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5 Minutes with… Toby Allen



As multiple Grand Prix-winning ECD moves to The&Partnership, LBB’s Laura Swinton catches up with him to talk curiosity, entrepreneurial creativity and the desire to make the world a little bit better

5 Minutes with… Toby Allen
After nearly a decade at AMV BBDO and fresh off a string of ground-breaking creative work on Essity brands like Bodyform and Plenty, Toby Allen has made the move to The&Partnership.

It could have turned out quite differently for Toby, who initially entered the industry as an account person. But Toby had always had a passion for writing, and he was inspired by ads like The Guardian’s Points of View to pursue his own creative ambitions. These days, as a creative leader, Toby says that the lines are less rigid and there’s more space for people without the ‘creative’ job title to contribute.

Here Toby talks about his career, his creative ambitions for The&Partnership, the role of purpose in advertising and the joy of having a ‘butterfly mind’.


LBB> Congratulations on the move to The&Partnership - after nearly ten years at AMV BBDO that can’t have been an easy decision!

Toby> You know, I started out there as a graduate trainee as well. I loved AMV but I didn't want to be an account manager, I wanted to be a creative, so I had to resign and start again. So, coming back, and then spending another 10 years there, felt like coming back home. It's a hard place to leave and especially because in the last five of those 10 years, we achieved a huge amount, particularly on Essity and on Bodyform. It felt like we climbed the mountain, if you like - we couldn't really have got any higher, in terms of what we were delivering. AMV is lucky to have loads of brilliant, creative leaders in Alex, Nadja and Nick, and Jim, my ex-partner. But I felt like I needed a bit more space to spread my wings.

LBB> And what attracted you to The&Partnership?

Toby> Commercially they’ve got real momentum, and they've got this real entrepreneurial energy. I thought, I could harness that and help them raise the creative game.
They’re commercially strong, they’re listed as one of the best places to work. They have a really strong culture in the way they look after people, so a lot of the ingredients are there. My thought was, if we can direct some of that energy into upping their creative work, then they'll be the complete package.

LBB> They’ve got some interesting clients, like NatWest, Argos, Toyota - what are your thoughts there?

Toby> I think that drumming ad for Argos was the best Christmas spot that year. Genuinely, when I watched it just made me smile, more so than the other Christmas ads that year. Maybe I’m from that era, where I remember the Argos catalogue, so I have nostalgia for that with the Simple Minds track, everything came flooding back. I love that. 
With British Gas, obviously, people are understanding the role energy plays in our lives very acutely now. There are huge opportunities there when you've got that kind of connection into people's lives and homes. Looking at NatWest, the footprint of a financial institution, and its ability to create change - meaningful, and big-scale change - is massive. If you look at financial services, MasterCard True Name or the Borrow The All Blacks campaign in New Zealand for small businesses during lockdown - there are plenty of financial institutions doing purposeful and creative work. I'm sure we can get NatWest into that category. 
Pets At Home is another one. There's all the emotion that comes with pets, all the fun and that playfulness. Coming from BBDO I’ve been around the work on Pedigree, Whiskas and Sheba, so I know what great pets advertising looks like. So there's a huge opportunity there. 
With the Lawn Tennis Association, on the back of Emma Radacanu’s success, there’s a huge opportunity to get girls into a sport and stop them from falling out of the sport. There’s also RNIB and obviously, everything that they've done recently, especially with the pregnancy tests work. So, there is so much potential across the client base.
It's an interesting stable of brands and when you add in the ones that are covered by the & Model, the creative potential of brands like The Sunday Times and the Sun is huge as well. You think of the Sunday Times Rich List…

LBB> So, going back a little - you got into the ad industry and wanted to become a creative. Was that something you wanted to do before joining, or did you discover that after you’d started down the accounts pathway?

Toby> It was a bit of everything. I knew I wanted to write for a living. At school, I was reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which is a novel with multiple viewpoints and then I saw John Webster's ‘Points of View’ ad for The Guardian where he established the unreliability of any one point of view. If you watch it now, it’s only 30 seconds but you remember it as being 60 or 90 seconds. He’s taken a Kurosawa film or a William Faulkner novel and done it in 30 seconds. He’s an out-and-out genius. 
I thought that was a really interesting art form; The Guardian is a gem of a piece of art. So, I knew I wanted to write and therefore advertising was an interesting channel for that. I ended up getting it wrong about recruitment, I thought I could go in one door into account management and then move sideways. Peter Souter was the ECD at the time. I went to see him and he explained very frankly, that it didn't work in that way and that I’d need to work a lot harder on my book. So I did.


LBB> And now that you’re in a leadership role, does that experience make you a little more open and empathetic to the creative ambitions of those joining and the accidental barriers to creative potential?

Toby> There is more fluidity now, as the scale of creative output and the number of channels that we deal with is much larger. Quite often these days, everyone's input is used in helping to make the idea bigger and as a junior account person or strategist, there's a lot more opportunity to get involved in building the creative work together. When I started, it was very much ‘us’ and ‘them’, so I would always encourage people to build on an idea, and bring their own thoughts, saying, ‘have you thought about that’, ‘what about this channel’.
One of the many reasons we've been able to do such brave work on Essity was using my account manager experience to think ahead about how we take everyone with us on this journey, how do we sell it in the first place and how can we protect it? That's such a large part of the job now, when you’ve got great ideas, how do you protect them because it's so easy for them to fall at one of many hurdles.


LBB> How has social media and the risk of online backlash heightened that sensitivity to risk?

