David Blecken
Jun 9, 2017

Jean-Marie Dru offers a reality check

The TBWA supremo shared some frank views with Campaign on the future of his industry at Advertising Week Asia in Tokyo.

Jean-Marie Dru
Jean-Marie Dru

In his presentation at Advertising Week Asia in Tokyo, TBWA Worldwide chairman Jean-Marie Dru explored the meaning of innovation and its importance to the survival of any business. Campaign later asked Dru to expand on that theme in the context of advertising, an industry with great potential to evolve that nonetheless faces a very uncertain future.

[Speaking at Advertising Week] you said that marketing needs to “take a lead role in innovation”. What exactly do you mean by this?

The most interesting innovation is coming from science and technology. At the same time, many companies cannot come up with a scientific breakthrough every few years. But that’s no reason not to try to innovate. I always say that marketing is an underestimated function in many countries. In America the average tenure [of a CMO] is between 24 and 26 months. That shows marketing is not understood in the way it should be. In many companies ‘marketing’ is really just ‘shopper marketing’. But if there’s one department that should imagine where growth can come from, it’s marketing.

In some ways, agencies seem to be trying to become more like consultancies. Is this really the right thing to be doing?

I’ve always believed we should come back upstream, for the simple reason that to have great creative work you have to have great marketing strategy, and to have that you have to have great company strategy. Because of that, part of our job as an agency is to come back upstream and be a business consultant. I say that modestly—we are less thorough than a strategy consultant, but we bring something to the table that they can’t and that is imagination. If you’re a strategic consultant, you come and give strategic recommendations. We don’t do that, but we open doors. Our job is to open possibilities. I really believe the good agencies are strong in that sense. Either you do that, or you decide you’re a pure creative shop. There’s no in-between. But in the 40 years I’ve been in this business, when I’ve come to a client and made a strategic business recommendation, I don’t remember them once saying ‘that’s not relevant’ or ‘you’re not legitimate’. People like people who come with ideas.

What’s the biggest change that agencies need to make in the next five years?

To really understand what we are doing on the digital side. We’ve been saying we can measure everything, but we really don’t know. We don’t measure well, and I also really think there’s a creative revolution to make in digital. Steve Jobs didn’t want to use digital marketing because he didn’t think anyone had cracked it. Overall, if you take 75 percent of what’s done digitally, it’s really poor. So those are the two things—we have to be better creatively and deliver on that promise of measuring everything.

At events like this, people are prone to making grand statements. One I heard yesterday was that advertising exists to “transform people’s lives”. Do you agree that this is a bit of an exaggeration?

Yes, in fact I believe the opposite. I believe the most important thing is insight. Nothing is more powerful than great insight. It’s not about transforming lives. It’s about understanding how people live—revealing the place people are in, which is much more interesting.

What kind of creativity is the most valuable in this day and age?

I’m not sure I can answer that. I’m working on a book at the moment on the difference between creativity and innovation, and I’m struggling. When it comes to advertising I have nothing special to say, but it has to be fresh. It has to do two things: it has to be based on innovative strategy but when you see the work, it mustn’t let you feel the strategy. It’s achieving that balance. If the campaign could be done without the brief, it’s not strong enough, but if you can feel the brief in the work, then there’s been no leap. Each time I campaign manages to achieve both, it turns out to be good.

TBWA Hakuhodo is especially active in building relationships with startups. What tangible benefits does this achieve?

We don’t know. Over the last 10 years, TBWA Hakuhodo has done very well. It’s been Agency of the Year seven times in a row. Because of that, I think anything creative that can help a brand or company, they should try. This is why they started Quantum. It does two things—it opens our minds to a lot of new things and secondly it’s like an incubator. In 90 percent of cases we don’t work on a fee basis but on a royalty basis. We might do 10 prototypes and hope one will be successful.

How important is product design to the future of your agency?

It’s office by office. We have strong design capabilities here in Tokyo, in Paris, Helsinki and South Africa…I know our CEO is wondering how to expand that expertise on a worldwide basis but we don’t yet have an answer. But it’s important, because it’s a fantastic creative discipline and we think we can bring something to it, moving between design and design thinking. It’s a similar story as when we started [this interview]—that design is coming back upstream to be at the core of strategic development.

Campaign Japan

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