Atifa Silk
Sep 20, 2016

JWT's global CEO on driving diversity and agile creativity

Recently enthroned as J. Walter Thompson’s global CEO, Tamara Ingram shares her passion for creativity and inventiveness in advertising.

Tamra Ingram: The pace of change in the industry today calls for greater agility and speed to meet that challenge.
Tamra Ingram: The pace of change in the industry today calls for greater agility and speed to meet that challenge.

One of the few women to lead a major advertising agency, Tamara Ingram took on the global CEO position at JWT earlier this year. Smart, passionate and energetic, she is focused on bringing ‘diversity’ to the 152-year-old agency. That’s diversity of skills as well as gender equality, an issue which, of course, became a major topic of conversation in the wake of her predecessor Gustavo Martinez’s exit after JWT chief communications officer Erin Johnson filed a discrimination lawsuit in New York claiming, among other things, that he made multiple racist and sexist slurs.

Based in New York, Ingram, who until recently ran global account teams, isn’t able to comment on Martinez and the lawsuit. She does, however, share her views on gender equality and the positive impact diversity can have on businesses, as well as what she sees as the future of creativity.

Spikes Asia: The Diversity Debate

This Friday at Spikes Asia, Ingram and Silk will be joined by Jane Lin-Baden, CEO of Isobar Asia Pacific, and Philip Brett, president of TBWA\Asia Pacific, for a panel discussion on the need for diversity and what company leaders can do about it. The discussion takes place at 12:45 pm on the Inspiration Stage.

Atifa Silk: How did you get into advertising?

Tamara Ingram: I have a real passion for theatre and film and was working in the film business, which back then required a union ticket. So, in between jobs and being in and out of films, I decided to fill the gap with a job in advertising. It captured my imagination; it was a combination of creativity and business that took over my heart. I hadn’t planned a career in advertising. But, on my first day in advertising, I thought, ‘This is home and this is where I want my future to be.’ I saw we could change the world.

Atifa Silk: What has been your biggest challenge since you took on the JWT job?

Tamara Ingram: My biggest challenge is that we can never move fast enough. That’s what keeps me up at night. As a business it’s more important than ever that we move at speed to create the right change, and to get the right people. I love the industry and I’m really passionate. It’s very simple what drives me: the creative work.

Atifa Silk: What’s your definition of creativity and its purpose?

Tamara Ingram: If you asked me 20 years ago what we did with creativity in the world of advertising I would have said, we turn human truths into imagination to enable people to feel different things about a product or service to change behaviour. Today, my definition of creativity is a combination of pushing the same things as human truths, but connecting with inventiveness and innovation. Not only can we communicate in a way that moves people, but we can also position our products into services for the benefit of people. The purpose of creativity has gone beyond communication. All of our current products and services try to improve people’s lives a little.

Atifa Silk: Can you give an example that illustrates this purpose of creativity?

Tamara Ingram: In Thailand, we did some work for Samsung, where we came up with an idea that used ink, printed on special printers, to make Braille. [See Video: Cannes Lions haul only the first step for JWT Bangkok’s Touchable Ink.] Something which was normally incredibly expensive became much more accessible. I believe that creativity has always been about some sort of transformational feeling and ideas based on human truths. But in today’s world, it’s is not just the understanding of those human truths and the communication of them, but it’s some inventiveness and innovation that can deliver a service or change something in the real world. And with that we are having a deeper impact on our clients’ businesses and the world around us.


  • 2016 Chief executive officer, worldwide, J. Walter Thompson
  • 2015 Chief client team officer, WPP
  • 2004 Group EVP & executive managing director, Grey Group
  • 2002 Group CEO, McCann Worldwide

Atifa Silk: How is that impacting what clients need from creative partners?

Tamara Ingram: Things change and they stay the same, really. What clients really need is a vision, a point of view, and a sense of challenge. I’ve always believed that clients need extraordinary creativity and business imagination. Clients need us to have the business imagination and the vision to take them places that they might not have expected, because the world is changing so much. They need agencies to be ahead, to be curious, and yet, at the same time, to be true to human truths and brand truths, so that inventiveness and imagination is relevant.

Atifa Silk: Does the agency model deliver inventiveness?

Tamara Ingram: There are some things that remain true to the agency model that are very important: passion for people, passion for creativity, and the absolute ability to build a trusting and challenging vision with the client to get great work. On the other side, there is a need to change regardless of the type of agency model. There is a need for curiosity, staying ahead, experimentation and, importantly, diversity of capability and diversity of people. Unless you have a diversity of people that represent the communities you live in, you don’t get the innovation, the creativity of ideas. One of the areas that we are continuing to work on, probably like everyone else, is that of diverse capabilities, as well as people. My learning is that people with different types of skills and experiences are important in order for us to deliver, as well as different types of people from different communities, because that’s what helps us create ideas and insights. 

