By Andrew Robinson, CEO
This is an abridged transcript of a speech that Andrew gave to the agency in November 2021.
I believe that to be our best selves requires us to be our Authentic Selves.
If you are unfamiliar with the concept of Authentic Self, here is the definition I favor: The act and experience of joyous, unbridled commitment to your core values with full, fearless acceptance of reality.
These words resonate with me, not only as it applies to my personal growth and development, but to the agency’s as well. To be its best, I believe TMA must be its Authentic Self. It must be totally committed to its core values with full and fearless acceptance of reality, no matter how difficult it may be.
Therefore, the first tenet of the growth plan that I’ve presented annually since 2008, always begins with: Be true to our core values.
It’s number one for a reason, followed by four other tenets that never change because I consider all five to be foundational principles for growth. They are:
- Take a stand for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Provide a work environment that is inspiring, challenging, and meaningful.
- Prioritize the professional development of our people.
- Create cultural resonance for brands.
If we get these five things right, our people will grow and develop professionally, our work will improve and our opportunity to work with brands will grow, which will drive business performance and financial growth and prosperity for our people and the agency.
Each year, the sixth tenet of the growth plan is new and intended to serve as a special focus for the agency.
To help introduce it, I respectfully ask that you watch the following video entitled “This is Water,” an excerpt of David Foster Wallace’s brilliant commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005.
Mr. Wallace opens with a short story in which an older fish casually greets two younger fish by asking, “How’s the water?” To which one replies, “What the hell is water?”
Water, we learn, is everything that is “so hidden in plain sight, all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves – over and over – this is water, this is water.” The point of this story, Wallace tells us, “Is that the most obvious, important realities in our lives are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” I have found this to be frequently true in my life experience, including here at TMA.
Therefore, I come to you today with three new important realities that we must fully and fearlessly accept for TMA to be its authentic self in 2022. And it’s not going to be easy for any of us to take these new realities on, because each one requires that we resist.
We must resist legacy thinking and behaviors of the past, many of which are silent and mostly hidden from view, but exist, nevertheless. Each of us must resist our own deeply engrained biases — what Wallace calls our natural default settings — and be willing and able to think and act differently.
Above all, we must be willing to see beyond ourselves and get uncomfortable, none of which is easy. But it’s essential we do this because as Wallace notes: The truth is, a huge percentage of the stuff that we tend to be automatically certain of is, as it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.
Wallace tells us that to resist our default settings we must exercise some control over what and how we think, which requires being conscious and aware enough to choose what to pay attention to, and to choose how to construct meaning from experience.
The first of the new realities we must acknowledge, talk about, and prepare for: What employees need, want, and value from work today has changed in very dramatic ways.
New employee attitudes, behaviors, and priorities, has resulted in millions of burned out and restless workers leaving the workforce in what’s been called the Great Resignation or the Great Reassessment.
This new reality requires that we think very differently if we want to continue to attract great people to this agency, and more importantly, keep them here.
Let’s be honest, the work process as we know it is undeniably broken — the boundless demands, extreme rigidity, insane pace, and torturous inefficiency. It is a central reason why so many of today’s workers are unhappy, unfulfilled, and burned out.
Journalist Anne Helen Petersen, in her book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, writes, “If a bridge collapses, we wouldn’t just tell people how to drive around it, we would demand it be repaired. In the same way, we need to repair the crumbling infrastructure of work.”
The truth is the crumbling has been underway for more than a decade and it’s fair to say — going back to the point of Wallace’s fish story — that it’s an obvious, important reality that has been hard to see and talk about.
But that’s going to change. We have an opportunity at TMA to reimagine the work experience in ways that will matter to you and future employees of the agency. But only if we choose to do so, and only if we resist the temptation to stay the course and just try to hang on because it is easier or feels safer. Studies show what employees want, need, and value today is diverse and multi-dimensional. We’re committed to developing true and meaningful innovation to the employee experience at TMA. It’s imperative that we get ahead of this matter, and do our best to be prepared for what’s next, after the pandemic ends.
The second new reality I want to discuss is, in many ways, harder to see and talk about. It’s both outside and inside the agency. It comes and goes in waves and when present, exists in varying degrees. And it’s not something that the agency can easily influence, let alone control.
The second reality: There are people outside and inside the agency that don’t believe in TMA.
