The Art Of Media Pirates: TBWA\Chiat\Day LA

This month AdForum spoke with President Erin Riley and CCO Renato Fernandez to find out what it’s like to be part of this iconic agency. We discovered how they will continue to deliver on a promise of disruption, how the TBWA collective works, why a pirate mentality is important and the Be More Human culture.

TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles
Advertising/Full Service/Integrata
Los Angeles, Stati Uniti
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TBWA\Chiat\Day LA, perhaps the original disruption agency, celebrated 50 years in 2019. The agency and its legendary former CCO Lee Clow (now Chairman Emeritus of TBWA\Media Arts Lab), brought us some of the world’s most memorable advertising campaigns of the last 35 years, including the Energizer bunny, Adidas’ Impossible is Nothing and of course Apple’s blockbuster, 1984. 

Erin Riley
President TBWA\Chiat\Day LA

Renato Fernandez
Chief Creative Officer TBWA\Chiat\Day LA

AdForum: Lee Clow created Media Arts from a holistic point of view. Can you tell us what it means and how the agency has sustained it?

Erin: Lee Clow had a vision and it's certainly one that we share now. Technology and all the tools, channels and formats are not to be viewed with fear, but with the attitude of a tremendous opportunity for us to create engagement with audiences.

Lee Clow famously said that everything between the audience and the brand is media. He was encouraging us to think about media in a much more expansive, visionary way. It isn’t just traditional media, it is online experiences, mobile experiences, in-store, brand behavior, brand activism. It is our responsibility as the brand partner to orchestrate all of those many touch points. 

We often talk about being storytellers. The idea was really that the world is our medium - because we can help tell brand stories in many shapes and forms. You could be media agnostic, but really, you need to be media passionate and obsessed, especially if you want to understand these channels deeply. Part of that is knowing how audiences and consumers engage with these channels, so that you can use them appropriately along the journey. 

Media arts is still based on that philosophy, because it is only getting more relevant. What we do now is to keep it meaningful in today's landscape. That means investments in data; a connections practice and experience talent.

It's a complement to disruption. Disruption is our philosophy in terms of how we approach problem solving. It's also a very real methodology that helps us define the soul of a brand and a platform. Media arts is how we then bring those things to life.


AdForum: How would you describe TBWA and what is Chiat\Day’s position within it, particularly as Media Arts was born in LA?

Erin: TBWA is a collective. It is about how we come together, how we share knowledge. We are not a top down organization; we are a bottom up organization.  

Our individual agencies are encouraged to innovate, then share and scale what works across the collective. We have many initiatives to bring people together, ranging from global management meetings to ‘No Format’, where we bring the best of our strategic and creative talent together a couple of times a year. In those sessions, we work on open briefs for clients from many different offices and regions. 

We actively invest in being a collective. The independent agency brands are encouraged to operate in their own way. We were not created by a global client, the collective was built through the acquisition of strong, local offices and the Chiat\Day brand was and still is one of the most potent and powerful in that mix. 

Much of Chiat\Day’s DNA has been adopted by the network. Our inaugural disruptive move was to open an agency on the West Coast. All advertising existed on Madison Avenue until a day 50 years ago when Jay Chiat and Guy Day shook hands at a Dodgers game. Our west coast agency was born, and Lee joined them just a few years later. That pioneering vision, along with the many years of partnering with Steve Jobs, feeds into our pirate mentality. After all, it’s more fun to be a pirate than in the Navy! 

So overall, it's super important that we stay connected to our Chiat\Day roots, yet at the same time participate in the collective and learn from other great agencies across the globe. We benefit greatly from both.


AdForum: How do you find commonality and consistency across the TBWA network, while at the same time respecting cultural differences cross-market?

Erin: Disruption is globally relevant and, as part of our DNA, ties the collective together. Disruption allows us to find common identity and use a common language, which is then tailored for specific market needs. Sometimes that could be a different offering; for example, some agencies are deep designers, others produce long-form content, while another is in data and precision marketing practices, so it really is about respecting local market cultural dynamics.


AdForum: Let’s dig deeper into ‘disruption’ and ‘media arts’. How are they embodied?

Renato: In today’s culture, we believe that the two things we need the most are disruption and media arts. Disruption because brands are competing, not against just other brands, but against everything in culture. They are competing against friends tweeting, they're competing against the cat filter on Twitter last week. At Chiat, disruption is not just a fancy word but is a true methodology. We call it our ‘software’ that assists the mind's process and gives us something unique and special for the brand. 

It’s so important to connect media arts to that, because the audience is migratory. They're not on TV anymore, they spend most of their time on a phone accessing content in different places and the art is to meet the audience where they are at that moment. We need to dive into the consumer’s journey and identify the best focal points to deliver the message in the most powerful way. 


AdForum: Can you give us an example of a recent activation, that had a new approach and a successful outcome?

Renato: At the end of last year we launched Disney+ and to do that successfully amongst a multitude of competitors, we wanted to create true engagement with consumers. The solution was to put Disney’s full film catalog on Twitter and Instagram, and allow online conversations about the content to develop.  We knew if we shared the catalog on social platforms we would ignite conversation and action. So, everyone created their own Disney+ playlist combos and, as a result, our target audience had the chance to play with the brand, experience it and feel a part of it. The brand belongs to you and this is the new reality for brands. 

The contributions from each of the Disney handles can be viewed here


AdForum: You celebrated 50 years in 2019. The last two years have seen revenue growth and over 100 new hires, at a volatile time for the industry. Where has this growth come from?

