Rob Schwartz is a Creative in the C-Suite

I had the pleasure of sitting with Rob Schwartz, CEO or TBWA NY for a back-to-back pod session. He was interested in learning about what inspired me to write Under Think It, and made some time to tell me how his experience solving creative problems has equipped him to be a CEO in these wild times.

Listen to the first half of this back-to-back conversation on Disruptor Series.

Under Think It and Specific are acclaimed books written by the host of The Strategy Inside Everything, Adam Pierno. If you like the talks on this show, you’ll like these books.

Listen here:


[00:00:28] Adam Pierno: All right, welcome back to another episode of The Strategy Inside Everything. I’m here with Mr. Rob Schwartz, who is the CEO of TBWA\Chiat\Day. That’s a big title, sir. How are you?

[00:00:42] Rob Schwartz: [laughs] I’m doing well. Great to be here on the pod to pod, back to back podcast experience.

[00:00:47] Adam: We’re actually in the Disruptor series podcast studio here at TBWA, so we’re at the hub.

[00:00:54] Rob: Yes, it’s actually a division of Omnicom.

[00:00:57] Adam: Yes. So, here we are. We just did the Disruptor series, and I was on the hot seat, and literally, Rob had me sweating. Now, I’ve got him on the hot seat. We’re turning this thing around. I wanted to talk to you today. I think I reached out to you three or four months ago, and I didn’t know that you had changed your role. For people who don’t know Mr. Schwartz, give them a little bit of your background, because you came up as a creative, you’re a writer, you pretty much did it all through. I know you’re at Hill Holliday, but Chiat\Day mostly, yes?

[00:01:30] Rob: Mostly, yes. I started as a copywriter right here in the fine city of New York, at a tiny little boutique agency called [unintelligible 00:01:38], good little agency. Then I went out to Hill Holliday, came with the riots back in 1992. From there, I went to Team One, worked on Lexus. I did a quick stint up in San Francisco, and then back down to LA, and I got ultimately hired at TBWA\Chiat\Day in Los Angeles. I was just working my way up from creative director up through the chief creative officer of our LA office.

Then at the global role, I did a couple of interesting global things. Then in July of 2014, I had a meeting with our new CEO at that time of the network, Troy Ruhanen, and he said, “What do you want to do next?” I said, “I don’t really know.” He said, “What do you think about being the CEO of New York?”

[00:02:33] Adam: What did you think about that? Were you prepared for that idea?

[00:02:36] Rob: No.

[00:02:38] Adam: Has that crossed your mind?

[00:02:39] Rob: No. I think as a creative you’re in your bubble, and you’re obsessing over whatever it is you’re working on. You’re very tree, not very forest.

[00:02:50] Adam: Were you still writing or were you more oversight of the work and global focus, leading major client relationships at the global level?

[00:03:00] Rob: Both. I think the interesting thing about both the TBWA culture and the Chiat\Day culture, and then when they wrap together, was that it’s kind of a blue collar agency for creatives. Even as a creative director, you’re still making stuff. I don’t mean like you’re in the way of your teams, it’s just that you are– As they say, nature abhors a vacuum. Wherever there is a vacuum, we were in there trying to make something happen.

[00:03:26] Adam: You were still working and involved in the work. You didn’t have that cushy CCO job?

[00:03:31] Rob: No, I don’t know what that cushy job is. All I know is that we had the McDonald’s business globally, there were plenty of opportunities, and of course, you know the flip side of the word “opportunity” in the Chinese character is “crisis”. That is a great thing, it’s in all the– I think JFK used that back in the day, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Chinese character that shows you crisis is the same character you use for opportunity. There were a lot of opportunities at the time, and I just walked into the fire, that’s what I was doing at that time. But when Troy said, “Think about New York,” I said, “All right, give me a week,” and I put together a business plan, a creative guy business plan, which is how do we position the thing. Then I started as the CEO of New York in January of 2015.

[00:04:20] Adam: Okay, you’ve got a good run now.

[00:04:28] Rob: Yes, it’s been almost three and a half years.

