Toby Southgate, CEO, UK & Ireland at The Brand Union: “For an average consumer the value of brand is down to making the right choice”

Be it a small 5-employee company or a global business with 20 offices across the world, the people who manage them, their passion, entrepreneurial gut and leadership always inspire and admire. Toby Southgate, CEO of The Brand Union in the UK and Ireland, is one of them. He shares his point of view on the role of professional management in branding, argues what a real value of brand for an average consumer is, and explores the reasons behind a huge commercial success of WPP in 2011.

Popsop: How did you join TBU in 2007? Did WPP’s headhunters recruit you and offer a huge package?

Toby Southgate: Well, this is not investment banking, so ‘headhunters’ and ‘huge packages’ are not familiar language in our industry.

After 3 years with Marque Creative, which I helped to grow from 11 to 60 people in 3 offices in New York, London and Glasgow, I wanted a different challenge. Yes, I was in conversations with WPP. Within the group we have a so-called B2D (branding to design) group, which is Landor, The Partners, FITCH, The Brand Union, VBAT Amsterdam. When I was still based in New York, I spoke with the Head of Talent for this B2D group. So there were a few opportunities within WPP that came up. One of the most exciting conversations I had was with Simon Bolton, who is the global CEO of The Brand Union. At that time (at the end of 2007) our business was called Enterprise IG. And he could tell me lots of things about the strategic plans for the agency; that was very exciting. He didn’t tell me that we were becoming The Brand Union, but he was very clear on the fact that this was a big global agency going though a major repositioning of its own. That was one of the reasons I joined. I found that challenge incredibly exciting. Something that none of our peers have ever done. Landor has always been Landor, Futurebrand has always been Futurebrand. And we had a chance to do something very different, something unique in our industry, which I think is a very significant part of our story.

Popsop: Please, tell a bit more about your experience in Dubai and Abu-Dhabi. That sounds like another planet.. Did you face any difficulties – like cultural barrier, climate, specific business environment?

Toby Southgate: Definitely not in terms of cultural alignment. There was nothing negative. Of course, it is a brutally hot humid part of the world for three months of the year only. But for the rest 9 months of the year it’s just the most perfect place on Earth.

Overall, it was a great experience. Luckily, I still have to go back quite a lot. We have a client, which has a big business in the Middle East. We’ve recently opened a new office in Doha, Qatar, which I think is the next major dot on the global map. At the moment we have 3 offices in Abu-Dhabi, Dubai and Doha, with 90 people on the Middle East team. We are working with some of the biggest businesses in the region. I’m very proud to have started the office there.

Popsop: What do you think about the role of management in the creative industry, particularly, in branding?

Toby Southgate: I will be honest to say that I think in the creative industry and, particularly, in branding rather than in advertising, which is still much larger industry and much better understood by most people, there is room for management, for professional manager or the entrepreneurial manager.

Lots of very successful businesses are built around a creative leader or creative team, but they often lack global ambitious management skills. And those who do have a strong manager, they are usually bigger brand consultancies as ourselves.  We are now in the middle of the London design area, within a mile from here there are probably hundreds of small independent design agencies. They have fantastic creative product, great designers, however, can they work on a global brand strategy project? I think it’s a sale skill as much as commercial and managerial operational set of skills that smaller independent creative agencies do tend to lack. That’s why we are 550 people in 21 offices. We recognize and allow those people with the creative and consulting skills to grow through, as we have a strong and experienced management layer, which is very important.

Popsop: Do you think that working in branding you must be a “BRAND YOU” and sell your personal brand to the clients, to the Board of Directors, to your staff?

Toby Southgate: I think you can have a personal brand, however, I should not override what a client will get from the company. What clients get from The Brand Union is far more important than what they get from Toby Southgate. Also, that’s an industry where you must be big and mature enough to recognize, when the client relationship with you as an individual is not working. Then I think the best thing to do in this relationship will be to introduce somebody new alongside me that can take over or above me, who can step in a more senior level.  So, you have to be open to those things, because ultimately, it is very relationship-driven business. And the best case is when a client’s business at a commercial level, strategic level and the whole agency at all levels of hierarchy and seniority across all functions will be driven by great chemistry and shared objective.

