Bdh J. Walter Thompson Love

Interview with TBWA's Robert Harwood-Matthews: The inside story

By The Drum | Administrator

October 25, 2007 | 7 min read

However, Harwood-Matthews remained tight-lipped. When quizzed over the departures and changes two months ago, his only response was that he was “unable to comment at this time”.

All signs pointed to a big announcement; something to cap off what The Drum had proclaimed as Harwood-Matthews’ revolution.

Two weeks ago, the silence was broken. Parent group TBWA announced that three of its Manchester agencies had come together as one agency. That agency, TBWA\\Manchester, encompasses the teams of BDH, Tequila\\Manchester and Digerati\\. Tequila and Digerati as agency brands still exist, to fulfil a client need for specialist expertise, while the BDH name has been phased out completely.

Harwood-Matthews has become chief executive of the new agency, while Fergus McCallum – formerly the chief executive of Tequila – has taken on the chief operating officer role.

Harwood-Matthews, free of his own embargo, is also ready to spill the beans on what’s been going on at the agency.

Sitting down with The Drum, he’s relaxed and good humoured, but admits it’s been a frustrating time reading speculation about the agency and not being able to respond.

When it comes to those Love rumours, Harwood-Matthews believes a third-party may be responsible. He vehemently denies accusations that he called another agency’s clients to inform them of a forthcoming acquisition - “I’m competitive, but that just isn’t done” – and also promises to tell The Drum about a potential office move before the end of the interview.

However, the part Harwood-Matthews wants to clear up the most is the raft of changes to have taken place during his running of the agency and, in particular, the last two months.

“I’d like to think that the original founders would be proud of us,” he says, when tackled over the impact of losing the equity in the BDH name after 43 years. “They talked about a very high creative standard and they talked about it being a positive place to work, which is part of the mantra we’re trying to establish now. We’re coming at this with the same sort of enthusiasm that I presume those guys had [back in 1964].

“The place has an energy about it, which is akin to a start-up. There’s a lot of excitement, fresh feeling and good news going around the place.

“You’ve got to remember that the agency has been called BDH\\TBWA for a number of years, so there’s been increasing understanding of the parent brand. TBWA also won agency network of the year for 2007, so, it’s an extremely successful global network, married with a great team and a great enthusiasm.”

While some might raise concerns over what has been lost in terms of the equity in the BDH name, Harwood-Matthews believes the benefits of the changes will be more than enough to compensate.

“It gives our clients a far greater access to a range of case studies and points of reference. Remember, we are the agency globally for Playstation, Absolute, and Adidas – some really exciting brands. We’ve also got some 240-odd offices around the world, so if someone comes and wants a soft drinks case study from another market, we can provide it. It gives clients a greater sense of depth to the agency. It gives staff new opportunity to look up and not look down and I’m very much in favour of people saying ‘I want my career to include other countries and new challenges’, rather than people who just want a nice cosy job round the corner.”

The TBWA\\Manchester brand was launched in April 2006, which encompassed BDH, Tequila, Digerati, E-Graphics and Staniforth PR – the latter two of which have retained their autonomy after the latest announcement.

Speaking of that initial launch, Harwood-Matthews says: “It was the start of a longer process, because I think people recognised that there were an increasing number of people wanting to borrow bits of each service. What Fergus and I have observed is that the way to deliver that is to bring businesses together.”

However, the latest changes are more than just cosmetic. The restructure also sees TBWA\\Manchester join financially, sharing one bottom-line.

So what about those that were culled as part of the restructure? “The agency needed clear direction,” he says, diplomatically. “It needed some pretty single-minded leadership and we needed to give people the opportunity here to do things differently. As such, it was inevitable there would be some change.”

As anticipated, the creative team at the new agency has undergone a major restructure. As well as Leah’s departure and Hulme’s change in role, several other creatives were understood to have exited the company.

These changes meant the need for an executive creative director was at the top of Harwood-Matthews’ ‘To Do’ list.

Enter Mick Foden, the former JWT London creative partner, to take one of two executive creative director positions within the new set-up. The other is Richard Sharp, who had headed-up Tequila’s creative team in Manchester. The Tequila, Digerati and BDH teams now form part of a sole 28-strong creative team, which Foden and Sharp will take joint responsibility for.

Harwood-Matthews revealed that he interviewed a number of candidates for the executive creative director role, some from London and others already based in the north.

“We had some who, during the interview, asked me about property prices in the north. There was a real sense that they eyed a move to the north as some sort of semi-retirement. Then we met with the young creative hotshots, but they weren’t what we were looking for to fill the role.”

So what was it Foden brought to the table? “There was the fire in his belly,” Harwood-Matthews says, “he had genuine ambition for the place and the people, as well as a real sense of positivity. He’s a good creative judge; has a lot of passion; and he wants to build successful teams here. Those were the three things that appealed to us about Mick.

“The fact that he’d done quite a lot of coaching at Watford [West Herts College] was important to us as well. It’s those kinds of things that show whether this is just a job or something they’re very passionate about. That passion appealed to me. I feel the exactly same way about the business.”

So what next for the agency? Can we expect further changes to the team or is the revolution complete? “There’ll be no big structural changes; we’ve taken a reasonable amount of time in getting here. Our ambitions and efforts now are focused on the work. And in terms of new business, you can expect some exciting news from us shortly.”

And what of that move out of the church in Didsbury? It’s definitely on, that’s for sure. Harwood-Matthews says he has three options that all point to the city centre and having the entire team under one roof. Being in the centre of Manchester will be a step closer to Harwood-Matthews’ ambition for the city.

“If we can all somehow work on continuing the exciting creative scene in Manchester, I think that will be to everyone’s benefit. It can feel a bit patchy and disparate, and I think we should all be working together to make this as exciting a place as possible. That way we can attract the best talent, make some noise and throw some rocks at London.”

Bdh J. Walter Thompson Love

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