5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes With… Toby Southgate

Brand Union’s Americas CEO on why the word ‘advertising’ holds no appeal

When he’s not powering up brands from his New York office or taking a long, hard, creative look at businesses’ strategies, Brand Union’s Toby Southgate can be found with his sleeves rolled up getting stuck into some epic DIY in the middle of the Italian countryside. His project serves as a rather lovely metaphor for the work he does with the agency – using passion, creativity, and design to solve business problems and make sure that the brands (like his house) are built on future-proofed foundations. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Toby to find out more.

LBB> You’ve been with Brand Union for six years – in that time the agency has undergone a rebrand and had some massive client wins. How does it feel that the agency is evolving? And how would you characterise the direction in which it is moving?

TS> Forwards, upwards, faster, better. We’re one of only three or four truly global brand agencies, and we’ve developed what feels like the most progressive and future-focused view on the world in which we work. The future of brands today requires new and different thinking. We’re building our network around the view that brands need to be built with a focus on the end user and their needs. That’s what we’re here to do.   

LBB> You’ve worked in five of the Brand Union offices, as well as opening an office. How does the network fit together globally? And what are the ‘flavours’ of the different offices in different markets?

TS> This progress has been part of our journey over the last seven years or so, and it’s the reason I chose to join this agency. We don’t just talk about our network, we actively build it around our clients and our people. Half our worldwide revenues come from a core group of shared, cross-network global clients. This connects our people and our offices on a day-to-day basis. And I’m by no means an exception in terms of mobility around the network – we move people around frequently and use the network to develop and grow talent wherever we can.   

LBB> You joined Brand Union New York in August 2013 – what are the keys to making the agency thrive in the world’s toughest advertising city during tough economic times?

TS> It’s just about the basics – people and clients, and making sure we have a vision for our agency in this market. This is the only market in the world where we’re not as big or bigger, as good as or better than any of our peers. We have a way to go to meet that objective here, but that’s our goal – get on the podium. Broadly speaking that means we’ll be doubling in size – people, offices, revenues – in three years.   

LBB> Brand Union has recently been involved with the new iconic Absolut bottle designs. What sort of brief did Absolut come to you with, and how did Brand Union and Absolut collaborate on the project?

TS> Absolut has been a client since 1979 when the brand was launched – Hans Brindfors, our Executive Creative Director in Stockholm created the original bottle design, typographic treatments, visual identity system. The work and the brand is iconic. So it’s impossible to talk about this as a design project with a defined beginning and end. It is part of a much broader and more strategic partnership where we work hand-in-glove with The Absolut Company on design strategy across the portfolio. 

LBB> Related to the Absolut project – I’m really interested to know what your thoughts about advertising and product design. Is there still room for agencies that just do what we would traditionally class as ‘advertising’? And what do you think the changing role of agencies says about the status/importance of creativity in the wider business world?

TS> I’d be concerned for any agency that describes themselves as an advertising business, unless they’re comfortable with stagnation and declination. The world of ‘advertising’ hasn’t ever really appealed to me – in our world we sit ahead of tactical, executional, campaign related communications. Brand agencies take business problems and help solve them creatively. I think we are far more relevant in the boardrooms of our clients than a conversation about TV spots and product-level communications. How do your consumers engage with your brand? What do they care about? How do we build an emotional connection with them that drives loyalty? How do we get them talking about and advocating for your brands? What do we do when it goes wrong? Those are the questions we help our clients answer. A CMO client of a global firm, the dominant player in its category, described us to his CEO recently as ’the McKinsey inside WPP’ - that’s one of my proudest moments at Brand Union. 500 of us work towards that standard every day.   

LBB> Which other recent Brand Union New York projects have particularly resonated with you and why?

TS> The design strategy behind the Time Warner Cable Visual Identity is genius, and it impacted the business hugely. In just one tactical example, as a result of the redesign of the billing statement, billing related complaints to the call centre dropped by 30%. 

We’ve looked after the Vodafone brand globally for most of the last 15 years. To put that in context, Verizon is the biggest cell network in the US, with 95 million subscribers; Vodafone has half a billion in more than 60 countries around the world, and a brand identity system that is now being managed consistently across that huge network. To see the identity system live and perform when painted on a roadside store in Mumbai is testament to the value of what we do. 

I was in South Africa recently and the work our team there does with Castle Lager is phenomenal – a brand that is culturally embedded and can still be authentic and innovative. 

LBB> How did you first get into advertising? Was it something you’d always been interested in or was it more of a happy accident?

TS> I’m not in advertising, thank God. I got into brand strategy through the digital and design side of the business, and it was absolutely a happy accident. I went into investment banking, hated it, needed a job…and was able to leverage some experience I’d had in a web-based publishing business while I was at university (mid 90s – very innovative at the time). I ended up running the strategy and client services group at an independent agency in the UK.   

LBB> You’re a Brit who, according to your bio, is obsessed by all things Italian… how did that love come about and what is it about the culture of the country that you find so inspiring?

TS> My wife and I don’t have a pension, we have a crumbling ruin of a cow shed in the Italian countryside that will one day be our family house. All our spare dollars end up there, and it's a passion we share that keeps us both motivated and inspired. The wine, the food, the cars, the landscape.

LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?

TS> The integrity of great graphic designers has always appealed to me, especially those that connect into contemporary culture through music – Milton Glaser, Fletcher / Forbes / Gill, Stefan Sagmeister, Peter Saville, Mark Farrow, and Wally Krantz who I now have the pleasure of working alongside here at Brand Union. I have huge admiration for creatives who promote great design thinking and problem solving above a silo’d discipline. 

LBB> Outside of the industry, what are your passions?

TS> My wife and daughters, our Italian project, poster art, bikes, the air-cooled VW engine and all the things it sits in, selvedge denim.    

LBB> What does the rest of 2014 hold for Brand Union New York?

TS> More great people doing more great work with more great clients. That has the inevitable consequence of growth and excitement. That’s why I come to work every day. 

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