The CEO of FCB North America speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about the art of the agency turnaround and the challenges that come once an agency’s fortunes return
We first interviewed Tyler Turnbull just over three years ago when he was the CEO of FCB Toronto, an agency office that underwent a full scale positive turnaround under his leadership. Since then, he was named group CEO for FCB’s New York and Toronto offices in May 2019 before another shift later that year saw FCB unite all of its North American offices under one umbrella with him as the overseeing CEO. Along the way, FCB Toronto has continued its path of success while FCB/SIX, also based in Toronto, has become a global leader in the execution of data-powered creative ideas,. FCB New York is on a run of new business wins that will see it double its staff count this year – an impressive success at any normal time, in 2020 it’s nothing short of staggering.
Eager to find out what’s behind this success, LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with Tyler brains on how to go about turning a misfortuned agency around, how to keep one growing after that, and the ramifications for brands and agencies of the recent US election.
LBB> As a business leader, how have you found the challenge of managing during Covid?
Tyler> It's been really fascinating because, prior to COVID, my major goal across North America was to connect the offices. It was really about looking at all of our different capabilities and people and making sure that whether you worked in Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto or Montreal you could have opportunities across many different kinds of briefs and clients.
A year ago we were in planning for 2020, talking about how we could connect the offices, and nothing has accelerated that connection faster than Covid. On the positive side of things, the fact that everyone can Zoom into each other's homes and lives has done amazing things for our clients and the agencies. Our communications are better across the board in North America and I think our people are able to see leadership in each of the offices in a much faster, more seamless way than before. For our clients' briefs we talk less and less about where someone sits and where they are based. It's more about someone's specialty and how they are contributing to a problem. I think that's really cool.
LBB> What lessons have you learned? Both positive and negative...
Tyler> It's been interesting to see what's better in this environment. We've talked a lot about when you need to put your head down and crack a brief or write a final deck for a client or do a competitive review - having the ability to do that solo in an uninterrupted way can actually mean getting your job done faster. But we also really missed that collaboration. When you're writing a client presentation or a new business pitch, you get in a room, you whiteboard it, you debate, it's very collaborative. It’s the same with internal creative reviews and those types of discussions. That's hard to do. In this world, it's hard to get a big narrative piece done because three to four hour Zoom sessions are exhausting. That's been really tricky.
One way we've been staying motivated and focused is to think about what we really want for the future of our offices, our spaces and our people. I think there's a broad consensus, at least within FCB, that we want to give our people as much flexibility as possible moving forward. We want the offices to become places that pull people in versus mandate them to be there. We’re looking at how we can make them interesting collaboration spaces that people want to come to for those meetings and sessions that are easier to do when you're together, and how we make sure that we keep living into this one North America model that allows any creative to work on the biggest briefs that we get.
Moving forward, one of the most important things that I'm focusing on is our people's mental health. I think the next three to six months will be a big challenge. Early on in Covid there was something of a mentality that it was a new and interesting problem to try to solve it together. Then the summer came and, in most of our locations, it was warm outside. Now looking ahead, I'm focused on working on ways to make sure that our people are ok. One of the tricky parts about that is, when you're walking the halls of the office and you're together, you can get a read on someone pretty fast. If you say hi and you hear that hi back and something doesn't feel right, you can know it. In this world, it's harder to see. But a lot of our teams are talking to their teammates more than they ever have before just to check in and to see how people are doing.
LBB> Given that so much of your role is bringing together the FCB North America family so that particular people and specialists can work on particular briefs, which elements of the network are exciting you right now?
Tyler> We've been incredibly privileged to have grown this year. A big reason for that is that all of our operations at their core are doing incredible things. When we look at New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, all of those agencies have great management teams and have been doing great work on the biggest brands that we have, and a big focus of ours was to make sure that our creative product is world class across our biggest partners.
New York for us has been an incredible success story this year. Emma [Armstrong], the president, Gabriel [Schmitt] and Michael [Aimette], the CCOs and Todd [Sussman], the CSO, are just a fabulous team with amazing chemistry and amazing focus on the overall creative product. We've seen that office win, I think, 90% of their pitches this year. They were just acknowledged with the Grand Effie for the Whopper Detour work and they'll see huge double digit growth. We've hired 70 or 80 people in New York since Covid started. It's been exciting to see a team gel like that because, when I look at some of the turnarounds that we've done in North America, there's a formula in some ways to them and you can almost predict how it's going to work if you get it right.