They don’t believe in our belief system. They don’t believe we can be a dynamic agency of creativity, or that we can deliver our unique offering of creative firepower and expertise in commerce to create cultural resonance.
I don’t really care what they think. But I do care what you think, and so again, I say resist.
We must resist those who don’t share our belief in Creativity That Matters, and who dismiss our vision to be the best in the world at creating cultural resonance for brands.
We must resist the growing number in our industry who place the importance of data, automation, and artificial anything above human curiosity, imagination, and creativity. All these things are important and essential in what we do, of course, but nothing we do is more important than making people feel something. To inspire them to think, behave, or act in ways that matter.
We must resist the idea that true partnerships between brands and agencies, built on trust, respect, loyalty and common purpose, are unnecessary and not worth the effort.
And finally, we must resist comparing or concerning ourselves with what other agencies and creative resources are saying, or doing, or pretending to do. The capital-T truth is about us. We must recognize that this agency has undergone a vast amount of change over the past three years. New purpose, new culture, new positioning, new structure, new leadership. This is a level of change that can be hard to process. We also have a lot of relatively new people at TMA.
Moreover, we’ve all had our lives significantly altered by the pandemic. It’s no wonder that some are uncertain about TMA, those they work with, or in themselves.
But sometimes, all we need to believe, is to simply open our minds and be willing to think differently about change before we can embrace it. Sometimes all we need to do is believe in believe.
If you are a fan of the brilliant show Ted Lasso, you understand what I mean by “believe in believe,” and how important it is for a team and each of its members — doesn’t matter if it’s a debate team, a group of musicians, volunteers working for a cause, or in Coach Lasso’s case, a soccer club — to believe in what the team stands for, what it aspires to be, and the strategies it employs to achieve its goals. Equally as important, each team member must believe in their teammates and in themselves.
Lasso chooses to see what is possible instead of what is missing. He is a fictional example of what Wallace says to do: He controls what and how he thinks and is aware enough to choose what to pay attention to, and to choose what meaning to take away from experience.
We, too, must choose to “believe in believe” if we want to be a great agency, a great team, and to continue growing in the new year. We must choose to believe in TMA and what it stands for, what it is, and aspires to be. We must choose to believe in each other and in ourselves.
And you should know, speaking on behalf of the entire executive team, that we believe in you! Every single day, you bring care, passion, courage, curiosity, tenacity, and determination to the work and to those you work with. What you’ve accomplished is something to believe in.
You inspired and established a belief system and culture that places people and their development and growth above all else. Your commitment and efforts to build a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and welcoming workplace is considered best-in-class at Omnicom. You’ve built teams of people who are so extraordinarily talented, it takes my breath away.
You’ve become a strategic creative resource for some of the worlds most admired brands.
The overall quality of your work is the best I’ve seen in 23 years at the agency. It’s being recognized by the industry, our peers, and brand decision-makers. Your efforts are manifest in a new business pipeline that is full of new and exciting opportunities.
You have delivered revenue growth over the past two years that is a standout at Omnicom. More importantly, we are now sitting at the big table with more brands.
We know that TMA is not perfect, and there’s much room to improve. But because of you there’s much to believe in, if we choose to open our minds to what is real and what is possible.
There’s one more reality we must talk about. I’ll lead in with a story that requires me to talk about myself more than I’m normally comfortable doing…
As you know, getting clients to buy an idea is not easy, and you come to accept in this business that there is far more rejection than success. But over the years I managed to sell in a fair amount of work that would become significant for our clients and for TMA. Undoubtedly, the best example of this was an idea I pitched to the Doritos brand team in 2006 called Crash the Super Bowl, which gave consumers the opportunity to create the brand’s Super Bowl ad. The program helped launch the consumer generated content movement and would see four Doritos spots take top honors in the annual USA Today Ad Meter, and never finish out of the top five over its 10-year run.
Crash would go on to win dozens of industry awards including multiple Lions and Effie’s. Adweek readers named it the promotion of the decade. It won the PR campaign of the decade at the Sabre Awards. And in 2017, the final year of the program, Adweek ran a story crediting the Crash program with changing advertising forever.
I’m not sure if that’s true, but Crash and other big ideas did bring TMA newfound recognition. It opened the door to new business opportunities that continue today, and, in part, allowed the agency to expand its capabilities and become the world-class creative resource it is today.