Toby> The risk and the reward get greater, don’t they? It's not just that it might not work - it’s that there might be a negative backlash if you're going out to be provocative and controversial. But it's mostly about reading culture. With Essity, we were fortunate enough to creative direct a brand that was making feminine hygiene products at a time when culture was beginning to have conversations around period stigma and reproductive rights. Those conversations were happening anyway in pockets of culture, and so you read the signals. You’re taking what's bubbling away at the fringes, and bringing it into the mainstream through advertising. And you've got to research the hell out of it and make sure that it is actually landing. Then finally, you press send and cross your fingers that everyone loves it.

LBB> I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot but it was incredible to feel seen and understood, particularly with Womb Stories. What’s really interesting is that it’s been a mixed-sex team, and very much wasn’t siloed in the agency as a ‘woman’s thing’ (though of course there are lots of great women working on it).

Toby> The conversations that Jim and I, and Nadja and Nick have is that diversity and inclusion also means playing people out of position. Nadja will say, ‘I'll CD Guinness rugby’, even though that's traditionally a pretty blokey sport; ‘while you guys, CD Bodyform’. That's interesting, I think it’s an interesting way to tackle diversity of thought - which is to not have the expected leading certain projects or brands or accounts. 
You were asking earlier about creative leadership and whether the account management experience has made me more empathetic, but far more formative has actually been leading the Essity account. When you don't, biologically, have the answers, then you rely on your team. Jim and I could tell if something was strong or fresh or visually arresting but it had to speak to people, as women, as a person with a womb. We had to consider, is that really the truth, does that resonate? We learned to lead that way almost by accident, but hopefully, it will serve me in good stead for other projects.

LBB> There's an old Leo Burnett quote about curiosity being a creative person’s greatest secret. You have to be open to anything... 

Toby> That's one of the beauties of the business. Most creatives - I know I do - have a butterfly mind. We end up diving into different sectors. It’s interesting dealing with different markets, different problems and talking to different clients. One of the joys of the job is the variety.

LBB> Looking at your own career was there a moment where you decided that you wanted to take on more like leadership roles or has that been something that's happened just organically throughout your career?

Toby> It has been quite organic. I've always stayed writing, while I’ve been leading, though the ratios change. But I like the bigger picture. You obviously need to craft the hell out of it, but I like getting involved in strategy, having conversations about how we could use creativity to solve big business problems. One step further back, I like looking at how an agency works and how to maximise the creativity within an agency as a whole rather than just getting the best work out of the creative department. So I've always been quite interested in those bigger conversations and bigger conundrums. It kind of felt like a natural evolution once we became deputy ECDs to then go somewhere and make the next step. 

LBB> The past 18 months which has been pretty unusual. I hesitate to say that we’re emerging from it but do you feel like it's changed you in your approach to creativity or how do you approach leadership?

Toby> It's a good question. I think I've been very fortunate to be around some campaigns that were made before lockdown like Wombstories, or at least started before lockdown like the Plenty Christmas spot. So they had momentum. 

In terms of the creative direction - I find it deeply frustrating on Zoom. But I think the real losers in all of this are creatives, rather than creative directors, especially younger creatives. They are sharing houses, having to work in their bedroom. They're not hanging out with their mates and having a laugh in the office, and they're not rubbing shoulders with senior people and learning by osmosis. There's a lot of understandable disquiet and frustration in junior creatives because half of advertising is the sociability and the sparking off of ideas and that just doesn't happen remotely. For some of them, in loads of agencies, it’s just pressing a button, and somewhere, five miles away or, you know 500 miles away at the other end of the laptop, an idea is supposed to come out. In truth the process is the same if you're in the office, you get a brief and you're expected to crack it; but when it’s remote it makes it feel so much more automated and depersonalised.

LBB> Obviously with that Essity account, the work has been very much purpose-driven, but I was wondering what your thoughts were in the broader discussion about the role of purpose and the benefits or dangers of approaching brands that way?

Toby> Purpose washing is obviously a term but I think, in the case of Essity, if you're making products that deal with periods at a time when culture has begun to have conversations about periods and the female body and reproductive rights, then - as long as you do it sensitively - you have every right to be part of that conversation. As long as you go above and beyond making films, you actually try and change things or solve problems. 
I think the ingredients of purpose are simple: have you got a product or a service that allows you to be part of that conversation? Are you going above and beyond the products you make to help solve a problem - are you actually doing something to help fix it? 
I think if you've got those two, then you've got a right to use purpose as a marketing tool. It's when you have neither or just one of them, then it begins to feel pretty shallow. At that point, you’re using purpose to be part of a conversation where you're not really a valid contributor.

LBB> I get the appeal of purpose for creative people. There’s a stereotype of the tortured artist, but I think creative people often have a sense of joy about the world too.

Toby> I agree. We’re all aware of the old adage that today's ads are tomorrow's fish and chip wrapping but I think there's a bit of us that wants to leave some kind of legacy; to spend our days doing something that our mums can be proud of.
I think that that urge is there in every creative industry. You want to do really creative work, if you can combine that with either a positive cultural or social impact then that's the Holy Grail. Doing highly creative commercial work is the bread and butter of the job; but it's more meaningful when you can have a positive impact. 
I know there are lots of debates about, ‘let's just get on and sell stuff, and that's our job and let's not get ahead of ourselves, know your place. You work in advertising. So just bloody advertise’. But if you can have fun, and sell stuff, and shape culture at the same time why wouldn't you? There's a brilliant quote from an American writer called EB White, he says, ‘Sometimes I wake up in the morning, wanting to save the world, and have a hell of a good time. It can be hard deciding which to pursue.’ I think we, on rare occasions, get the chance to do both.

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