Atifa Silk: How do you make diversity a priority across all your offices?

Tamara Ingram: That’s a very good question. We have 200 offices, so it’s always a challenge. However, we have made it top of our agenda, and it has to be in order to stay relevant for the next 50 years. We have a diversity and inclusion council with many people represented on it, and then there are various initiatives. We have an initiative in terms of people and talent that goes down from regional to every single country. That’s the only way to do it—to have a strategic commitment, and to make it measurable, and to put the same strategic plans in place against it. We’re thinking about how we can expand our [talent] pipeline in a different way. So we’re looking at outreach programmes, going to different communities, and even people with different types of education backgrounds. 

I believe that creativity has always been about some sort of transformational feeling and ideas based on human truths.

Atifa Silk: Does that mirror the diversity you see on the client side? 

Tamara Ingram: Clients are very conscious when it comes to diversity to make sure that all their people reflect the world around them. What happens is that decision-makers in clients’ businesses get older as they progress and become more senior. But that also means they are sometimes getting further away from what’s going on in the street in comparison to someone in their first year out of university, for instance. I think clients are painfully aware that they need to put training programmes in place and get their teams really imbued in what’s going on in the world. And, from my point of view, it’s about the pipeline and the people we get. Funnily enough, the wonderful thing about the advertising business is young people really do influence the quality of the work. It’s a more fluid place than many other businesses.

Atifa Silk: How are you creating the right environment to nurture this culture?

Tamara Ingram Ideas can come from anywhere. So I think the important thing is really to focus on extraordinary talent and diversity of people. Creating a great environment is having a really strong and hungry people culture, and a culture where people can fail. It’s having a culture that’s non-hierarchical, where people with great ideas are listened to and encouraged … to share and listen to people becomes incredibly important if we’re going to get ideas from anywhere. And the respect for difference to enable people to produce their work however they wish to produce it, to get the best out of them. Advertising is a very attractive career. Interestingly, it’s even more attractive because we’re on the edge of this extraordinary revolution where tech meets creativity, and so that product innovation and thinking innovation is also part of being in the advertising business.

Atifa Silk: Can you give an example of tech and creativity delivering business solutions?

Tamara Ingram: They meet in a brand’s idea that brings to life what it means to buy or be part of a particular brand. We know they meet in the internet of things for people in their homes, services and apps. But the trick, for us, is to take a brand-thought and put it together with some technology that’s useful for people and they can participate in. That deepens the relationship. Take the Tribeca Film Festival as an example. We wanted to encourage people to go. We could’ve just advertised it by saying, “Let’s all go to the Tribeca Film Festival” in a newspaper. What we did was create a wonderful thing that you could essentially call a vending machine, where we took famous films like When Harry Met Sally, and you could act one of the parts out, and they would rate how you did. So this machine would rate your performance, and if you got over an eight, you’d get some free tickets. So that was a way of engaging people back into films, and also a promotion that connected people and created word of mouth.

Our ambition is about making culture, being in culture, in conversations, and pushing culture. In order to make culture, we need strong points of view and strong creativity. We also need the ability to be agile and fast and capture the sort of day-to-day things that are incredibly important.

Atifa Silk: What are the challenges in influencing culture?

Tamara Ingram: The world is changing very fast. In order to catch and leverage culture, we need to be agile, so the notion of how we produce has changed. It’s about agile creativity, as well as creating or making culture. Our ambition is about making culture, being in culture, in conversations, and pushing culture. In order to make culture, we need strong points of view and strong creativity. We also need the ability to be agile and fast and capture the sort of day-to-day things that are incredibly important. So what, therefore, is changing inside JWT is really having the skills, the capability, and the speed to the way we work.

Atifa Silk: What are the key trends that will impact advertising?

Tamara Ingram: There are two types of trends. There are some trends that we know are happening, such as data, technology, and localisation for global brands. We know people want to connect with provenance. There are challenges around the globalisation of the internet of things. Which means we have to compete locally, not just regionally and globally. That’s a very important trend. But we also need to look at the meta-trends, and there are two in particular that are on my mind: personalisation and politicisation—and they seem to be two opposing things. One is the power of the group and group thinking, you could call that popularism. The other is a focus on the individual, personalisation. In our communication, we need to be very individual with our products, while at the same time be mindful there’s a huge swing of politicisation.

An understanding of people in today’s world is increasingly fundamental. To get that it’s critical that we have diverse talent that represents the communities that we work in, that are broad in skills and backgrounds. This is absolutely critical in order to understand both the personalisation trends and also the politicisation that’s going on in the world. The two types of trends, in technology and the meta-trends mentioned, are affecting the type of people we employ and skills we need.

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