Resilience, good talent, cultural curiosity needed more than ever for creative agencies to stay relevant: TBWA's Sean Donovan

In an interview with, the agency's Asia President, Donovan spoke about the growth of TBWA\ India, why the agency replaced the CCO with CCEO role and how agencies can continue to stay relevant

Akansha Srivastava
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Resilience, good talent, cultural curiosity needed more than ever for creative agencies to stay relevant: TBWA's Sean Donovan

Sean Donovan

Staying true to its disruptor positioning, TBWA decided to let go of the Chief Creative Officer role globally in October 2021 and formalised the world’s first Chief Creative Experience Officer role in the ad agency world by hiring Ben Williams. The agency then went on to hire Perry Essig as its first Asia CCEO last year.

Cut to today, In India too the agency has appointed its first Chief Creative Experience Officer by onboarding Russell Barrett earlier this year after Parixit Bhattacharya (Parx) left the company.  

When caught up with the agency’s Asia President Sean Donovan, he explained the reason behind doing away with the CCO role. He said, “The remit of the CCO is much broader than creating just communication. It is about delivering a great consumer experience. While TV is a huge medium still in India, the job of a CCEO covers a broader palette, i.e. TV+experiential+digital.”  

He also shared that this new role is in line with the agency’s ‘disruptor company’ positioning, which is always about staying in the Beta mode and reinventing to move forward towards total brand experience. “There are multiple fragmentations in terms of the audience and where we find them. This means that an agency has a lot more to do beyond just creating communication. Our job is to ensure a brand shows up in the broader sphere of the consumers’ world and that happens through experience,” commented Donovan. 

Talking about the India office’s importance, Donovan shared, “India has delivered a high double-digit growth from the revenue point of view. Revenue from production and innovation in India has accelerated since Covid-19. While the India office is relatively small, it punches way above its creative weight. Govind Pandey has an amazing team here. India produces great pieces of work. Among the 14 offices in Asia, TBWA\ India comes in the top 3.” 

He further said, “The India office is equally important for TBWA global. India has a huge opportunity to grow given the size of the market. It is a key market for brands like Apple and Philips. There isn’t a global pitch where India is not a key representative.”

Not just TBWA\ India, Donovan thinks that Indian advertising is at par with the global markets. “One can gauge this with the success of Indian agencies at Cannes Lions last year,” he added.

As per him, advertising in India is no different from the rest of the world. “It is about finding the human truth, dramatising it and helping brands build relationships with consumers,” he said. But one stark difference he finds in India is the power of TV as a medium, which is not the same in a lot of markets.

Donovan shared that TBWA positions itself as a collective and not a network. Explaining the logic behind the same, he said, “It’s a deliberately chosen word by our global CEO Troy Ruhanen. We believe that none of us is as good as all of us and that represents collectivism.”

TBWA believes in driving culture and invests in tools with regard to the same. The agency has formed a cultural intelligence unit - Backslash - that feeds in cultural insights on a daily basis. “It’s a very critical research engine for us. Most of the brands invest in strategy in the centre, but it’s more about local cultural insights into the market they function in.

According to Donovan, the agency’s culture powered by disruption is its USP. He said, “When I joined TBWA 3.5 years ago, one thing that struck me was the long tenure of people at the agency.”

One learning that Donovan has got from TBWA India head Govind Pandey is the concept of ‘Bothism’, which means the ability to hold two ideas and not be over-invested in one of them. 

“In the last 5-6 years, it has been more about agency or consultant, performance or creative, but we must find the right balance to create brand work. In the world of hyper-personalisation and hyper-precision, cut-through creativity is needed more than ever. But at the same time, it needs to be delivered in a way that garners the audience's attention well.”

While brands have certain fixed marketing spend, media fragmentation, martech and adtech and various avenues where a brand needs to invest money have proliferated. In such a scenario, how can an agency continue to maintain its share in the adex pie and stay relevant?

He answered, “The agencies have the talent of attracting and retaining the best creative talent. The best creative work comes from consistency and long-term partnerships. We have a successful long-term relationship with Apple. They do have an in-house agency, but an equally important partnership with us. I am more than ever bullish about the role of creativity, especially in the era of media fragmentation.”

Although, he added that any agency that doesn’t adopt and embrace change will have a difficult future ahead. “Resilience, good talent and cultural curiosity are three ingredients that are needed more than ever.”

One principle that TBWA follows by heart is to always remain in Beta mode with zero room for complacency, said Donovan. 

The only thing that worries Donovan is finding the right spot between being quick and patient at the same time in a world that is so dynamic. He commented, “I keep on questioning myself if we are changing at the pace the world is changing and at the same time are we patient enough and maintaining the pace of change. On top of that, ensuring good talent comes along with us in this journey is a challenge.”

TBWA India Govind Pandey Disruptor company MarTech Beta Mode creative agency Russell Barrett TBWA Parixit Bhattacharya Sean Donovan