. 

Agencies like to have a broad portfolio so they’re not exposed to the whims of one big client. ANZ extended its contract with WhybinTBWA for a year last year. So is that business coming up for review? And is it worried? 

“Every agency worries. Thank Christ we’ve got one like ANZ,” says Whybin. “A lot of agencies would kill for it. I work with the board in Australia and no, I wouldn’t have thought [it is coming up for pitch]. I won them five years ago and we’ve never had better ratings in terms of the bank to us. We did the most painless merger of two large banks in the history of banking. We lost 13 customers. Nothing is certain in this business, but my relationship with ANZ at the highest level in Australia is a very good and honest one. I’m never going to be that assumptive on these things, but I’m not here shaking in my boots.” 

McLeay says ANZ is very important to the New Zealand, but it‘s not the only string to its bow.

“Auckland Airport is the fourth largest [now second]listed company in New Zealand. And then we’ve got Tourism New Zealand. That’s three pretty big foundation pieces. One of the things I’ve found is that getting resource around bigger bits of business allows you to get more traction than having lots of little bits. For me, my objective would be to add one more piece like that and have four pillars and then do fantastic work on those four pillars.” 

He says the airport, which is thought to have received over 100 submissions to its agency RFP and consolidated the number of agency partners, offers plenty of scope to grow and working with a business with a 30 year vision “lets you build things”.  

“It’s so interesting, it’s so diverse. What we do can really help them and they’re great people to work with. What’s it worth? That totally depends on how much value we continue to add.” 

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