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Gary O’Donnell profile

By The Drum | Administrator

October 2, 2002 | 8 min read

Gary O'Donnell: the Scottish face of TBWA who aims to get things moving.

Gary O’Donnell sits at the back of the Balmoral Bar, tie off and collar unbuttoned, sipping from an iced tumbler. Jazz music fades into the clatter of dishes and clinking of wine glasses.

“I’ve been sitting here all day,” smiles O’Donnell, TBWA\Edinburgh’s managing director – “Meetings and interviews” – a typical day in the life of the start-up MD. “Lets get out of here.”

So we shoot the joint and go for a walk.

Stretching his legs, O’Donnell looks more at ease to be on the move. No sooner had we left the revolving door that leads to the bustle of Edinburgh’s Princes Street than O’Donnell grills me. Background? Scottish market? Impressions of TBWA? And the rest.

Now, with O’Donnell armed with enough info to write a feature on me, I turn the questioning on him.

Since the announcement that TBWA is set to open an office in Edinburgh, rumours have been running rife. The leading whisper being that the office was to open to help soften the Royal Bank of Scotland pitching process. An account that, if the whispers were to believed, TBWA was favourite to win. O’Donnell is quick to respond: “Rubbish. Although I can understand why people would think that our opening an office in Edinburgh was linked to the Royal Bank of Scotland pitch, there is categorically no truth in it.

“It wasn’t a management concoction to lure the Royal Bank, it is a much more considered move than that. The initial discussions predate my appointment, but it was never the plan to open an office to service one particular client.

“TBWA\London has always prided itself on innovation in the servicing of existing as well as new clients. This is about taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves and keeping the business fresh. Edinburgh is a very interesting opportunity on both these fronts.”

O’Donnell continues down Edinburgh’s main shopping street slowly, enjoying the hazy sun.

“I would like to think that we will be welcomed in Scotland by the industry,” ventures O’Donnell.

“I always think that competition is healthy, and certainly what we are offering is competitive.

“We want to be part of the scene, for instance, we want to be a productive member of the IPA in Scotland. We want to back them and, in turn, look for their backing to help us find our feet in Scotland.”

Half-way along Princes Street we steal a left into the Gardens and grab a cardboard cup of coffee.

“Look at this,” enthuses O’Donnell, cup hand pointing across the gardens at the castle and its surrounding skyline. He turns back smiling, obviously glad to be back home, albeit on the east rather than the west coast of Scotland.

O’Donnell, originally from Hamilton (although this is something that he doesn’t advertise so avidly either in conversation or in accent), studied law at Glasgow University before heading to Young and Rubicam in London, his first job in the industry. One of his then clients, Scottish Courage, invited him to join their marketing team as brand manager for Becks, one of its stable’s thoroughbreds, in a move back to Scotland.

He spent two years at Scottish Courage before moving back to London to join Partners BDDH, working on the Mercedes Benz account before joining Farm Communications.

“I am genuinely excited at the prospect of producing our first work and getting among it,” continues O’Donnell. “However, I don’t take the nature of our opposition in Scotland lightly. We are not moving to Edinburgh because we think that we can out-gun everyone or make a quick buck. There are a number of first-class agencies in Scotland and we need to prove ourselves. It will be tough, but we will be working hard to make it work.

“Working at a relatively small, yet highly creative, agency like Farm has taught me how to make practical, commercial sense out of good ideas.”

Although TBWA is in constant conversation with a number of clients, both existing London clients and new business, O’Donnell’s experience in the drinks sector has led many to believe that Scottish Courage could be a target for the agency’s Edinburgh office.

However, O’Donnell is quick to muffle any talk: “Although I have had a lot of alcoholic experience,” says O’Donnell, “ not like that.” he laughs, catching my eye and seeing the potential headlines, “Having worked both for and with Becks, Kronenbourg and Beamish, I don’t want the Edinburgh agency to be known for only one thing. Far from it.

“We are in conversation with a number of different people and we plan to service a wide range of clients, starting with the Scottish Labour Party.”

Already the new agency has secured a highly desirable piece of Scottish business to open its doors with – the Scottish Labour Account. And, as O’Donnell finds a bench in Princes Street Gardens, he mulls over the win.

“It is important that clients get a choice and, as the recent Scottish Labour account win shows, a bit of freshness in the market can help,” says O’Donnell. The heat of the afternoon heightens as the sun beats its way through the thin cloud of mist that engulfs the city. He squints in its glare.

“As part of TBWA we are not an entirely unknown quantity, but we weren't simply handed the Scottish Labour account , we worked hard to win it. It was down to sheer hard work. We wouldn't have been in the office until midnight before the pitch if all we had to do was count on our relationship with London to win the business.

“The Scottish Labour Party spoke to three advertising agencies, all from Scotland (The Bridge and 1576 included) and at the end of the day, on that pitch, we were the best agency. Simple as that.

“Clients have the right to go where they can to get the best work. However, we are here, like others already established in Scotland, to try and encourage clients to stay north of the border, as well as attracting others, and provide them with the creative solutions that they crave.

“TBWA may be a global agency, but TBWA\Edinburgh is a Scottish agency.”

In the past, Scotland has seen its fair share of big names come and go – CDP, Greys, Saatchi and, most recently, the departure of McCann-Erickson.

However, O’Donnell is confident that he can learn from other mistakes, starting from the very bottom and working up: “We are going to start the agency in Edinburgh small and build the business. We want to create deep, long-lasting relationships with our clients over time. What we aren’t going to do is transplant what we have created in London. Such a move would be ill-judged.

“From the off we want to be able to offer a pool of talent in Edinburgh, but also link our resources to the wider talent pool that already exists in London, and grow from that. To fail to utilise what we have in London would be foolish, but we have to grow in Scotland organically.”

He continues: “There is never a good or a bad time to launch a new business. All markets have cycles and when this one turns up, we will be here.

“I am changing my whole life to do this and I hope we will be here for a long time.”

As O’Donnell departs to jump on a flight to the big smoke – an open-ended flight, as he’s missed so many in the past (“over-run meetings and too much work”) – he shouts over the noise of his taxi’s diesel engine: “You’ll hear from me soon.”

If his success is as potent as his enthusiasm and planning, I’m sure I will. Very soon ... I walk away.

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