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Focus on 'what' not 'how': TBWA\Asia's Sean Donovan on pushing through 2020

Sean Donovan, President TBWA\Asia

Leadership from key agencies across the APAC region look back at the year, sharing how the business fared for them, the high points and the low moments, the learnings along the way, the pivoting done to consolidate businesses and what is in store going forward.

In this edition, Sean Donovan president, TBWA\Asia shares the report card of the celebrated New York-headquartered agency group’s APAC operations

2020 has been a tough year for businesses across markets and economies. What would you define as some of the key trends of the year?

The pandemic has challenged growth everywhere, with budget contractions, budget diversions, re-prioritization, production constraints and so forth. Naturally, those that endured the longest lockdowns and those that were more heavily invested in the industries that suffered the most, like travel and tourism, took the larger hit. But we also had quite a few off-sets to this in terms of categories that were counter-cyclical, like food and digital; clients that had to reposition themselves 180 degrees, like Singapore Tourism Board who shifted to a domestic tourism focus and rolled out SingapoRediscovers. Or the work we did in the Philippines with the Ingat Angat (carefully we will rise), the largest ever inter-brand campaign to drive economic recovery and growth.

What have been some of the defining trends this year?

2020 has been marked by a tolerance for innovation that wasn’t quite there previously. It has led to the power of the marriage between data and cultural insight in giving brands a very sharp lens to identify where, how and when, demand can come from. And as a result, we have seen our consulting, data, martech and CX revenue grow by over 200% on the back of some of these shifts.

The realisation that, with a bit of practice, we can successfully deploy talent from multiple jurisdictions to any project has had a profound and growing impact on every organization. For us, it saw us able to assemble dispersed teams from the region to offer a greater breadth of services to certain clients. We scaled an initiative that TBWA\China launched last year ‘The Pirate Collective’, into a talent and skill management platform to allow us to better assemble dispersed teams.

The same principle allows us to benefit by providing service out of Asia to the rest of the TBWA Global Collective – for example, Singapore’s extensive data capabilities have seen it develop as a Global Centre of excellence for TBWA and we are currently developing this principle for several other offices in the region across different services.

Overall, how has the performance been for TBWA in the region?

We have seen our non-traditional revenue grow by over 200% in Asia this year and that trajectory looks set to continue as we enter 2021. Our consulting, data and martech revenue grew faster than we had dared hope for only months ago. We started the year with advanced production capabilities in most of our offices across Asia and saw this area of our business go up by two and a half times. (China, HK, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, India, Indonesia).

All top 50 clients were retained and on top of this almost 140 pieces of new business were delivered, resulting in over 30% growth in new business year on year.

India remains one of TBWA’s small to mid-sized operation in the region. How has the year panned out for TBWA?

India has been a market that’s faced one of the toughest struggles in getting Covid under control and the impact of that region. It has endured one of the longest lockdowns - it’s one of the markets where our teams have been separated the longest - and unsurprisingly, commercially, it’s been one of the toughest markets in the region. The India office, led by the group CEO Govind Pandey is unique within TBWA\ regionally, in that they are a smaller agency in a market, but despite this, they punch well above their weight creatively.

As most major communication groups go through consolidation marked by mergers and many legacy agencies get subsumed within new-age tech brands, what does the future of the agency business look like?

In terms of the future of the agency business, there is an increasingly limited future for those that continue to focus on the ‘how’, rather than the ‘what’ – it limits their perspective on creating value for clients, their perspective on talent, their perspective on investment, the perspective on training– every aspect of the business. Too many agencies that have continued to confuse the ‘what’ we do, with the ‘how’ we do it. And the consolidation and merger activity reflects that. It’s about downside management, rather than upside value creation for clients.

What kind of consolidation may be in store for TBWA group?

Our consolidation is around an organising principle, rather than P&L combining: how do we create the most value for clients? There is, of course, an ‘efficiency’ component to this, how do we make things faster, cheaper, etc – and we’ve seen this in the growth of our production business. But there also has to be an ‘efficacy’ component – how do we create better things? Things that deliver non-incremental returns. And that is about not limiting what we can provide because of a limited geographical view of the world. We have seen a growth in the creation of Centres of deep excellence, such as our data capabilities in Singapore, our performance capabilities in Paris and our CX capabilities in Hong Kong that power TBWA offices around the world with deep expertise that they may not be in a position to scale locally.

Lessons learnt in an award-less year to help the creative output

A number of factors conspired during 2020 that had an impact on the creative output across the industry: the need to pivot quickly away from work that was in progress earlier in the year and the linear nature of WFH and its inability, often, to provide those moments of serendipity that build on the creative output. The removal of award shows was a factor as well and their role in reminding us to push the work that bit harder was conspicuous by its absence.

(Interestingly TBWA has recently announced its first-ever pan-Asian awards, called the Creative Impact Awards, Asia. The winners will be announced across seven categories in early-December.)

Some standout work of 2020, across APAC markets

SingapoRediscovers, Singapore – An interesting example of us working with a client to change a strategy 180 degrees midstream, switching from an international to a domestic tourism focus.

Ingat Angat, The Philippines

TBWA\SMP Philippines launched this campaign in October to rally the industry and brands together to create the largest ever inter-brand effort, asking companies to band together to stimulate the economy through solidarity, cooperation and community spirit, demonstrating the import role the industry plays in helping restart the economy, create jobs and livelihoods.

Nissan Pavilion, Japan – It involved the creation of The Nissan Pavilion Yokohama, an experiential entertainment facility showcasing Nissan’s future mobility concepts.

Warehouse Last Dad Standing, New Zealand

TBWA\Make NZ made a six-part TV series called ‘Last Dad Standing’ and partnered with Warner Bros. The series had Kiwi Dads battling one another in a showdown of the most cringe-worthy, pun-filled Dad jokes to win prizes and money for charity.