New York is a good example of that. We found the right leadership, which took time but we found a great team, they started to gel together, they started to do great work on their client base. That great work eventually led to great new business wins. When you look at Chicago, which is really the heart of our offering in North America in terms of scale and capability, our teams are doing so many things - of course classic advertising briefs, but we also have an incredibly deep team in analytics, B2B, and production with Lord and Thomas, our production unit across North America, being based in Chicago. That has been one of our secret weapons during Covid. Our ability to shoot video in amazing quality ridiculously fast has been amazing. And when you look into Toronto and FCB/SIX, those agencies continue to grow. FCB/SIX is full of rare talents who love CRM retention and bringing creativity to that world. They led the BMW North America CRM account win, which was big for us. Toronto has won a lot this year, virtually. FCB West works collaboratively with our Chicago agency on Clorox, and to see the success that the brand has had and some of the work that has been released has been a real highlight.
Moving forward we're really looking at how we create the correct centres of excellence in these different places so that we can be better as a whole across the region. Having a strong North American leadership team has been key to that and the collaboration amongst those 20 or so people has been awesome. It's been really special to see how the different teams have tried to help each other out during a really challenging time. That can be as simple as someone's perspective on returning to the office or procurement. Now we're looking at supercharging our technology offering to make sure that when we do get into this hybrid model, each office is able to work in that way and our teams are really connected. That's exciting for me to see because that was my big motivation for stepping into this role. I was trying to connect the 1400 people across North America more. For me, that always started with having a team that wanted to collaborate.
LBB> You’ve touched upon this already but I wanted to ask you about the process of turning around an agency. Quite often, while the problems can be easy to identify, but making meaningful change is tough. So, firstly, how do you pull that off? But also what are the challenges that come with putting the steps in place to ensure that things stay turned around and grow in the future?
Tyler> That's a great question. You're so right, when an agency needs to turn around, you know what the issues are. Typically, it's financial, creative and, most importantly, cultural.
When agencies hit their down cycle -which many do, we're in a cyclical world - you start to see great talent leave. So initially when you're looking at an agency and trying to do a turnaround, the first focus is on the people who are there and really bringing in the right leaders and having the right vision that inspires them to believe in themselves again, and to believe in the work. When we started in Toronto or with FCB/SIX and even in New York, that first big piece was to show the team that you can do great creative work. It was important to rally the internal group to the new vision.
Once you've got that ambition in place it's about having all your focus on the existing brands that are with you, and really showing them that this isn't the same agency that they might have signed up for a couple of years ago - this is an agency that believes in high quality creative, that is going to hire the best talent, that's going to change the way that we work together in some ways. It's going to lead to more debates around the quality of the work, we're going to have more of a point of view in some cases than we've had before. And most clients love that. But as it gets into the work, when they start to feel those debates happen with rich discussions, it can surprise them because a lot of agencies in turnaround mode can become very scared, they become very passive, and then become very focused on just keeping the clients happy. That's incredibly important but the quality of the work is what leads to turnarounds.
When I first started at FCB, Susan Credle said to me, 'remember that we're a product company, not a service company'. That vision and definition has really helped us as we've turned around. Once the culture is in a place where your people feel like there's a new vision and leadership team that wants to make the best work of their careers, and you've focused on your clients and delivering better work for them, it then turns into a new business focus and looking at how to grow your base and attract new clients. But for a lot of our new teams executing turnarounds, it takes time to win new business because you're just getting used to each other. It's a chemistry game at the end of the day.
When I look at our agencies, during the first six to nine months - and I'd include myself here in Toronto - it's a real challenge to do well in a new business pitch because you're new to the agency or the team. But you then start to get on a run. I think once we won our first pitch in Toronto (six years ago now, which is wild) we won our next seven or eight in a row. FCB/SIX was very similar and New York is just about on that roll now. You can see everything fall into place. When I look at turnarounds as a whole, the biggest thing that you can do for your people and your leadership teams is give them the time to turn it around and really not focus everything on 'the opportunity' or 'the moment'. It's actually a lot of little things that come together to do a turnaround, not the one big Grand Prix style piece of work or the one big new business win.
To get to the second part of your question, once you're in that place - I think we're there with Toronto and at SIX and are entering that place in New York given the year they're having - the challenge for most leadership teams is that they’ve been personally involved across every single client and all of those briefs. As you start to scale the question becomes about ensuring that the teams you're bringing in reflect your style, reflect your vision and reflect the type of company that you want to create. You have to transition a little bit from being that account director on every piece of business to being a leader. And that happens when you grow. In Toronto we went from one to 250, similar at SIX and in New York we'll almost double the size of the agency this year. That's where growth is amazing but it presents a number of new challenges for those management teams that you have to manage.
