America’s oldest agency brand, J. Walter Thompson has surfed wave after wave of industry evolution and revolution. In the choppy waters of 2018, change is coming faster, more frequently and more dramatically, particularly within WPP – and so it’s appropriate that JWT’s own captain is a woman whose energy is legendary. Most articles discussing Tamara Ingram feature frequent some permutation of the word ‘dynamic’ – and with good reason. Since taking the reins in 2016, Tamara has made her presence felt, whether pushing forward programmes to drastically improve the diversity and inclusion at the agency or being one of the first to wind down the role of global chief creative officer in favour of a different approach to creative leadership.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Tamara to talk about the future of J. Walter Thompson, why she chose adland over the lure of the film industry… and why she keeps coming back to Bach.
LBB> It’s an interesting time for WPP agencies right now, with Mark Read officially taking the lead and promising ‘radical evolution’. What does that mean for J. Walter Thompson?
Tamara> Business is changing at an extremely rapid pace, and evolution is key to growth. We will always be diversifying our capabilities, but our current focus is on bringing in new talent and producing extraordinary work to grow our clients’ business. With the North American leadership appointments of Simon Pearce and Amanda Seaford, we are seeing great success through the collaboration of JWT and Mirum and are absolutely driven to make the best and brightest agency offering.
LBB> We chatted in Cannes about the new model of global creative leadership at JWT being a ‘constellation’ rather than a singular voice. When there isn’t that one person ‘owning’ that role and responsibility, how are things marshalled, pushed forwards?
Tamara> A constellation in this sense is a collection of voices from creatives, strategists, digital experts and neuroscientists (among other specialists) with the goal to infuse ideas and solutions from different perspectives. The Inspiration Council will focus on strengthening our creative product today by insuring diverse cultural relevance and transformational power. The Futures Council focuses on the creative work of the future. It will strive for innovation and a clear predictive vision on creativity looking forward.
LBB> And who are some of the creative leadership characters from across the network whose voices have really started to stand out under this new model?
Tamara> Bas Korsten, our creative lead out of Amsterdam, and Ricardo John, our CCO in Brazil, are two leaders. But there are many across the network: Ben James, Sean DallasKidd, Jessica Stewart, Jo Wallace and Renata Leao to name a few. We have many rising stars.
LBB> There have been some interesting campaigns from JWT over the past few months. The JWT London World Cup/domestic violence work had a really visceral, emotional impact on me personally, for example. And there’s been lovely stuff from Thailand that did well at Cannes. What have been your creative highlights recently?
Tamara> Thank you. I am very proud of our creative work. Our most recent creative highlights include:
LBB> I’ve heard that your internal goal is to make Network of the Year by 2020 – how do you feel progress is going?
Tamara> We are building up an arsenal of great creative work, bringing in new talent, working on our overall strategy. Our creative highlights get stronger by the quarter, and I am optimistic that we will meet our objective.
LBB> It’s an interesting goal given the wider debate about award shows and rankings like The Gunn Report in the industry. To an extent, they’re a useful measure, but as a network how do you keep awards from becoming a distorting force?
Tamara> Award shows are one form of measurement, but they are not the only answer for us or our clients. We are focused on building transformational experiences – which could mean creating a digital spot (T. Rowe Price), building a business idea (Kit Kat Delayed Flight Machine) or even a new product (The Fin).
LBB> Since joining J. Walter Thompson, you’ve had a big job to do in terms of creating diversity. Looking back over the past couple of years, you’ve instituted a lot of changes – but what change do you think has had the biggest effect across the network?
Tamara> To be most effective we need to be very clear on our vision and goals around diversity, engagement and inclusion. Secondly, we need to change the way we recruit. For instance, we have a programme at JWT called Jump/Start, a global 12-week paid, quarterly program that reaches into the local community for a disparate set of skills to enrich our offering and point of view. I will not be satisfied until our internal population truly reflects the society around us.
LBB> One of the words I think that’s used to describe you in every article and interview that I’ve read uses the word “dynamic.” Where does that energy come from?
Tamara> I have always been high-energy and I’d like to think I bring that, as well as a positive perspective, with me wherever I go.
LBB> From a management point of view, I’ve found that some people are passionate, hungry, searching and some people are… less so, though they may have other strengths. When you’re leading a huge team of people who move at different speeds and display different outward levels of intensity, how do you deal with that?
Tamara> I love working within a global community and being heavily involved with both our strategic teams and the clients. I travel throughout the world and this helps to keep me more connected to the creative work as well. Through these visits, I have found that people add value in different ways. I want everyone to feel like they can flourish and win.
LBB> You were at Saatchi’s during a really key period – it seems like anyone I meet in the industry who worked at Saatchi’s in London in the ’80s and early ’90s has this connection and a real soft spot for that time and place. What was it about the agency at the time and the people that has created that lasting effect?
Tamara> To me, it was an extraordinary place during an extraordinary time. Everyone felt that they could be entrepreneurial, and this “go for it” ethos truly resonated with me. People put the company a bit before themselves and every individual could seemingly do the impossible.
LBB> You went from temping at Saatchi’s to being the CEO – that’s quite a trajectory! And I’m guessing it involved a fair bit of hustle and proactiveness. Given conventional wisdom says that career progress comes from switching companies regularly-ish – how did you move around?
Tamara> I’m the opposite, I believe career progress starts with loyalty, creating informal networks and taking people with you.
LBB> Before you got into advertising, you worked in the film industry, freelancing. What sorts of things were you doing and what led you to that industry? Do you ever wonder what might have been had you stayed in that area…?
Tamara> I loved being in the film industry because I was passionate about creating something that stirs people. But ultimately, I felt that the advertising industry – with its business transformation and creativity – suited my skills better.
LBB> What was the best piece of advice you got when you were starting out?
Tamara> It wasn’t one singular piece of advice. I had breakfast with my father every day, and connecting with him each morning made me feel like I was capable of achieving anything I wanted to in life.
LBB> What’s your favourite ad of all time?
Tamara> There are so many brilliant ads… I’ve always loved the JWT ad for British Telecom starring Maureen Lipmann. In addition, I quite like Sprite (Brazil), The Marines (Atlanta), Kit Kat Boarding Pass (Brazil) and Coca-Cola (Argentina) to name a few.
LBB> When it comes to creativity outside of the industry, who are the artists/writers/musicians/filmmakers (choose your poison!) that you keep coming back to?
Tamara> Music-wise, I keep going back to Bach and enjoying it from different and new perspectives. I love Billie Holiday. In terms of books, I just finished reading Home Fire, which led me to reading a modern translation of Antigone. I’m also passionate about contemporary theater, but I enjoy a fix of Ibsen from time to time. And I’m always amazed by the British artist Turner.
LBB> What keeps you grounded?
Tamara> All of it keeps me grounded. But biking to work, being with my children, going to soccer/football matches and maintaining long-standing friendships are what bring me particular enjoyment.