Erin: 2018 and 2019 were wonderful years for us in terms of new business, client retention and organic growth. 

We grew our Gatorade account by taking on their digital business and we added social to our scope for QuickBooks. With that growth, we had the opportunity to hire around 115 people in 2019. 

We invest in things that power media arts: expanding our talent in data, connections and experience, folks who are social specialists and content makers. BeGrizzlee, our in-house content studio, has grown tremendously in its own right and really has enabled us to be extremely effective for our clients. 

AdForum: Gatorade and QuickBooks are both existing clients and added digital and social respectively, to your scope. Congratulations! Do you think that Media Arts has helped demystify the complex world of ‘digital’ for clients? 

Erin: Yes. The proposition of disruption and media arts has been compelling for new clients, but it has also enabled us to grow existing clients. That expansion also reaches into our new consultancy offering and a specialist group that focuses on social impact. It's really a sign of great business health if you are growing revenue from existing clients and adding new business. Growing existing business is a great endorsement of what you are doing.


AdForum: You have an amazing profile in the industry, so we’re curious about who invites you to pitch. 

Erin: The variability of what we're invited to participate in is pretty astonishing. On any given day, we’ll get both an RFP from a big, global brand and from a 21C start-up in Silicon Beach. We do naturally get that variability and it's part of our agenda to build offerings that can flex to accommodate a range of opportunities. 


AdForum: So we have discussed disruption, Media Arts, the collective and innovation, all of which are client-focused. Let’s shift now to culture inside the agency. What is it like to work at TBWA? 

Erin: We want people to be their full selves, to talk about their passions, their family, their friends. People have things that should not be pushed aside, but on the contrary, are part of what they bring. 

We do that by encouraging everyone to find an ‘integrated’ lifestyle rather than a work-life balance, because the idea of work-life balance is outdated. When you need to put family first, you put family first, when you need to put your passion for surfing first, you put your passion for surfing first. When you have a new business pitch, you put a new business pitch first. Making this a place where people can be themselves fully, makes it that much easier for parents for example, to find integration. We've been conscious of making sure that is something that is universal as well. If you're not a parent, but you are passionate about charity work for example, we encourage and support that. 


AdForum: Focusing specifically on parenting and finding that integration for parents, what kind of initiatives do you offer?

Erin: We totally renovated our mothers room this year, to make sure that it was comfortable and a nice place to be. Our Milk Stork program helps mothers who are nursing as they need to travel. We have an educational program, WRK/360, that presents on a series of topics that are relevant to working parents. In terms of practical support, we are about to partner with a local facility to provide back-up childcare.


AdForum: Renato, what is your story and how did you come to TBWA\Chiat\Day?

Renato: Working here with Lee Clow is one of the biggest highlights of my career. Before I worked at Chiat\Day, I was at AlmapBBDO for 11 years with Marcello Serpa, former Creative Director & Co-Chairman, AlmapBBDO. Marcello was a key reference for me. He is the reason I came to America, because he elevated my perception about advertising. Second, when I told him that I had the appetite for an international experience, he was the first one who helped me to achieve that. 


AdForum: You are a native Brazilian now working at one of the most aspirational agencies in the US. Where do you see opportunity to build cultural diversity?

Renato: Diversity is long due in advertising agencies. This plural canvas is making us better, more interesting, and compelling to a larger audience. And if we want to be relevant to a broader audience, advertising agencies need to get them represented in all departments. There are 4.4 million Latino-owned businesses in the US contributing more than $700 billion to the economy. African American business grew 400% from 2017 to 2018. It is easy to understand that diversity is not only the right thing to do but it is good for business. The agency now has a higher ratio of women across all departments than men.

I've been developing pipelines for diversity in the agency in the past years. I brought back a program called Youngbloods, an internship for new talent that is heavily centered in diversity. My selection of talent is based on people that don't have access to agencies through the normal channels. And the goal is to prepare them for the industry and hire the ones that excel. We are in the second year, and we hired three women from the program.

Regarding cultural growth, Intermission is a monthly program that brings an arts event into the agency, either music, comedy, theatre, magic. The purpose is to create space for new connections and learning, so that we can grow, experience and assist in positive transformation, giving us the chance to broaden our understanding about the diverse world we live in. One of the events we did last year was with Ryan O'Connell, star, writer and executive producer of the Netflix show "Special," a semi-autobiographical series about a young gay man with cerebral palsy.


AdForum: Thank you both so much for sharing what makes TBWA\Chiat\Day unique. To close, we always like to bring it back to the work itself. So we’d like to ask you both, what is your favorite ad of all time?

Renato: Apple Macintosh 1984 made me believe advertising is something bigger. Advertising can change culture and advertising can create culture. It showed me that advertising is a grown-up game. 


Erin: Also 1984, which is hard to compete with. TBWA, the early days at Apple "Here's to the crazy ones". This campaign transcends advertising and is such an important cultural piece, even today. I remember hearing a story about a letter from a father at the time the campaign was aired. His child was really struggling, maybe even depressed and suicidal and the words in the film about ‘the square peg in a round hole’ really gave his child hope and changed the way he saw himself. That kind of profound impact is the holy grail of what we strive to do. 


AdForum: On that heart-warming and thought-provoking note about the intersection of advertising with society, AdForum would like to thank Erin Riley and Renato Fernandez for the conversation and the insight