Popsop: Please, describe your “BRAND YOU” in 5 simple words.

Toby Southgate: I’m very proud, as I said earlier, to have been a part of this transition out of Enterprise IG to become The Brand Union. So, I was going to transpose myself onto what we do as TBU, how we try to operate the business. We have 3 core values as an agency that we are very proud of. They are: Gutsy, Grounded and Curious.

The “gutsy” means that we are courageous and we will always speak the truth. We will get the client the best advice possible, even if it’s challenging advice. We are always going to push beyond and offer our clients with the bravest solutions. That’s the value that I hope I share.

Being “grounded” means that we have to be pragmatic about our clients’ situations, the economic environment we are working in. It is very important when you are dealing with a creative product, with something conceptual to have a clear vision of how that concept comes to life, how it benefits the client, and how it drives sales and increases loyalty or helps the client grow into new markets. It has to be a true strategic value behind the beautiful creative concept.

«Curious» is about being enfolded by the world around you, by being glued in to contemporary culture, by being able to spot trends and forecasts.

I’d say I try very hard to live out these values in my work and life, because they mean a lot to me as part of TBU. Besides that, I’m very entrepreneurial by nature, so I’m always wanting to make progress, push forward on behalf of myself and the agency that I’m representing.

Popsop: On March 1st, 2012 WPP reported the unprecedented profits of £1 bn for 2011 — for the first time in the group’s 26-year history.  How would you comment on that, taking into account the ‘unfavorable economic climate’?

Toby Southgate: I think it’s a validation of three things from the WPP prospective. And please, bear in mind that I represent a very small part of this group. But in comparison to a business of the scale of Ogilvy or JWT or Grey our whole section of business is really very small. The first thing is a testament to very clear leadership. Our business at a group level is run by a visionary, somebody who created the notion of the holding company and what value that holding company structure could add to a client’s business, who pulled together all strengths of media and communication from research and insight through to strategy and positioning to design and identity to communications, to measurement, to evaluation, to media. So, leadership comes first, I think.

Secondly, our strength is in our scale. We have a huge number of people on our business. There are about 140,000 people in WPP, who work very hard and do a bloody good job most of the time without exception. These are people who do a fantastic job within the operating companies they represent. Remember that WPP as a group is very small and very few people hold the WPP business cards. So, people represent the agencies they work for. So, TBU in my case, another great names as Ogilvy, Mediacom, Grey, TNS – the agency brands within the group are the heroes, not WPP.

And the third piece is the clients that we represent. The agency brands are able to benefit for themselves and for their clients in terms of the depth and quality of the work we do, from relationships that we build within the WPP group.  So, increasingly, group clients are global. Companies are working together and partnering on client’s business to extend it and it’s an ultimate inclination. We have structures, so-called teams such as Team HSBC or Blue High, Team Vodafone, Team Bank of America. And these offices, these businesses can represent multiple agencies across the whole WPP network, but picking the right people for the right job at the right time from the right agency in response to a client need. And that’s very powerful. I think WPP was well ahead of the game in creating this cross-network global teams structure to give clients the benefit of the holistic approach.  Now we have 35 (now it must be 36) global clients that are run at a group level by a single leader who is able to tap into agency’s skills around the world as part of the WPP group.

Popsop: How would you define the pros and cons of working for a global network agency from an employee’s prospective?

Toby Southgate: Well, the pros will massively overweight the cons. So, the pros are:

— Client exposure at a very senior level to some very significant, ambitious and important clients.

— The depth of skills and resources available to you as an individual within the group

— Career development opportunities. WPP is hugely protective of nurturing of its talent base. It’s an open knowledge that the group talks a lot about the notion of talents as a competitive advantage.

Speaking about the cons, it’s maybe my own personal feeling based on my entrepreneurial set of mind. It isn’t a con, because there are sort of 99 times in a hundred where the financial support of the network, of the structure within which we run our company is helpful. Perhaps, there is 1 time in a hundred where the processes that we have to run through can be restrictive.

Popsop: To your mind, what is the value of branding for an average consumer? Why should he or she pay more for a “branded” piece of soap in a nice pack? So, all brand consultancies — whether it is a studio of 4 people or a huge company like TBU with 20 offices across the world — at the end of the day, they all sell emotions, stories, AIR? Brand and design agencies do not produce any value for humankind. Do you agree?

