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Manc Man to Mad Man: TBWA's Robert Harwood-Matthews on life in New York and why he's no longer the Badger

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By Stephen Lepitak, -

March 19, 2013 | 7 min read

Robert Harwood-Matthews first came to the attention of many of our readers as the man who reinvented TBWA\Manchester. Today, he's the president of the New York office of TBWA\Chiat\Day. In his office overlooking Madison Avenue, the man formerly known as Badger tells us why he's 'excited, challenged and a little bit nervous' about his biggest career opportunity to date.

Adweek described Robert Harwood-Matthews’ arrival at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York as a ‘baptism of fire’. Around the time he walked in the president’s office, two of the agency’s highest profile clients, Vonage and Absolut, announced they were heading for the exit. Some tough decisions then had to be made in terms of reducing the agency’s headcount by five per cent as a result.But by the time The Drum caught up with Harwood-Mathtews, one got a sense he was beginning to properly get his feet under the desk; metaphorically speaking, that is, for his real desk is designed for standing. Perhaps he simply does not have the time to sit down, so busy has he been getting to know clients such as Michelin, GlaxoSmithKline, Jameson and new acquisition beIN Sports “I was brought in for a reason," he explains. "There was a gaping hole without a president for about six months before I arrived, so it was inevitable that there would be issues and problems and it's become a bit of a forte of mine to be sent into these situations."It's a fantastic opportunity because if you look around TBWA and the work that has recently come out, there's a lot of really good work here. It just needs someone to come in and tighten things up and give it a steer towards the future.”And Harwood-Matthews has certainly earned a reputation as a trouble shooter, reaching Manhattan via Manchester, LA and London.An industry observer, Giles Crown of Lewis Silkin Solicitors, says: “Robert has always been a high flyer, combining drive and professionalism with excellent management and people skills. His meteoric rise within TBWA is no surprise to people who know him.”Harwood-Matthews was also well known for an informal style – often clad in jeans and a T-shirt and sporting a beard. Now clean shaven and besuited, he is also missing another one of his well-known trademarks, his nickname.Known to many in England as ‘Badger’ on account of a white wisp in his hair, he has moved to drop the name to suit what he describes as a more formal business environment. “A lot of people on the West Coast wouldn’t even know what a badger is,” he joked.But there are plenty of other clues about the personality of the man many always saw as a TBWA rising star. A notice on his office wall reads: ‘Surround yourself with positive, successful, people.’Well, he is certainly doing that. In the office below him is TBWA\Worldwide CEO Tom Carroll, his immediate boss. And within view outside his window is the office of John Wren, the CEO of Omnicom, his boss’s boss.“I can see the red dots on me,” he says. But he is also starting to build his own team. In recent weeks he has announced the hiring of Aki Spicer as head of digital strategy - Spicer joined on 18 March from Fallon Minneapolis - and Sapient Nitro’s Leigh Baker as head of account management.“It’s not about inventing the wheel. It’s about getting in the right people,” he says. “It's about bringing it all together. There's tonnes of talent here already, that's one thing that's been very apparent. I've got part of the Digital Arts Network here, I just need to draw that through a bit more and make it part of our daily routine. We have a software and services company here called pilot that's four guys. Then there's our content distribution systems projeqt and Spotlight.”His focus on these areas offers an insight into his view that the traditional ad agencies needs to evolve – and fast.“I look around this area which has many of the classic agencies: BBDO is practically opposite, Omnicom is right across the road. What I've got around me here is mainstream and big and just like the original Mad Men archetype, but that is the bit of the industry that is facing the most strategic movements. You go around thirty blocks from here to somewhere like Union Square which is where all the start-ups and tech companies are based, and those are the people who have the potential to eat advertising, much like the west end of Hoxton or Shoreditch in London. We have our equivalents here.”Of course any talk about how business is going would not be complete in this part of the world without mentioning the Super Bowl. Harwood-Matthews cited Oreo’s ‘You can dunk in the dark’ advert – sent out via social media during a Super Bowl power failure – as a sign of things to come.“It was brilliant that an agency was so quick to react,” he says, before offering his views on whether real-time advertising will become a staple client demand that agencies will have to adjust to. “It’s an interesting structural problem for the business. There are lots of different ways to try and cope with that and if you look at the social media companies they have established structures whereby they can respond very quickly.”The challenge for big brands, he argues, is figuring out how to emulate this form of rapid response on a routine basis. One option, he says might be to utilise call centres in a slightly different way. “Call centres are there 24 hours a day, already operating and brand guardians. Maybe they could be developed to use social media more effectively. That is the sort of structural issues that have to be addressed.”As to what he hopes to have achieved a year from now, he explains that his ambition is: “To have cemented a really exciting and progressive management team and to have started to build the new TBWA\Chiat\Day legacy. Our legacy of old is in some parts has developed some of the best TV in the world but we’re moving on from that so I have got work out what it looks like and still retain that creative firepower that we’re famous for here.”Harwood-Matthews also maintained his favourite city so far to work out of was Manchester. He even named his pet dog Wilmslow after the suburb where he lived. However, it is clear he is also energised by the New York scene.He described New York as having “a tightness about it”, saying that it has both an intensity and a scale that he has never felt before, despite having worked in LA which he says was far more easy going. Asked what comes to mind when he looks out of his window down Madison Avenue, he doesn’t hesitate for a moment: "I'm bloody lucky," is his immediate response. "You have got to keep a fair degree of humility about you and you've got to keep your wits about you or else this city will just eat you up and spit you out if you're not careful. I feel excited by it, I feel challenged by it, and I feel a little bit nervous about it. It's amazing.”However, one thing does irk. There is no dedicated parking for motorbikes in New York – which is why when Harwood-Matthews uses his in the city, he still represents a very small minority.“The city should really sort this out. Encouraging more people to come in by bike would cut congestion,” he says, which is why Harwood-Matthews has joined a campaign to persuade the city’s mayor to take note.

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