[00:04:30] Adam: How are you seeing– When you got a brief and you’re a writer, or when you’re a chief creative officer, and you were seeing a campaign or an idea, and you’re trying to mold that thing or help push it along, you had one approach to solving those problems or leading those problems, or leading those battles. What are some of the similarities and differences that you see as a CEO, because the problems are a lot different, I would imagine, or tell me if I’m incorrect about that.

[00:04:59] Rob: Well, I think the biggest difference is, as a CEO, you try to look at things from 10,000 feet. As a chief creative officer, you sort of look at things from 3,000 feet, and as a creative, you look at things three feet in front of you.

[00:05:19] Adam: Right. Or less, depending on how much zoom you have on your Photoshop.

[00:05:20] Rob: [laughs] Or less. Maybe it’s three inches.

[00:05:25] Adam: [laughs]

[00:05:27] Rob: That purview as a CEO gives you a sense of– You start to look a briefs as, “Okay, what’s driving the brief from the client side? We’re at this conference room table, but what conference room table led to this thing?” You start to think about all the holistic pieces that went into the brief, what’s driving the business, what are the market opportunities. Then, by the same token, you also start to think about immediately, “Okay, how can I do this and cast this with the best talent, the most efficient way so we can actually make this profitable?” Best people is where you stop as a creative director. You could care less–

[00:06:14] Adam: That’s against your training, to think about the next part.

[00:06:17] Rob: Yes. The way it materializes, you don’t think about.

[00:06:21] Adam: Right, you can’t.

[00:06:22] Rob: Yes. I had this interesting theory about creative careers.

[00:06:29] Adam: Tell me.

[00:06:30] Rob: It’s the Beatles theory of creative careers. You start your creative career and you’re John Lennon. You want to light the world on fire, you could care less what damage you do on the way up, but you’re going to be famous and do something-

[00:06:46] Adam: You’re going to be the one.

[00:06:47] Rob: -that’s loved, exactly. Then you get a little taste of that, and you move up the food chain, and you become Paul. You’re like, “I’m going to light up the world, I’m going to do really famous things, but maybe some people can actually not find me so abrasive. I can be kind of affable and likable.”

[00:07:06] Adam: Take the edges off.

[00:07:06] Rob: Yes, exactly, but still very famous. Then you go on through your career and you become George, because at that point you’re like, “You know what, I’m just as good as these guys, but I don’t need them, I can do this myself. I want to break away and I’m going to do my own thing.”

[00:07:22] Adam: I don’t have to throw my elbows to prove it.

[00:07:24] Rob: Exactly. “I’m just going to do this for myself.” Then you start doing it by yourself, and again, you can have wild success by yourself, but you’re lonely, and then you become Ringo. You’re like, “You know what, I just want to hang with the band, I’m going to do my fills here, [laughs] but we’re going to do some famous stuff.”

[00:07:39] Adam: When Paul lets you.

[00:07:40] Rob: [laughs] Right.

[00:07:41] Adam: Do you know I’m a drummer? As a former creative, that really makes me sad, because I think I was Ringo more than I was Paul or John for sure.

[00:07:48] Rob: It happens. We’ll get to Ringo in a second. That’s not the end. Again, you could stay Ringo and be very happy, but there is one other rung, there’s one other place to go, and that is the place of enterprise. Who conceives the whole thing, who can say, “Well, these four guys are really talented, they can light up the world. I not only want to make them light up the world, I actually want to help them do it in the best way possible, clean them up and teach them stagecraft.” Then you become Brian Epstein.

Those are the five stages of a creative career. Now, you don’t have to be Brian Epstein, but I actually saw that, well, I not only loved being a Beatle as it were, I was really not as good as any Beatle, but however, metaphorically, I loved being a Beatle, and then I saw an opportunity to actually be the leader of the Beatles, the visionary behind the Beatles.

[00:08:47] Adam: You had that vision, you had that view of assembling teams and putting people together and helping, from a management level, make sense of the chaos of a creative team.