Over my 23-year agency career, my job title has changed several times. VP to SVP to president of our consumer engagement business, to president of the agency. Finally, on May 1, 2019, Omnicom appointed me CEO.
I’m sharing some of my journey with you, only because I want you to know how I’ve come to learn what truly matters in this business. I’ve come to understand with absolute clarity, what is most important; and it’s not the awards or the titles. It’s not even the work, which I have great passion for.
What truly matters is humanity. It’s the people we work with. It’s the relationships and friendships that develop from this shared experience. Some of these experiences are fun, interesting, and even amazing, but for the most part they are routine interactions, part of the daily grind.
In fact, a lot of the times we share are hard, frustrating, and stressful. But we are in it together, working our asses off, doing the best we can, whatever the circumstances, supporting each other. Sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t. But we always have each other’s back. The trust, respect, and friendship between us is real and unshakeable.
If you’ve been here for any amount of time, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And, if you are new to TMA, I hope this is familiar to you from wherever you came.
If you’re lucky, some of these friendships grow and lead to other shared experiences that have nothing to do with work and everything to do with humanity — weekend getaways, BBQs, special events and occasions, vacations, weddings, babies, divorce, illness, and, sadly, loss.
I’ve been blessed in this way many times over the past 23 years, and I value these relationships, these friendships, with all my heart. I love these people. And with the benefit of time and experience, hopefully a little wisdom, and a whole lot of reflection, I’ve come to understand when it comes to our work lives, this is what truly matters.
Please do not misunderstand me. My work is very important. I’ve chosen to make it a defining aspect of my life. I gain inspiration from my work, and it challenges me to do things I never thought possible. It’s taught me patience, how to deal with adversity, and grow as a human being. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished here at TMA and view my contribution as significant. But I know it is not what truly matters.
I make this point because the third new important reality we must accept is that there’s been a decline in meaningful human connection and interaction as part of the work experience at agencies like TMA. This is not entirely a new trend; it’s been going on for more than a decade, with companies implementing initiatives to reduce agency headcount, fractionalize roles, and fundamentally change the way we work, making it harder to collaborate and share. All at a time when our work has become more complicated by the rising number of technologies and platforms.
The global health crisis of the past 19 months has only accelerated this dynamic in ways we couldn’t imagine just a short time ago.
We know this best, of course, from having to work remotely full-time, physically apart for the most part, connecting only through a screen for close to two years.
We developed new routines, and we discovered there were certain advantages to not having to go into the office every day. We had greater control over our schedules. We spent less time in traffic, on public transportation, in airports and on airplanes. This provided more time for the other things in our lives that are important to us, including our families, other loved ones, and ourselves.
There are other advantages. We can sleep a little later. There’s no need to clean up or put something nice on for work, although, let’s be honest, this was not a high bar at TMA. Many came to enjoy the lack of distractions and quiet that working in isolation allows. Some found they were more productive.
These benefits and others of working remotely are undeniable, and to a large degree, they are here to stay.
The combination of the past 10 years and the pandemic has changed each of us, profoundly, creating new default settings, as Wallace would say. I believe many, if not most, now feel that human connection and interaction at work is less important and largely unnecessary.
So for a final time, I suggest to you that we resist. We must resist placing a higher value on productivity, efficiency and convenience than we place on humanity, what’s most important, what truly matters. We must resist losing real human connection and shared experiences at work — both the amazing and mundane — that can lead to the special relationships, friendships and sometimes, love, that enrich our lives.
As we’ve affirmed repeatedly, our workplace flexibility program, workability, remains our policy. After what we’ve learned over the past 19 months, we believe in its importance more than ever.
But as the threat of the virus wanes, eventually each of us is going to have to choose how we work. All we know for certain is it will be different than before the pandemic, and, yes, it will be different than it is today. This will require that we think differently and, for some, that you resist the attitudes, behaviors, and legacies of the past and choose humanity.
In closing I’m going to borrow the words of Mr. Wallace and say I know this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way an annual growth plan is supposed to sound.
None of this stuff is really about the industry or clients or big important questions about advertising and marketing. It’s about the value of the agency being its authentic self, and being open to thinking and acting differently, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness. Awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over…this is water, this is water.