5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes with… Dooley Tombras

Advertising Agency
Knoxville, USA
The president of the Tombras Group on the appointment of the agency’s first CCO, taking the reins of the family business and overseeing 300% staff growth

The advertising industry of recent years can often feel like it's stuck in a state of perpetual fear. Fear of consultancies, of the projectisation of former agency-of-record accounts and scorned in-house agencies. But these 'macrotrends', as Dooley Tombras likes to call them, all play right into the hands of him and his agency The Tombras Group. 

The agency was founded by his grandfather in 1946 and has been an independent, family-owned business ever since. Dooley, whose plan it had always been to join the family business, took a senior management position at Tombras in 2014, but his father is still involved in its nuts and bolts as chairman. Since Dooley's ascension to the role the agency staff has grown over 300% and revenue close to 400%. One particularly notable staff addition is that of Jeff Benjamin, who was announced as Tombras' first ever CCO last week. Prior to Tombras, Jeff was a partner and executive creative director at Barton F. Graf. 

What's more, it was named one of the world's most innovative companies in 2018 by Fast Company and an AdAge agency to watch in 2019. The new HQ that it moved into at the beginning of 2018 has already been outgrown. Its work for MoonPie, which originally involved tweeting nine scripts for ads it'd run if it had the budget before one year later actually producing a select few of them, is an LBB office favourite and the most brilliant kind of weird. 

Tombras is a bona-fide national player and one of the strongest and biggest independent agencies in North America. And all of this out of Knoxville, Tennessee, a city of 187,000 in which it is the only national ad agency. 

LBB's Addison Capper chatted with Dooley to find out more...

LBB> It seems like Tombras is really killing it at the moment, especially in the last year. What’s driving that? 

Dooley> Last year we were taking off, we had a lot of the right parts and pieces in place, but I think we've really hit our stride now. We moved into our new headquarters in February of last year. We built a new 60,000 square foot HQ in downtown Knoxville - which was home to my grandad’s first client back in the ‘40s - but we've actually outgrown it already. We built it to hold 300 people but we had to plan it out with the architects and construction company two years in advance. When we started that process we had 150 people. We wanted to build an office that would last around 15 years so we built it to hold 300 people, thinking that we wouldn't even use all of the space. Now we've already outgrown it and leased a floor in a building across the street. So we've had a ton of growth.

Being named one of Fast Company's most innovative companies in the world helped and getting AdAge A-List agency to watch has got us into a bunch of RFPs. We're the busiest we've ever been right now because we're onboarding all of this growth but we've been inundated with RFPs. Before Cannes we'd just finished seven pitches and our batting average lately has been winning around 70%. Our biggest issue has just been hiring people! 

LBB> And how do you find that process of hiring people to the agency in Knoxville? 

Dooley> There are two components to it. We have a huge advantage on entry level talent because we're a university town - the University of Tennessee is there. It's a massive university with 40,000 students and a big ad programme, so we've got a big intern programme across all of our departments. But it's sort of a double-edged sword. We're the only national agency in Knoxville so all of the mid-level and senior talent that we have to bring in has to come from other major markets. We do a ton of recruitment from New York, Chicago, Atlanta but it takes us longer to hire and we have to invest more money into it. 

But once we get people, we have a much lower turnover rate because Knoxville is an amazing city to live in. We've got the Smoky Mountains, there are great rivers and lakes and it's in the top 10 lowest cost of living cities in America according to Forbes. So you've got the opportunity to work at a national agency that's hot and growing and on national brands, and we've got an extremely vibrant downtown, so it's a surprisingly urban area. So, if we can just get people to come and visit us, and they see what they can buy in Knoxville compared to the New York area or Atlanta, it blows people's minds. And they're not taking a step backwards, they can be taking a step forward. 

LBB> Speaking of hiring, you’ve just appointed your first CCO. Why is now the right time to appoint someone in that position? And why is Jeff the right person for the job?

Dooley> I hadn’t actively been looking, but when the opportunity came up to connect with him, the timing was perfect. We’re at an inflection point as an agency. We’ve hired across key areas of the agency, pulling from incredible brands and agencies throughout the country. Jeff joining was a final puzzle piece for this phase of our growth. Bringing in a CCO who is a great culture and values match, in addition to a creative leader with amazing chops and pedigree, is going to open things up for us even more. To some it may be surprising, but to me it’s a natural progression. Jeff has big agency and brand experience, he’s done some of his best work at independents like BFG, and enjoyed working in markets outside New York and LA, like Miami and Boulder. As I got to know him, I realised that besides being a brilliant creative, he’s incredibly humble and down to earth for somebody that’s enjoyed so much success and recognition. It became obvious the perfect fit for Tombras. 