[00:08:57] Rob: Yes. Again, I read a bit of it just organically. I love music and I read a lot about it, listen to a ton of it, but when Troy said, “Hey, think about being the CEO of New York,” I immediately went through Beatles books. I went through Andrew Loog Oldham who was the manager of the Rolling Stones, I read his book again. Just about how, again, he assembled these guys and had a vision for them. I read Berry Gordy’s book and Motown, because these were people–

[00:09:30] Adam: That’s what’s your gut, to go to those books.

[00:09:32] Rob: Yes, because these were people who took creative people and enterprises that were built to produce a creative product that was populist and popular, and I was looking for blueprints within that.

[00:09:47] Adam: Yes. Were you able to draw anything, or were you just seeing similarities in their stories, or just looking for ideas somewhere in there?

[00:09:54] Rob: Yes. I saw a ton. Certainly with Brian Epstein, one of the big lessons from him was introduce, in this case, instruments and arrangements to the band, but let the band be the band. A great lesson in influencing and light touching as well, which again is great for a creative business. Andrew Loog Oldham I think was different in that he looked at the Stones and his lesson was about positioning. He’s like, “If the Beatles are going to be the folks you can bring home to your parents, we’re going to position the Stones as someone that would be frightening to the parents and you wouldn’t let your daughter date one of them.”

[00:10:46] Adam: Something to push back against.

[00:10:47] Rob: Yes, it was a positioning exercise, it was very clear to me. Then with Berry Gordy what was very powerful about the Motown, and I loved his story because again, he was a practitioner and then he became the leader of it, the manager of it all, the CEO of Motown. His whole thing was on systematization, on making it a factory. He worked in a Mercury car factory back when Ford had Mercury, and he loved the manufacturing piece of that job. He was mesmerized by it. He said, “Hey, can I manufacture pop culture?”

[00:11:30] Adam: The assembly line.

[00:11:31] Rob: Yes, in the same way, put together the pieces to do that. Those three I think were really good archetypes.

[00:11:39] Adam: I want to dig in on positioning, because the example you have is the Rolling Stones positioning against the Beatles, so there’s two. The British Invasion had 10, right?

[00:11:48] Rob: Yes.

[00:11:50] Adam: You as the incoming CEO of TBWA had how many agencies were you competing against that you have to position yourself against? How did you wade through that? There’s no Beatles that you could just go, “Oh, okay, they’re the golden boys. We’re going to do this and be the bad boys.” There’s so much more to it than that.

[00:12:09] Rob: Well, I used disruption, that’s where the methodology that we lived by really came through. I looked at the convention, I looked at what the vision could be, and then I created a positioning through the disruption. New York had been inconsistent, the New York agency. Jay Chiat only wanted a great New York office at one point, he just loved LA, he built LA, he was incredible in LA, but he was a New Yorker. He was like, “Oh my God, I have to do something that my mom-

[00:12:34] Adam: He wanted to have something there.

[00:12:36] Rob: -would appreciate.” He was from New Jersey, but New York, New Jersey. The tri-state area [unintelligible 00:12:41]. He really wanted to make that happen. Chiat\Day in the early ’90s was remarkable. Chiat\Day in 2008, the most awarded agency in the world, but there were troughs between them, various degrees. The office originally opened in 1982. Again, it didn’t light it up for almost 10 years, then it was at a peak, then a valley. So, it was always up and down. Part of it was position the convention as an inconsistently mezzo-mezzo agency. [unintelligible 00:13:17] wasn’t great. The vision at the time was, I said, “Well, let’s just be the best example of strategy and creative for the TBWA network. Let’s just be that. If we can just be that-

[00:13:32] Adam: That would be pretty good.

[00:13:33] Rob: -we could probably be pretty good and compete with the rest of the market.” That was the convention, that was the vision, and the disruption was at the same time being inspired by all these music books, I was reading a lot about startups, [unintelligible 00:13:48] startup. I thought, “Well, maybe instead of being this legacy Madison Avenue agency, what if we were a startup?” What if we really said, “Hey, we’re just opening up a new office now.”

[00:14:01] Adam: Just like a day one thing.

