Egotist Brief: The Brand Union’s Toby Southgate

By christinewatson / / In his six years at The Brand Union, Toby Southgate has been part of leadership teams in Europe, the Middle East, and now North America. With his new title of CEO, Americas, Southgate is working here in NYC, where he’s been tasked with growing the agency’s digital and brand interaction capabilities. ——————– What’s the best thing about your new position at The Brand Union? In lots of ways, this is a start-up opportunity with the support and backing of WPP, and the benefit of already being part of one of the only 3 or 4 truly global brand agencies in the world. Everywhere else in the world Brand Union is as big or bigger, as good or better, and as well known if not more so, than any of our immediate competitors—Interbrand, Wolff Olins, Futurebrand. We have a lot to do to reach that point in this market, but we’ll do it—and that’s a great brief. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned overseas that you’re planning on bringing to New York? A global perspective can make a positive impact on anything, no matter how domestic or regional it may appear. This is a creative industry and the wider your influences and spheres of awareness, the better your work and your ideas should be. Globally, where would you say the big creative hotbeds are these days? Excluding New York, of course. To be honest I think New York is struggling to stay on that list, particularly in design and advertising. Brazil, China, Sweden, the UK, India, Argentina, Australia…the major industry awards have really shown over the last few years that the balance of creative power is shifting more than a little. New York and London will always be magnets for great talent, and big agencies will perhaps always revolve around these two more traditional markets, but the people staffing those agencies are going to be global, and other nations are punching way above their weight. What’s the best career advice you’ve ever gotten? Many variations on the “be nice on the way up, ‘cos you’ll see the same people on the way down” theme. This is a relatively small industry made up, on the whole, of remarkably nice people. Basically, don’t be a dick. Name a couple of advertising-related things you’d love to see disappear forever. The word “advertising” in general. The thinking that a TV spot can solve every brand communications challenge would be another. Many would say that thinking is dated and I agree, but it’s still predominant. The Brand Union website touts the line “Resilient brands are the ones that anticipate and act on the changing needs of their consumers.” We couldn’t agree more. Can you give us the best example of how that came out in a project of yours? The core assets of the Absolut brand have remained largely unchanged since 1979: the iconic form of the bottle; the single source of the ingredients; the contrast in typographic treatment; the rounded, silver cap. The bottle shape itself formed the key component of every major piece of “advertising” work TBWA created over three decades. And the brand has remained relevant to a core group of consumers through different ownership structures and as its strategy for growth has evolved. That’s a brand with resilience. What separates a great ad agency from a mediocre one? The mediocre ones think they’re ad agencies. A great idea is moot unless you can get a client to buy it. What are your keys to selling stellar creative to clients? A great idea will always have value, and in a great client relationship the work you make should be collaborative and trusting. David Ogilvy once said, “Clients get the advertising they deserve.“ That statement, which I believe to be true, tells me that agencies need to make sure they find and nurture relationships that can thrive over time. That takes work and it takes trust. I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not, but I’ve heard that Wally Olins once pushed back on a client that didn’t appreciate the single, almost certainly brilliant, idea he had presented in response to a brief. The client team wanted to see more ideas, and Wally’s view was that the right one was in front of them. He apparently told them “if you don’t have the conviction to run this work, then you can borrow some of ours.” I admire the sentiment hugely. What’s your favorite recent campaign or ad? The big Cannes winner from last year, Dumb Ways to Die by McCann for the Melbourne Metro, deserved all the plaudits it received. This is a campaign idea beautifully executed: tactical, effective, engaging, irreverent, darkly humorous. Ogilvy’s Dove work must now be considered global, iconic, category-defining. It improves with age and engages more broadly, year over year. This is a very big brand idea that’s as relevant, as direct, and as persuasive now as it was at launch. This is brand building. I also love Translation’s work for Chris / Cliff Paul work for State Farm—a very smart, human idea delivered with cultural, contemporary relevance. This is advertising done well at an executional, campaign-driven level. Give us three pieces of advice our readers should know. Respect your elders, but not just because someone is senior to you. That doesn’t mean they’re always right. Be open to everything. Great ideas need food, space, and time to grow. Don’t eat yellow snow.