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The&Partnership’s Toby Allen: ‘Advertising is hard graft at the moment’

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By Sam Bradley, Senior Reporter

October 21, 2021 | 7 min read

As AMV BBDO deputy ECD Toby Allen prepares to move on to his next job, where he’ll be leading The&Partnership’s London crew, The Drum catches up with him to find out about his vision for creative leadership and a fair advertising workplace.

toby allen amv bbdo the&partnership

Toby Allen is departing AMV BBDO to join The&Partnership this month

Toby Allen is either a hiking enthusiast or a huge Marvin Gaye fan. Or both. His favorite metaphor, as he explains his decision to move on from AMV BBDO, is of mountains – the peaks already reached and the ones remaining.

Having won critical acclaim and a pride of Cannes Lions, the deputy executive creative director is moving on to a berth at The&Partnership – where he’ll lead its creative department – just a month short of celebrating a decade with his previous agency.

”I felt that I had climbed the mountain, in terms of the quality of the work that we produced and oversaw.”

Allen has summitted other, smaller mountains before; beginning his career as a copywriter at M&C Saatchi, he later created campaigns for Audi and Levi’s as a senior copywriter at BBH London and produced work for Wieden + Kennedy clients Honda and Nike. He predicts this next gig will provide a new creative challenge.

”To extend the metaphor, the path up the mountain will be very different. The&Partnership has a different DNA to AMV and to the other agencies I’ve worked at, and that’s a great thing.”

The path already travelled hasn’t exactly been straightforward for Allen, however. In particular, the work he produced at AMV for Libresse/Bodyform alongside Jim Hilson, including the ’#WombStories’, ’#Bloodnormal’ and ’#Painstories’ campaigns, took a daring approach to taboos and stigma around menstruation.

In place of the familiar blue liquids and gentle euphemisms, their work featured blood, sex, gynecology appointments and hot flushes.

Flexible leadership

Allen says the campaigns owed their frankness to his and Hilson’s decision to step back as creative leaders.

”There’s a broader point about modern creative leadership... what Jim and I found leading Bodyform was that, as two men without the female biology we were talking about the whole time, we didn’t have all the answers – there was no way that we could. So you draw on some brilliant female strategists and account directors and managers and clients.

”You can tell what feels fresh and brave and original, but you don’t actually know whether it feels right or authentic because it was largely speaking to women. I think that has taught me a kind of leadership that is not didactic, not knowing it all and pretending to have all the answers. It’s asking questions, really investigating and interrogating the work in the whole.”

He hopes to bring an ”open” form of leadership through to his new role at The&Partnership. Solving ”the big stuff” for brands means creating an environment for genuine debate between creatives, rather than ”the hamster wheel” of everyday work. ”Quite often, around the best work there are a quite a few issues that need to be thought through.”

The new gig also means leading a fragmented team into a new way of working, spread between the office, home and any number of hybrid working set-ups. He plans on being in three days a week, with the entire team in each Thursday. ”The traditional Thursday evening pub visit is a good rhythm for the week,” he notes.

While he recognizes agencies can benefit from the chance to recruit remote staff, and staff benefit from ”temporal flexibility” made more normal since the onset of the pandemic, Allen asserts that being present is still enormously important.

”I think, industry-wide, creatives – especially junior creatives – are feeling alienated from their agencies. They’re not seeing each other and having a laugh together. They’re not learning by osmosis. With everything on Zoom, work can feel almost clerical, administrative at times. So for those that can do it, being in and around each other is really important.”

Furthermore, Allen argues that agencies must ensure flexible work options are open to all staff equally. While many working parents will surely benefit from ”temporal flexibility”, he says employers need to be aware that ”it’s not the only flexibility people need”.

”There are twentysomethings who are nowhere near that and they’ll see people who come and get special dispensation because they’ve got kids... you have to be equitable intergenerationally.”

Retaining staff of all generations will require a more mature approach from bosses, he suggests. ”Advertising is hard graft at the moment. People are working long hours, the demand for activity means people are having to work quickly... it’s pretty relentless. There’s less time to have fun in the traditional sense, of going out to lunch and that kind of thing.

”So if you’re recruiting people and want to retain people, instead of the glamor and the fun of 30 years ago, I think a more equitable work-life balance is one of the answers.”

Entrepreneurial creativity

Looking ahead to the next summit, Allen sees plenty of opportunities in The&Partnership’s client roster, whether in ”the emotional equity of pets” to be mined for Pets at Home, highlighting the sustainability work of British Gas, or serving for the Lawn Tennis Association in the wake of Emma Raducanu’s big entrance. (”That’s changed the face of tennis in Britain. How do you springboard off that to create a wheel of momentum?”)

In particular, he’s eager to knock John Lewis off its perch as the Christmas retailer of choice through ambitious work for retailer Argos. ”Some of these brands are in the fabric of the nation... they do genuinely affect how people live their lives. If we can do work of quality and be in the Christmas arms race with Argos... not the same tone of voice as John Lewis, but something that’s in the fight for people’s hearts and belly laughs.”

The key, he suggests, will be to build on The&Partnership’s existing culture of ”entrepreneurial creativity” that marries strategy and fun. ”Not everyone is going to be entrepreneurs, but they can have an entrepreneurial spirit... a self-starter mentality.

”All the creatives account people, producers, strategists I’ve worked with who’ve done their best work, they’ve done it when they’ve had a mentality of ’let’s just get it done, make it happen’. In a modern creative company, you need to harness everyone’s talents. My hope is that everyone in the agency can be a kind of entrepreneur.

”I’m hoping that will provide a route up the mountain.”

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