Need to focus on consistency: Tom Doctoroff, JWT

25 Nov,2011

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By Tuhina Anand

Video by Shruti Pushkarna

Tom Doctoroff is a JWT man who has worked with the agency across geography. Having started his advertising career at Leo Burnett in Chicago he later moved to JWT. In 1994, he moved to Hong Kong as Regional Business Director for clients such as Pepsi, Philip Morris/Kraft and Citibank and then in ’98 to China as the Managing Director of JWT Shanghai. In 2002, he was appointed Northeast Asia Area Director (China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea) and Greater China CEO. In 2008, he also assumed leadership of JWT Japan. Mr Doctoroff has played a key role in the growth of JWT in North Asia.


Q: How do you see JWT based in the scheme of things in Asia today?

I think that we have a lot to be proud of. JWT has an extremely cohesive management structure where all our goals and values are aligned, and I’m particularly proud of our creative community which is probably one of the jewels of our global network out here in Asia Pacific. I think we’ve got people who are proud of their own output in their own countries. One thing that I’ve always liked about JWT is that we are not cultural imperialists. I’ve never felt for example that because I’m in China, even 13 years ago, that I am on the other side of the world. We have a company culture that does respect individual idiosyncrasies and that’s very important to avoid this hegemonistic-macho advertising ethos. So, I am proud of JWT. We’ve certain things that we could do better, like digital where we’ve been a little bit slow, but I think we are catching up now. We are trying to bring into the agency an ethos of the need for digital to reinforce brand ideas. As for India, JWT in India is a powerhouse and it has a lot to be proud of. And I’m sure that it will overcome some of the frustrations of the past year because everybody knows it needs to be done.


Q: How do you see JWT China in terms of creativity, going ahead?

If this doesn’t get broadcast in China I’d be happy because I don’t want to appear arrogant where I live, but I think we set the standards of creativity in China. Honestly, we have a very stable management team and a very stable creative leadership team, and what that means is that we create an environment of safe self-expression within the agency as a whole. So we usually are the ones that are doing the firsts, we won the first Cannes Grand Prix, yes it was for print but it still didn’t happen by chance; it’s because we have a belief of what creativity is and how people work together in the agency and in collaboration with people outside the agency, even outside of China to develop engagement platforms. So I am very proud of our creative leadership. People call us the ‘temple of advertising’ and I think that’s because we’ve been so stable for such a long time. I’m not saying we don’t have weaknesses but creatively speaking, I think if you ask around, we tend to define a high ground to a certain extent.


Q: What are the two things that you would advise to people in the industry which they could follow to get more ROIs?

As soon as you bring in the ROIs, you bring in a different question altogether. So before we get to ROI, I think that one needs to always focus on consistency. A consistent brand idea, a consistent engagement idea that is genuinely media-neutral. I think the danger is that as we experiment with new forms of technologically-enabled engagement, we forget about the primacy of an idea. And if you start your media plan without having that idea clearly understood by all, then you have chaos. One thing that is critical in new markets is order, in consistency, in clarity of ideas or else people will tune you out. Nobody wants to figure out how the internet or how the digital app or the landing environment connects to the TV ad. So consistency is always key, and that will always require a high degree of conceptual craftsmanship. And the second thing about digital is that all digital is not the same. There is certain digital that is relevant to campaigns, there is certain digital that is relevant for customer relationship marketing, there is certain digital that is more transactional at the point of purchase; some of those belong inside the agency and then the big question is how you make sure that the entire agency is digital, but having a digital core centre of expertise as a heartbeat within the agency with some of that for outside the agency. So agencies need to know who they are first and then build their digital strategy based on that.


Q: Talent is an issue; how much of an issue is it and how do you tackle it?

It’s an issue at the most senior level. I find that the biggest issue for talent is that many senior people – and this is in China, I don’t think it’s the same in India – there is an abstract nature of advertising which makes people feel insecure. Chinese people want to have a sense of control over their destiny and they revere the concrete, and so what we often find happening is that people in their desire for control either start leading dysfunctional agencies, their own small agencies or they leave the industry altogether. So what we need to do is find ways to make a long-term career in advertising seem safe. Part of that is financial and frankly in China it’s not a problem, because once you get to be senior in China as a local person, the pay is quite respectable. But the real issue is making sure that you are providing a platform for senior management to stand up and feel confident on, and that requires a lot of persuasion and a lot of coaching as people come up to the ranks. On the junior level or the mid-level, it’s really a question of liberating their creative potential and making them feel that when they will open their mouth, they will be saying something that’ll be appreciated; and that gets into corporate culture and how you have an environment of dangerous silence, safe self-expression where proactivity is truly rewarded in a meritocratic sense. So advertising has to be very meritocratic and that’s something that’s not always compatible with traditional Chinese culture. But we make it quite meritocratic, so our attrition rate is much lower than the industry average is.


Q: What do you think of Indian advertising in recent times; how do you think it has improved?

I have been working with India tangentially for 17 years so there’s been huge progress. I think the progress first came on the production level. The change started around 10 or 12 years ago. I just noticed the ads didn’t look that cheap, the production values were pretty high. And now when I take a look at Indian advertising, I think that it is strong. It is very culturally rooted which is fine, as long as that culture is not gimmicky and it comes from cultural insight as opposed to just a celebration of anything Indian. So I personally think that strategically Indian advertising is very strong, execution has become better. I just think that the unfortunate thing is because of its proud confidence in the Indian identity, it’s not as accessible to many people around the world but it’s good, it’s made much progress.

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