LBB> How do you find the location from a client perspective? 

Dooley> The clients love it, it's not an issue at all. In fact, I think the pendulum has swung. It's almost a trend now among CMOs that it's a cool thing to work with an indie shop that's not in a major market and they feel like maybe there's less attitude than they have with bigger shops. They also know that if they come to an independent shop and are one of our top five or 10 clients, they're not going to get lost in the shuffle. They're going to get the A-team working on their business. And then the clients love coming to Knoxville. They can bring their spouses and significant others and make it a vacation when they visit us. 

LBB> It really does feel a lot more vibrant at the moment in cities outside of places like New York...

Dooley> The mojo at the big agencies in New York is not good. Everyone is talking about clients taking work in-house, the projectisation of stuff. But all of those macro-trends in the industry actually help Tombras because, whereas before we might not have been able to be AOR for a Fortune 100 brand, the fact that they're carving off big projects means that we are getting that. We're landing AOR for big Fortune 500, 400, 300 clients but we are benefitting from the trend that is hurting the holding companies. The giant Fortune 100 companies are breaking up the AOR model and taking some work in-house and farming work out to people like us. The vibe at our agency is very different because we've had a lot of success and we're growing, and that creates a positive vibe. 

LBB> Tombras is a family-owned business - your grandfather founded it and your dad ran it before you. Was it always your plan to go into the family business? 

Dooley> That was always my plan. Since I was a little kid I wanted to work with my dad and join the family business. Never had a plan B - fortunately I've had a lot of fun with plan A. 

LBB> A lot of people do fall into advertising - it's rarely a plan, especially one that's as deeply embedded as yours was. What are your earliest memories of the business? 

Dooley> My earliest memories are being six years old and sitting at the office late at night or on the weekends when my dad was working on a new business pitch and I was playing on typewriters. 

LBB> When did you actually take over as the head of the company? 

Dooley> It was a very gradual transition but I really began to take over in 2014. That's really when we started with the exponential growth. We got AdAge Small Agency of the Year in 2015. If you go back to 2014, we had around 100 people then. We've now got around 330 so we've grown over 300% on headcount and 400% on revenue since then. 

LBB> And was all of that conscious on your part? 

Dooley> Well there's not a goal. We're a little different from some agencies in that we don't sit around and set a financial goal or decide if we want to grow our billings x amount. We just want to be the best agency that we can possibly be and we're relentless in new business with trying to get bigger creative opportunities and working with bigger brands. That’s a goal for us - we're a growth culture, an innovation culture, we're creatively driven. Success has bred more success and we've been fortunate to win bigger accounts and do more high profile work and better creative. That's helped us to attract and retain better talent and that in turn has helped us get into more pitches. But that's our goal - we don't have a metric goal that we're looking to hit. We just want to get bigger creative opportunities and do more high profile work and help clients grow. 

Our whole philosophy and positioning is connecting data and creativity for business results. I think that's where a lot of our success has come from. We were arguably the first to get there in the industry - that's been our positioning for a long time, nearly a decade. We beat everybody to the punch in figuring out that that's what CMOs needed. CMOs were getting inundated with data working with all these different agency partners but at the end of the day marketing is now measurable and CEOs are holding CMOs accountable for measurable growth. We felt like a lot of the big creative agencies were hiding behind vanity metrics, like brand awareness and brand affinity - ‘but don't blame us if your sales go down’. We've got a big background in retail - we worked with McDonald's for 45 years - so we're used to being accountable business partners and being accountable for sales growth, so we built out a big data and analytics practice with 15 data scientists and analysts, and we've really married that up to the discipline and rigour of our strategic planning, brand creative and media buying. 

If you look at what the industry has done, I think it's validated our model. You've got WPP bolting it together with VMLY&R, Wunderman Thompson, there are consultancies bolting data and creativity together with acquisitions like Accenture and Droga5. I believe they're doing the right thing, it's the right way to go, but it's harder to do that when you are bolting together two disparate organisations. It's going to take a long time to make that work culturally. Because we built it organically from the ground up, I think we're doing it really well and I think that's why we've had the track record of success that we've had.

LBB> With regards to growth, as a family owned business I can imagine that the culture internally is strong. How do you ensure that stays? 

