2012 was, in short, a great year for Whybin\TBWA Sydney – perhaps even it’s greatest. But where does it go from here? Lucy Clark interrupted the flow of work at the agency’s buzzing Pyrmont offices to find out.
To say Whybin\TBWA has undergone a transformation in recent years would be an understatement. In the past three years, the fast-changing agency has been on one heck of a journey.
To kick off 2013, Whybin\TBWA was named the number one creative agency in Australia and ninth in the world in the recent Big Won Rankings. The agency has set itself a high bar.
“To be ninth in the world is wildest dreams stuff and was a huge surprise,” says CEO and partner Paul Bradbury. “We knew we’d had a good year, but this wasn’t even on our radar.”
Building the foundations
Bradbury joined the Omnicom-owned Whybin\TBWA in 2007 and was promoted from managing director to CEO in 2010, after it had been through some tough years that saw former partners Scott Whybin and Neil Lawrence split acrimoniously, followed by major client losses and a “revolving door” of creative directors, CEOs and managing directors.
Determined to recruit a top management team, Bradbury’s first hire was Hristos Varouhas, as executive planning director. “We really wanted to restart the whole agency,” recalls Bradbury.
Joint executive creative directors Matty Burton and Dave Bowman both worked at Whybin\TBWA Sydney when it was a start-up – Burton in print production and Bowman as an intern. Working at the likes of Droga5, Saatchi & Saatchi and The Glue Society in between times, the pair joined Whybin\TBWA to work together again in 2010.
“Dave kept trying to hire me at Saatchis, and I kept trying to hire him at Droga,” says Burton. “We were enjoying what we were doing and competing on a number of accounts, but we always talked about combining forces,” adds Bowman.
Pointing to his executive planning and creative directors, Bradbury explains: “This is the core of the agency. We all have similar ambitions, a similar work ethic and similar paranoias. We’re all concerned about producing bad work or losing clients.”
With the foundations in place, the agency embarked on a three-year turn around.
“It kicked off with the NRMA Insurance win,” recalls Varouhas. “We had pitched the strategy, and it then became a shoot-out for the creative.”
The NRMA win was swiftly followed by winning NAB Trade as a client. “The place needed its momentum back,” says Bowman. “If it stagnates, it’s hard to break that pattern.”
The first campaign the newly-led agency put out for NRMA, ‘My Car is Your Car’, signaled a “step change” for Whybin\TBWA, according to Varouhas.
Far from being a traditional ad campaign, it was an experiential campaign. Bowman adds: “The campaign was so ridiculous in terms of the amount of time we had to pull it off. It forced everyone to collaborate. We had 260 activations in a four-week period.”
Onwards and upwards
Steady growth through more big wins in 2010 and 2011 (the $30m IAG account, and ANZ amongst others) led to the launch of both Eleven PR and shopper marketing agency Integer.
Collaboration grew to be integral to the way the agency operates and is now something that Whybin\TBWA believes singles it out from the pack. Varouhas explains: “Matty and Dave introduced something wonderful – if you walk through the creative department, all the work is on big boards for all to see. It was a massive cultural change. Until this, the creative team was very protective of its work. It’s still led by the guys there, but there is an openness. I’ve not seen that at any other agency.”
“It requires a huge amount of trust,” adds Bowman. “If you lose that confidence, it can be irreparable.”
Varouhas adds: “We push for a check-in with new clients about what’s at the heart of their organisation.
Often, that’s about spotting sacred cows – the things they don’t want to change, but are holding them back.”
Every single brief in the agency is reviewed on Tuesday and Thursday mornings – and a client never receives a brief that hasn’t been approved by the whole management team. “It means much healthier, happier client relationships,” explains Varouhas. “It also means that we’re not using the creative team to get the strategy right,” adds Bradbury.
The motto that the agency has lived by for a long time is ‘None of us are as good as all of us’, along with the company’s strategic philosophy: Disruption.
“It’s not a case of ‘what do we want to be like?’, it’s a case of ‘when do we become our best?’,” explains Bradbury. “And we’re at our best when we work as a unit together.”
The motto’s subtext is: “No bullshit, no politics, no dickheads.” Bradbury adds: “It’s all about getting all the conventions out on the table and finding out which is the biggest that we can overturn. There has to be a confidence that your suggestions won’t be laughed at. Often, out of madness comes genius.”
Last year’s work – and awards – has catapulted Whybin\TBWA Sydney into 2013. The agency has set itself a high bar. So where to now?
The biggest challenges facing the industry, according to the Whybin guys, are data and marketers. “Everyone is talking about data and trying to get into that space, which is a challenge we’re facing,” says Varouhas.
And Burton adds: “The biggest challenge is marketers who sit in their chair for one or two years and want to be famous. They think short-term and not long term. It’s a massive issue.”
“It’s an issue that no-one is talking about because it means you can win business,” adds Bowman. “But it’s a really dangerous short-term game.”
Not long ago, the agency was fighting for work. But Bowman says: “One thing that makes it slightly easier is that we have got people knocking on our door now. Three years ago, we were having to bend people’s arms behind their backs, and people were taking leaps of faith to join the team.”
Bradbury adds: “We’re also beginning to get clients knocking on our door, which is great.”
The agency’s 2013 focus is clear: do good work. “This year is going to be about doing work we enjoy doing, and producing great work,” says Bradbury. “Our other priority is to keep great people. This agency churns to reckless levels. You cannot be good if you keep churning, so we are fixated by that.
“We must also keep innovating. We are interested in opening up what will be the next Integer or Eleven PR, but in the data space. We cannot be complacent.”
And there are a couple of big – unnamed – brands that Burton says “we will be going after this year”.