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3 actionable insights with... TBWA New York Group chairman Rob Schwartz

Rob Schwartz might just be your next coffee date

The Drum’s 3 Actionable Insights series asks top industry leaders to share their thoughts about what actions our readers should take immediately. This week, we chat with Rob Schwartz, chair of the newly-formed TBWA New York Group and former chief executive of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York. He spells out the value of change, the power of effective storytelling and the magic that can come from a simple coffee date.

1. If you want to succeed, adapt

If you want to survive and thrive in our business, you have to learn how to reinvent yourself. And you have to transform. You have to learn new skills. You have to learn new disciplines.

In going from chief creative officer to chief executive officer, the first new discipline I had to learn was the language of finance. As a chief creative officer, you spend very little time looking at the numbers. As a chief executive officer, you spend a whole lot of time on profit and loss. One of the first things I did when I transitioned to chief executive was dive into the money part of our business. I not only brushed off my college econ books and reacquainted myself with finance terms, I really started thinking about the concepts behind the language. [I wanted to] truly understand things like compensation ratios and what a line-item like that says about the health of the business. By the way, YouTube is also a great place to enroll in classes – MIT has free courseware. I also stopped listening to Howard Stern in the morning and started listening to Tom Keene on Bloomberg Radio. All of these things truly opened my mind and expanded my purview.

Now that I am in a chairman role, I’m finding I need to expand my skills once again. My role is one part ‘consigliere’ and one part ‘impresario’. I’m functioning as an internal consultant and coach working directly with the leadership teams of the three agencies in the group. This is all about listening and drawing on my vast experience in the business and in life to help these teams reach their full potential. As ‘impresario’, I’m positioning and marketing the agencies to clients and new business consultants. This part of the role is all about networking and public relations.

What’s been rewarding and surprising is that I’ve been able to go from very specific skills that I learned early in my career, like writing and creating ideas, and have compounded them. Being a creative director taught me how to look at things in a wider way. Being a chief creative officer, I learned how to build teams. As a chief executive, I learned how to build an agency. And now as a chairman, I’m contributing to building the full TBWA Collective.

It’s pretty amazing how the things you’re doing today can provide the springboard for what you can do in the future.

2. Master the art of storytelling

You have to get your story straight. And you have to really understand the art of storytelling. This is very core to how we approach things [at TBWA] – we love storytelling. We think it’s cliche, but there’s something [about the fact that over] the past 5,000 years, stories have worked.

And something that I’ve really homed in on and really started to preach out to both the agency and clients is not so much how to tell a story, but ... understanding what stories actually are. Stories help you position things – they help the audience understand, they help the audience remember.

I picked up a book called The Seven Basic Plots by this Oxford professor named Christopher Booker. And the cool thing about stories is that there’s only seven of them. They include ‘overcoming the monster’, ‘the quest’, ‘rags to riches’ and ‘rebirth’ – which is this transformation idea.

You have to lay out these seven stories and understand what they are. And I think you’ll just kind of naturally start to see what story you’re trying to tell. We’ve done this with clients. I remember a specific one where we were working with Michelin at the time, and we laid out the seven stories, and everybody walked into the exercise with [this idea that], ‘We’re Michelin, so we’re on a quest to make the perfect product.’ Everybody thought it was going to be ‘the quest’, And what happened during the discussion is that people realized that none of the brand was actually taking people into the deepest parts of racing into the paddock into the kind of lives of these drivers and teams. [We realized] it’s not so much quest, actually – our story is about the journey we’re taking into this world.

Once you know what those stories are, you can start to formulate ideas – whether it’s your pitch or your brand, it really helps. So I’ve come back to my belief in the power of story.

3. The more you connect, the more you can create

The more you talk to people, the more opportunities you create. One of the nice things that came out of this pandemic is that it’s easier just to do a ‘virtual coffee’.

[Pre-pandemic] I always met people for coffee, but it was incumbent on somebody schlepping out to meet me. I used to go to this hotel on 56th Street [in Manhattan] –they have a beautiful place to drink coffee. There are a lot of machinations involved. But with Zoom ‘virtual coffees’, we just fire up the screen, have your brew next to you and start talking.

Typically, what happens is someone will write to me on LinkedIn, or they’ll write to me on Twitter, and I’ll say, “Hey, instead of like, going back and forth on this, let’s meet for coffee.” And I’m noticing that not everybody does this. I’ll say, “Yeah, let’s just go chat.” And oftentimes the personal statement is, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe you’re talking to me.” It’s like, why not?

When you talk to people, you just never know [what might come of it]. This person may be a great person to hire, or [maybe] they’re actually looking for an agency – and here’s our next client! You never know who you’re going to meet.

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