LBB> You’re a firm believer that it’s not only small independent shops that are the most nimble and creative. Why?
Tyler> My perspective of the market overall is that we're moving to the poles. I think there will be many, many great, independent, small, nimble shops. There already are. On the other side, there are going to be big scaled network agencies that help clients solve big scale global problems. When you think about that dichotomy, the common criticism of holding company agencies is that they are big, slow, traditional - and I just don't see it. When I look at the type of work that we've provided our clients during Covid, I think that because of our scale, we were able to produce hundreds of pieces of content in days. There have been times during Covid where my phone would ring at 9pm on a Wednesday and we'd ship a national US campaign on Friday afternoon. I think ‘slow; is a a bit of a cliche.
The other component is that when I look at the talent we have across FCB, in terms of the range of people who we can bring to a client to solve their problems, not only is it the best creatives in the world, but it's the best strategists, the best technologists, the best producers. We have such a rich array of talent. And the truth is that today most of the marketing challenges that we see require a broad group of specialists that can attack the problem from multiple angles.
Most clients don't have an 'I need a better ad problem', they have an 'I need to grow my brand, today' problem. That takes specialists in, of course, advertising, but also website creation, second and third party data management, CRM, one-to-one. That's a broad range of experts required that I think scale allows you to lean into. I admire a lot of independent agencies out there but I think that this idea that some networks are slow or traditional or unwilling to move just isn't on. When I look at our clients who work with us and who have grown with us over the years, I don't think any of them would say that they're with FCB because we're just like another network. I think they'd say they're with us because of our creativity, speed and people.
LBB> I wanted to pick your brains quickly on the US election. Do you think that the changing of the president will have any knock on effects for brands and agencies?
Tyler> I sent a note out to all of our teams just prior to the election, and across FCB in the US we gave everyone a day off to vote and to participate. I could feel a level of anxiousness in conversations that I was having with our people. There was a high level of tension going into it. I wanted to recognise that as a leader across the company, but also remind our people that one of the things that I think has made us great as a company is our diversity of talents, thought, political perspective, age, gender, and really lean into the fact that it's those debates and that diversity that has led to our creative product being as strong as it is and our results being as strong as they are.
I think many people inside FCB are excited for change but when you look at the overall numbers there are still 70 million people that voted for the Republicans versus the 75 million for the Democrats. That's the brand challenge. How do you make sure that, as a brand, you can speak to those different groups? This is obviously a Canadian perspective because I'm not from America but when I look at studies about what unifies those groups, in many cases, there are a lot of things that do. Sometimes the media can present this hugely polarised perspective but when you're actually on the ground in local communities, talking to different people, there are moments of connection that brands can absolutely lean into. Brands that have a strong purpose are really good at trying to be that unifier amongst that group. For us moving forward, that becomes the real focus. When you're a national brand that has a wide array of users, how do you make sure that you stand up for what you believe in and that you have a core purpose, but also that you focus your efforts on unifying groups and not dividing them?
LBB> With everything that we’ve spoken about in mind, what do the next six to 12 months look like for FCB North America?
Tyler> What we're trying to do isn't a mystery. We believe that creativity is an economic multiplier and we're trying to be creative across every part of the customers' minds, not only from great awareness and consideration campaigns, but in retail, in one-to-one, in customer retention. The work that's excited me most in the last couple of years has been campaigns like the Canadian Down Syndrome Society work in Google Search, or the Me Too work that just launched from FCB/SIX on blockchain. It's work that really merges technology, creativity and data in an innovative and inspiring way. So when I think about what we're going to be focused on in the next six to 12 months, it's really going to be leaning into applying that creative experience across the entire brand experience. I think we've got some amazing examples of that already. Whopper Detour, for example, is a mobile experience, right?
It's about really unlocking a lot of these different spaces for creatives to realise how large a canvas that we have because I think in a lot of places generally right now, specifically in digital, we're not seeing a lot of creativity, we're seeing a lot of feature based customisation and personalisation. Our work on Go Back To Africa would be another good example of the power of data, tech and creative combined to really create something special. Our teams are going to be focused on that moving forward because that's where our clients are. Commerce is another great example of that. When we look at e-commerce adoption as a result of Covid, people are buying more and searching more online. But I think the creative application of commerce is in its infancy stages in terms of what we could actually be doing there. We're really thinking about how we lean into those spaces that are seeing a lot of functional creativity versus emotional and functional to build some great stuff moving forward.