[00:14:02] Rob: A day one thing and, “Oh, by the way, we’re semi well funded because we’re part of a global enterprise.” I wrote the original strategy statement as, “Startup hustle, global muscle.” Then we switched it to make it ready for prime time, which was the positioning of the agency today, which is, “New York hustle, global muscle.” One other thing I would throw in there is that as a New Yorker, I grew up in New York, I knew Chiat\Day is a New York agency. Of course I knew it as a brilliant California agency as I got older, but I knew the New Yorkness of it. When I got to the agency, I didn’t feel New York. I said, “This has to feel like a very New York company.”

[00:14:42] Adam: It did have more of the LA culture vibe, or did it just have a neutral vibe that [unintelligible 00:14:46]?

[00:14:46] Rob: No. It actually needed the LA energy and optimism. That’s what I imported, because I lived that. I knew the power of it, but it needed more New Yorkers. There just weren’t enough New Yorkers in the company.

[00:15:00] Adam: To ground it or?

[00:15:01] Rob: Yes, and I think the spirit of it, because I think when you think about the way New Yorkers are, there’s a sense when you’re out west in Scottsdale, there is a part of you, I’m sure on a daily basis, that is still very New York, and there’s a sense–

[00:15:18] Adam: People love it.

[00:15:20] Rob:[laughs] I think for an agency, when you think about traits of New York, there’s an ambition and there’s an impatience.

[00:15:27] Adam: Yes, 100%.

[00:15:28] Rob: There’s an acceptance of natural diversity. You’re used to being in a melting pot. I think those three factors are really powerful in our business, ambition, diversity and impatience.

[00:15:43] Adam: Real diversity where your actually ears and brain are open to hearing the input of people that are not you.

[00:15:51] Rob: 100%.

[00:15:51] Adam: Not look-alikes of you. That’s where I think in those smaller markets, and you see this in pop culture, it’s like there’s just areas where there isn’t that diversity. You don’t know what you’re missing until you don’t have it.

[00:16:03] Rob: Without question.

[00:16:04] Adam: It’s amazing.

[00:16:05] Rob: That kind of subway experience, subway casting, if you will, has made for a pretty interesting agency.

[00:16:15] Adam: How did you reconcile the CCO who stopped thinking at put together the best team that’s going to produce the best work and CEO that now does have to write the check or at least account for it or explain to somebody? How did you get over that hurdle, because I would imagine it’s mentally– You’ve trained yourself for 20 years to say, “Cost be damned, we’re going to be the best work for that client and we’re going to win every award known to man.” How did you get yourself– What’s your approach to it, I guess?

[00:16:45] Rob: Listen, it’s a great question and it’s not an easy thing, as you say, to reconcile. I had one thing growing up through the business that was very powerful to me. I was really fortunate when Carlos Ghosn took over Nissan as the CEO. He was known as the cost cutter, but he was actually what I used to call the magician. He told this to me, he said, “I’m using cost cutting, I’m saving the money so I can invest in creative people.” When you look at his tenure as the CEO of Nissan, there was quite a bit of cost cutting, but there was an incredible, an inordinate amount of investment in R&D, in creative and design. I started to reconcile it because I think that’s the right word for this, which is, when we save the money we can invest the money. When we save the money on dumb stuff, we can invest it in smart stuff like creative people and experimenting.

[00:17:50] Adam: Yes, and get people in that can actually transform the business. In his case, cars, but in your case– Advertising doesn’t change that much. You need the new brains, you need brains of people that are going to come in and you can invest and that can adapt to how fast it is changing, yes.

[00:18:06] Rob: Yes, and I think knowing that, that really helped.

[00:18:11] Adam: What is the biggest thing you’ve come up against or what’s an “a-ha” that was just you had no expectation of having to deal with it or just something totally foreign? When we were just talking before, you said as a copywriter you never were there when the strategy was a blank page. As the CEO, what were you surprised about? I’m sure there are a lot of little ones, but what was a big one?

[00:18:35] Rob: I think one of the things that’s very surprising as a CEO, and one of the things that I really love is that you are CEO of your agency, and you are a consigliere to your clients. You are a therapist, you are a friend, you are a person just on the other side of a table, listening. What I have loved about this job too is really getting to know clients, and understand them, and help them. Sometimes helping them is just, “Hey, maybe you should think about trying this with your CEO, or maybe you should think about this with– Here’s some feedback on your team and maybe this can help.” Clients don’t have all the answers. I think as a creative, you sit there and you’re like, “Well, this client, surely what we present to them, they’re going to know exactly how to get this through their organization.”

