Working man: BBDO Global CEO Andrew Robertson

BBDO global president and CEO Andrew Robertson tells Jalaja Ramanunni and Austyn Allison the right attitudes are key to good work, and good work is the key to success

BBDO global president and CEO Andrew Robertson tells Jalaja Ramanunni and Austyn Allison the right attitudes are key to good work, and good work is the key to success

True to his company’s official obsession with ‘The Work, The Work, The Work’, BBDO Worldwide president and CEO Andrew Robertson keeps returning to the topic. He says: “The best way we can differentiate ourselves from our competitors and the best way we can add value for our clients is by the constant pursuit of exceptional work.”

Robertson visited the region in mid-December to meet his agency’s local leadership. Impact BBDO, the MENA branch of the Omnicom-owned creative network, is a powerhouse for BBDO. Headed out of Dubai by Dani Richa, Impact has won two of the only three Grands Prix the region has collected at Cannes Lions. Both were for BBDO’s AnNahar newspaper client in Lebanon, in the Print category. Impact BBDO was named Creative Agency of the Year in Campaign’s inaugural Agency of the Year Middle East awards in December, after BBDO MEA had been named Best Network Middle East and Africa in May.

“Like everyone else, I’ve been longing to get back,” says Robertson, who had spent his morning going over Impact’s recent creative output. “This is one of the best performing regions and operations in BBDO and I want to understand what they do that’s so clever, so I can pick it up and use it in other places.”

The Work is likely to hold the answer he is looking for. “Our belief is that the value of great work is great. The value is great. The rewards and the return you can generate are disproportionate and exceptional,” says Robertson.

Precious metal

One of the rewards is all those awards that sit on BBDO’s trophy shelf. When challenged on the perennial question of the value of trophies, Robertson paraphrases UK wartime leader Winston Churchill, saying awards are “the worst way of measuring your performance – apart from all the rest”. He adds: “Awards are the best benchmark we have for the best of our work versus the best of the work being produced by every other agency in the world. We take them seriously. We think awards are important.”

So do BBDO’s customers. “What I think is significant is the number of clients who are also taking awards seriously,” says Robertson. “You will hear it from CEOs, but you see it in the commitment that a lot of these companies are making to sending their people to awards or to creative festivals. They are making big investments in order to raise the game.”

Despite being one of the most awarded networks in the region, Impact BBDO last year lost one of its flagship accounts, the UAE telco e& (formerly Etisalat), to Publicis Groupe’s Saatchi & Saatchi.

“Etisalat was a big loss,” says Robertson. “But to the extraordinary credit of this group, they have replaced it in six months.”

Now Impact must stick to its guns. “Clients fire you for lots of reasons, but you have to have some kind of conviction in what you’re here to do,” says Robertson. BBDO is here to do exceptional work.

“One of the characteristics we have for our people is: they are good at picking themselves up fast,” says Robertson.

Data and connectivity

As storm clouds gather over the economy, Robertson says data can lead the way through the tempest, albeit with practical considerations.

“The important thing for us as agencies and for clients is to dig into the data and then learn from it, follow it,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that’s what always happens, because life isn’t like that, and I’m very aware of the kind of pressures that a lot of clients are under and could come under.”

Meanwhile, what consumers want, says Robertson, is “effortless, seamlessly connected, ideally magical experiences through what are increasingly nonlinear purchasing and usage experiences”.

If ‘The Work, The Work, The Work’ is Robertson’s philosophy, ‘effortless, seamlessly connected, magical experiences through what are increasingly nonlinear journeys’ is his mantra. He repeats the phrase several times.

And the agency, says Roberston, is already in a position to provide that seamlessly connectivity.

“We have the expertise and the skills that you need within the Impact BBDO group here,” he says. “We have a very strong PR offering with a very strong influencer marketing offering. We have an extraordinarily strong digital and demand capture operation. We have really good demand-generation skills. We were already that, we just got good at putting it together and using it well for our clients. Some of the other groups are getting there by putting things together, but we were already there.”

Pack an umbrella

Robertson says the piece of work he envies most from the past five years isn’t a creatively beautiful film or a viral social campaign but a simple text message from American Airlines that shows how data and creativity can work hand-in-hand.

“I was in LA, and I was due to fly back to New York the next day,” he says. “I got a text from American Airlines that said, ‘You may want to pack an umbrella. We are expecting storms in the New York area. There will be delays and there may be some cancellations. If you possibly can, you might want to think about travelling on another day.’”

We are all used to the ‘cleverness’ of a data management system that can ensure the right message is delivered to the right person at the right time, says Robertson. However, automation can free up humans to do their own work. “The genius of that text message was the first sentence because it made me smile,” he says. It is hard to be angry at a person or corporation that has made you smile.

“I don’t think there is an algorithm in the world that could write ‘You may want to pack an umbrella’.”

“If you can have that big an impact with one sentence from a text message delivering really bad news, imaging what you can do when the news is good,” he says.

“Our view of the future is that you are going to use automation to do the things that can be done and should be done through AI in order to create the capacity to do the magical stuff that can’t be,” he adds.

According to Robertson, customers have learned to want the ‘effortless, seamlessly connected, ideally magical experiences through increasingly nonlinear purchasing and usage experiences’.

“We have this idea of a funnel and I’m not sure that it even exists anymore, that that people can go from awareness to purchase into clicks or that they can spend ages reading reviews and checking ratings. You have to be able to create experiences for those consumers that are magical,” he said.

Fishing for compliments

Agencies and their staff need to find their feet post-Covid to get back to doing exceptional work. “If you look at it globally, there’s a lot of good but not enough really brilliant [work],” says Robertson. “There’s lots of things that can explain that, but one of them is the fact that people haven’t got back together as much as they need to, in order to generate brilliance.”

He quotes the film director David Lynch, who compared ideas with fish. Robertson says: “You can’t make a fish; you can only catch a fish. You catch things better when you are together. I don’t think it happens the same way when people are on screens. You can get to ‘good’ on a screen, but to get to ‘brilliant’ it helps to be in the same room together.”

That’s one of the keys to Impact being the current jewel in BBDO’s creative crown. “One of the reasons why this region has performed as well as it has creatively is because everybody came back earlier than they did in the rest of the world.”

If that’s what it takes to boost The Work, then Robertson stands behind it.