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Tom Carroll says the Toronto office of TBWA has always had an independent streak and tends to punch above its weight. (Neville Elder For the Globe and Mail)
Tom Carroll says the Toronto office of TBWA has always had an independent streak and tends to punch above its weight. (Neville Elder For the Globe and Mail)

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A veteran adman with no fear of digital Add to ...

He once bought a fake Rolex watch, only to crush it under his heel during a client dinner to make a joke about no-gift policies.

Veteran account man Tom Carroll made his name by creating client relationships, and remembers the days when every agency worth its salt had a bar in the building. But he is no slouch when it comes to facing the future.

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The chief executive officer of TBWA Worldwide, who recently presided over the creation of its Digital Arts Network, professes impatience with those who won’t adapt to digital (and those who think that digital is everything), and has a high perch from which to watch how the ad industry – and the business of marketers all over the world – is changing. He spoke with The Globe and Mail during a visit to TBWA’s office in Toronto earlier this month.

You’re here for the 25th anniversary of TBWA Toronto. How has advertising changed in that time?

It’s dramatic on one level, and it’s not dramatic on another level. Agencies have had to rewire themselves to be able to deliver their ideas on all these platforms we have now. Technology is driving that … But that’s just delivery, and execution. You still need big ideas. A bad idea delivered through all those legs is still a bad idea. ... We used to go to these conferences and I’d say, “There’s no boat offshore with all these digital people waiting to invade our industry. We’re going to be the digital people, whether you like it or not. Get over thinking that somebody’s going to take your job, and get over thinking that somebody’s going to save you. It’s either you, or you will be in a different industry.”

What about changes in relationship between agencies and clients? I’ve heard you’re dealing more with procurement these days than with the marketing department.

That’s been huge. … It’s harder to come to creative people and say, “I’m going to treat you like I treat my ball-bearing company.” They just got to us last. But companies will always find ways to squeeze profit out of stuff. The fact that we’ve been in such a long economic malaise has accelerated it.

Twenty years ago, they came after our fees and commissions and took that apart. Then they took the media companies out, and the response from the holding companies was to take the media companies out of the networks. There’s been a whole bunch of changes. You never negotiated a contract with the procurement guy 10 years ago. You negotiated with the marketing director. ... It’s a more global, competitive marketplace. You’ve got a lot of clients operating on razor-thin margins. We’re not the first people who have had to adjust to pressure. ... We’ve had a hard time adjusting because we think we’re special – which we are to some degree. It’s difficult. Procurement’s a whole new world. You just have to manage. You have to sit procurement people down and explain your business. You’re going to get reasonable procurement people and unreasonable ones, and ones in the middle. That’s how the world works. I didn’t ask for it, but it’s here.

On a global scale, what work are you particularly proud of?

I’m extremely proud of all the work we’ve done for Mars for years. I’m proud of Gatorade, Nissan what we’ve done for that brand; how we’ve maintained a partnership with Nissan for 30 years. I mean we opened this office because of them. Adidas. There’s so many things – Apple. The body of work from Apple for the last 14 years, think about the breadth and depth of the Apple work that we’ve done. Mac vs. PC; iTunes; iPhone; iPad; iPod. Just brilliant, over and over and over again. Brilliant. God, I can’t believe I work at this company.

You’ve had a famous relationship with Apple for years. How do you see the marketing changing at that company now that Steve Jobs is gone?

I don’t think anybody knows yet. See, Jobs loved technology and marketing, and I don’t think you’ll ever replace that combination of passions in one individual. Plus, it was like, who’s going to yell at Jesus? But I think the DNA of that company is much richer than one guy. He left too much to think that when he went there was nothing left behind.

One of your longest-standing client relationships changed this year when Montreal agency Sid Lee took over as the lead on the global Absolut account. TBWA is still doing some of the work, correct? How does everything work there?

Management changed in Sweden. That’s another 30-year-old client, in a category that Absolut invented. Thirty years ago there were five premium vodkas and today there are 224. Absolut’s still the second largest in the world. ... We’ve been in the same situation with Pepsi and Gatorade – we’ve been on the receiving end of that and we’ve been on the losing end of it. I think we did a brilliant job keeping that brand front and centre for so long. Do you know how hard that is? There’s probably been 20 new vodka entries every year for the last 10 years. People throw money against that category till they’re blue in the face. ... We’re still an Absolut agency. We still handle it in Brazil and China, and a lot of places in the world. So, time will tell.

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