[00:19:40] Adam: No, they never know. [unintelligible 00:19:42].

[00:19:41] Rob: Yes, it’s pretty hard for them too. I think that I guess I really developed an empathy gene that I didn’t know I had.

[00:19:51] Adam: You didn’t have that as a creative?

[00:19:53] Rob: I think I had a sensitivity to whoever the audience was. I was very audience aware. The radar was always up. I’ve just been always obsessed with what’s the audience going to think of this thing.

[00:20:14] Adam: You were able to jump that level and now your audience is really the client that is sitting, lamenting.

[00:20:19] Rob: I think I have the same obsession with the audience, but now the client piece is their total plate. It’s not just, “I want them to approve this creative,” and of course that’s important, but I also want– I get quite, I don’t know. I wouldn’t call it passionate because it sounds weird, but I’m interested in their success. I want their success. Their success is not only advertising, it’s them being successful throughout their professional life.

[00:20:56] Adam: That’s a carry over from CCO, where you’re really helping the creative team to deliver the best thing. Your name is on the work, but really, they get famous from the work they’ve done.

[00:21:08] Rob: Yes.

[00:21:09] Adam: Same thing as a client. You want the client now to be successful and to get whatever it is, whatever the end goal is for them, right? So, in that way it’s a similar job.

[00:21:18] Rob: Yes, I think when you put it in that context, yes.

[00:21:21] Adam: How do you handle the planning? I mean fiscal planning and the shape of that is just so much different in my mind, than creative department planning. Is that overwhelming, or do you just have a great support staff that welcomed you and you figured it out together?

[00:21:40] Rob: Well, I won’t lie, it was overwhelming at first. One of the things about finances that I’ve learned, because I wasn’t a finance major and like everybody else, I got into advertising so I didn’t have to do math. What I learned was that financing, the finance piece is like learning another language, so you have to– I used to just think, “Well, why can’t we just say it’s money?” Well, there’s a difference between what’s capital, there’s a difference with revenue, the precision of the language of money I found electrifying as a writer. I know it seems like, “Well, knucklehead, didn’t you know that before?” No, because I wasn’t paying attention to that.

I think one of the first big lessons if you’re going to make this transition from creative to management and leadership, is you have to appreciate that it’s a new language. The other part of it is that it’s a combination of reporting and planning. A big task of what we’re tasked with is reporting the activity of a quarter. It’s kind of what’s killing America in a way, killing the world that we have to constantly report to Wall Street. You don’t have time to work because you’re too busy reporting.

[00:23:03] Adam: Right. and you better show growth at all costs, right?

[00:23:06] Rob: Exactly, but this sort of forensic reporting is something you have to get comfortable with. Then, once you know where you stand, because the six plus six finance meeting, that three plus nine finance meeting as they’re known by the months in and the months left, that’s where you stand. “I know where I stand,” and then you can do the plan.

[00:23:34] Adam: You can adapt and build a plan based on where you are.

[00:23:36] Rob: Yes.

[00:23:37] Adam: Interesting. Coming from the creative side again, how about management, people management? Because you’re over, you’re helping the heads of all the departments and that’s a lot of different types of skills and a lot of different types of people who are managing people with even more complex sets of jobs. I don’t know all the disciplines you have here, but I would imagine there’s a few. How have you adapted to that?

[00:24:07] Rob: Well, I think the people managing part, I’ll take a page from your book. There’s a certain under-thinking, a certain simplicity that I like to apply to it. It’s really about IQ and EQ. The IQ is the skills, understanding what these people do so you can understand their plight a bit, and the EQ, which is really listening to what the issues are and what the problems are. Together you can solve them. I can’t have every answer–

[00:24:39] Adam: It’s just simplifying it down to just listening to whoever it is and just trying to figure out what they really want as a form of help.