Dooley> It's super important to us and we've made a lot of big moves from a cultural perspective. One was naming a long-time employee, Alice Mathews, CEO. She's the first non-family member to have the CEO title - I'm the president and my dad's the chairman. Alice has been with us for over 20 years and started as an account executive, eventually became managing director of our Washington DC office and is now CEO. To have her in Knoxville is huge for our culture, which is arguably her primary focus - helping drive the culture, drive our core values. 

We've made a big investment in expanding our HR department, which has been huge for us, and we've got a lot of corporate initiatives that we're driving right now. One thing that really helps us from a cultural perspective is that, unlike a lot of other agencies that grow quickly, we've still got the core nucleus team from back when we were a 70-person agency 15 years ago. A lot of those folks are group account directors, creative directors, department heads, and so the culture is very much in place in that we're true to who we were 15 years ago even as we've rapidly scaled up and added a tremendous amount of folks. 

LBB> Moving on, I wanted to ask you about MoonPie. That campaign is just amazingly weird, which you don't see enough of in advertising...

Dooley> Amazingly weird is the strategy. We took them through a rigorous strategic planning process and the whole strategy for MoonPie is 'out of this world'. That's a double entendre because we get to ‘own’ outer space which gives us permission to get into any conversation about outer space. But the other part of 'out of this world' is being an irrational brand in an irrational, impulse-driven category, so the strategy gives us permission to be weird and have fun. And if you're not having fun with a CPG snack cake you're doing something wrong. This is not financial services or healthcare, it's a fun, quirky product with a weird name. 

There's a great story in that they're one of the most iconic brands in Tennessee. The two most iconic brands in Tennessee are Jack Daniels and MoonPie. MoonPie is a 100-year-old company, and my dad and grandad actually pitched MoonPie back in the 1970s and they didn't get the business. Then my dad and I went back 40 years later and did a new business pitch to the son of the guy that they had pitched 40 years earlier, and we won the business. It's cool that there's shared cultural values between MoonPie and Tombras in that we're two national brands that have been around a long time, are family owned, working together in Tennessee, and are both reinvigorated and having more success now than ever. There's a lot of stuff in the industry right now about how clients don't trust agencies, but there's a tremendous amount of trust between the MoonPie clients and Tombras. They've seen that the more they trust us and the more they give us the reins creatively, the better the business results and engagement gets. 

LBB> How do you see the next year panning out for Tombras? 

Dooley> I think it’s going to be a story like this one. We can safely say that we’re going to have another big growth year just on the new business that we’ve already won, and we’re hoping to make a MoonPie level impact for more of our clients. We’re doing some really splashy work. I think we’ll be having a conversation next year about more growth, more work, more new clients. It’s all about connecting data and creativity for business results and trying to do what we’re doing for long-time clients, like the US Department of Transportation, Orange Theory Fitness and MoonPie, for new brands and clients that we’re onboarding.

LBB> And then more generally, how do you see the industry panning out? 

Dooley> I think a lot of the macrotrends right now play right into our favour. Sir Martin Sorrell has been right a lot when it comes to predicting the future and with S4 Capital he’s placed his bets on what he calls the holy trinity - data, content and digital media. If you look at the Tombras Group, while our legacy and what we’re known for is strategic planning and brand creative, we are incredibly strong at content, data and digital media. And that’s why our whole positioning is connecting data and creativity for business results. So I actually agree with Sir Martin that that’s where the emphasis is with CMOs right now. 

Think about it this way. What are the trends that are keeping CMOs up at night? It’s how do I get enough content out at scale, that is fast enough, cheap enough, still on brand, on strategy and still good? That’s a hard equation to figure out. Once you come up with that and you’re out of the world of 30-second TV spots,into six-second films or long-form, how do you blow that out in an omnichannel world and deliver it to all the right consumers on all the different channels and platforms and devices? Then their CEOs are asking how they measure, test and optimise and get the best ROI - and that’s where you land at the holy trinity of content, digital media and analytics. Where Sir Martin and I differ is that I think all of that has to be anchored in strategy and brand creative. You’ve got to have strategic planning and the big brand platform. That’s the engine that runs all of that. I don’t know if that’s going to be the trend forever but I think that’s going to be the trend that will drive the industry for the next 12 months. 

Think about what’s happened with VMLY&R, Wunderman Thompson and Accenture and Droga5 - the industry is moving towards where Tombras was 10 years ago. I truly believe that the fact that we got there as one of the first is what has allowed us to break out of being a long-time successful regional agency into a real national player and now a top independent agency in North America. 

Work from Tombras