Toby Southgate: Ultimately, consumers make choices every day. They buy products or services often on a win, and sometimes trying to serve the need that may or may mot be real – but that’s a consumer’s own choice to make that decision. We all make these decisions based on the reputation of those items or on the physical or graphical representations of those offers whether on a supermarket shelf or a website when you buy something online. But if you dig deeper and remove this consumer misperception, the brand is much more than the logo or the identity. If we take some product, let’s say, a bottle of whisky, brand here is about the history, the heritage, the meaning, the flavor, the texture, the cues around the bottle itself, not just the logo on a bottle, the physical packaging, the materials used, the box around that whisky, the appearance on the shelf, the process and experience of opening that case or a cask  —all these things do have value. For example, Apple’s shares are now trading at 600 dollars, and that’s a real and very tangible value attached to the brand.

At TBU, we have a great slide that we often use to explain the value of a brand to the clients. We gather with clients in a meeting room and show on the screen a list of assets across three car options, such as: number of seats, engine size, economy, safety rating. So, you can have a comparison side by side of three cars. If you ask the room which one they would pick, it’s impossible to choose because they are very close on every metric. It’s very hard to make decision on just a list of attributes. The next slide shows a batch about each attribute, and the batches can be anything, but imagine the batches are: BMW, Toyota and Renault. Everybody in the room will make the choice immediately. So, value of the brand for consumer is about making the fast and right choice.

Popsop: There is a belief in the brand and design industry (not only in the UK), that global network agencies like TBU, Landor, FITCH produce less creative solutions that do not rock the boat, being focused primarily on making profit for the group and reporting good results to the Board of Directors. Do you agree?

Toby Southgate: Well, we are focused on creating results for our clients, absolutely. We need all the time to demonstrate the value of branding in the context of the client’s commercial environment.

If I look back on 2011, our agency in Ireland won the Grand Prix for design effectiveness in the Irish Design Awards, our agency in Paris is the Agency of the Year, our agency in India is the Agency of the Year for the third time in a row, TBU in Hong Kong is the Agency of the year for the 3rd time in 5 years. TBU London was Agency of the Year two years ago, the year before was nominated as the One to Watch, and again last year we were mentioned as Highly Commended. No other agency in London has been nominated one or mentioned as Highly Commended 3 years in a row ever. So I think it’s a nice easy stick for small independent agencies to beat up with.

I wish we were able to be free to regularly demonstrate our creative strength and capabilities, but of course there is a commercial environment that we operate in. It isn’t restrictive in anyway. TBU is one of the biggest design studios in London, we have 50 people on our creative team here. Of course, these people wouldn’t be there, if there was not creative environment letting them do a great work.

Popsop: I’ve noticed a scary fact that the number of females in the higher echelons of brand consultancies in the UK is fairly small. Is that the case in TBU?

Toby Southgate: Let me disagree with you.  In our agency here in London we broadly split as we are in every office around our network into three core functions: Creative, Client Service (or Account Management) and Strategy. The heads of all three of our functions are female. We are 58% male, 42% female, which I think is a strong balance.

Popsop: Nowadays, many small and medium-sized agencies in the creative industry, not in the UK only, choose a ‘media-neutral’ position. They do not do any PR. They do not proactively advertise their services either. They intend to break the moulds through a word-of-mouth channel. Do you think this is the right position? Should an agency have a dedicated PR and marketing budget?

Toby Southgate: I think that PR is a very necessary tool for an agency like us.  Especially when it comes to attracting talents. We also bucket our marketing spend to include things like entering creative awards into that area – PR and marketing. But what’s much more important for us rather than an advertising campaign promoting the TBU’s capabilities, is to be seen as an influencer and a thought leader when it comes to a subject of brand and reputation in particular. Because of our scale, experience and capabilities, because of our people who are the best in the industry, we offer a premium price point for the clients who want to work with us.  We work in the boardrooms of some of the biggest companies in the world hoping to define the strategic future of their brands. We also have the creative capabilities to execute on the strategies we help these clients to create. And that is something that very few companies can do.