[00:24:46] Rob: Yes. Listen, most times, I’m as guilty as anybody, you don’t really know what you want. The conversations you can have can oftentimes get to, “Oh, that’s the thing you really want.”

[00:24:59] Adam: Right. When they come in, they don’t even know. When they sit down, it’s subconscious.

[00:25:04] Rob: Sometimes they do, but often times people have an immediate problem. You’ve observed it as a planner. Your immediate problem might not be the root problem, and I think talking and making the time to talk to people and listening, that is half the battle.

[00:25:27] Adam: Yes. All right, last question. I know you’re a very busy gentleman. Talk to me about planning in your organization. Now, I know Jay Chiat was the founder, so I would imagine planning is held in a high regard here. How have you embraced it and how is it growing and flourishing here?

[00:25:44] Rob: Yes. Well, Chiat\Day was the first American company to bring in planning with Jane Newman. TBWA was founded, the T, the B, the W and the A. The B, Claude Bonnange was a planner. I just had lunch with one of the founders, and he was telling me that what was interesting about TBWA, they were founded in the 1970s, that there was no discipline that was overriding the other one. It was like a justice league. The four of them came together. Like you say in your book, the planning is not a destination in and of itself, but there’s huge respect for it. When you, again, look at the legacy of disruption, then you start to see the power of it.

I guess to answer your question, the first piece is that disruption is at the core of all of our planning. Now it’s a buzzword, everybody says it, but in 1990, when John Rye Drew hatched it, it was fresh. What’s become fresh about it now is that it’s a methodology, it’s a way of getting to ideas. We have what we call Strategic OS, our strategic operating system, which is– Disruption’s at the core, but the three wheels around it are data, brand planning and content. When you operate it that way, through a lens of disruption or using disruption as an inspiration, you can build some pretty interesting brands.

[00:27:24] Adam: Yes, and you can keep it the disruption from being just a buzzword or a concept.

[00:27:31] Rob: Yes.

[00:27:31] Adam: [unintelligible 00:27:31] actually it’s actionable [unintelligible 00:27:33].

[00:27:33] Rob: Yes. I think because of the framework and the framework’s so intuitive. I use it to position the agency. You know where you want to go in the vision, and you see what the landscape looks like. Not every convention is wrong.

[00:27:46] Adam: It’s a powerful part of our brief as well. What is the overriding category convention, because if you can me what consumers think of the category, overwhelmingly, it shows you the path, or it shows you a potential path to upsetting that or get around it. There’s only one category leader in every category, so only one agency has the leader, everybody else is a challenger. Using that to figure out how to up-end them is powerful. I’m a subscriber to it.

[00:28:17] Rob: Yes, I think it’s really good. I think because it’s intuitive, that’s why it’s lasted so long.

[00:28:24] Adam: Does your strategy and planning team all subscribe to a single– I know you have the Strategy OS. Do they all subscribe to that, or is it a lot of different mindsets and a lot of different approaches?

[00:28:39] Rob: We’ve tried to have every client use disruption. What’s interesting is that everyone in the agency uses disruption. Now, not every client may buy into it-

[00:28:55] Adam: I totally understand that.

[00:28:56] Rob: -as expressed, but I think every client knows that we arrived at the recommendations using it. [laughs]

[00:29:02] Adam: Right. It may not be in the PowerPoint the exact way, but yes, you’re using it one way or another.

[00:29:07] Rob: Yes, exactly.

[00:29:09] Adam: All right, that’s all I have for you. I want to let you get back to work, you got a company to run here.

[00:29:13] Rob: Yes. All right. Well, thank you so much for letting me be on The Strategy Inside Everything.

[00:29:18] Adam: Yes, dude. Of course. Thanks for making time.

[00:29:22] Rob: Thank you for doing the world’s first, at lest we think, pod to pod podcast.

[00:29:27] Adam: I told you, we’re going to do podcast magic today.

[00:29:29] Rob: [laughs]

[00:29:30] Adam: I think we did it.

[00:29:30] Rob: It’s awesome.

[00:29:31] Adam: All right, thanks a lot.

[00:29:32] Rob: You got it.

[background conversation]

[00:30:04] [END OF AUDIO]