I have decided to dedicate this post to the company I have worked for for twenty years now : TBWA (indeed, I started at BDDP in November 1994 before the name change to TBWA in 1998). As you may already know if you are interested in the world of Communications, TBWA, led since July 2014 by Troy Ruhanen as CEO, is one of the major advertising networks owned by OMNICOM (along DDB and BBDO). TBWA has been made up of the combination in 1998 of two large international networks, BDDP (the great French success story of advertising agencies of the 1980s/90s) on one hand, and TBWA (strongly known in the States thanks to TBWA Chiat Day’s great reputation), on the other. BDDP & TBWA, two similar international networks, successfully merged under the leadership of Jean-Marie Dru, who is now Chairman of TBWA\Worldwide. While the great story of BDDP (Boulet Dru Dupuy Petit), agency created in 1984, is quite well-known thanks to Jean-Marie Dru’s books (« Disruption », « How Disruption Brought Order », «Jet Lag »…), TBWA’s story, and particularly its beginnings starting from 1970 in Paris, is much less told. Indeed, neither of the four founders wrote about it. So I took advantage of an impromptu meeting with the extremely friendly and eternally young Uli Wiesendanger, who lives mainly in Paris, to interview him on the genesis of TBWA. A unique testimony by the co-founder and first Creative Director of TBWA, a wise mad man, that I am happy to share with you today.
– Uli, tell us about your the beginnings of your career before creating TBWA in 1970, and how you met your three founding partners.
After the equivalent of graduation in Switzerland, I wanted to write, but my father discouraged me from doing literary studies! As an alternative, he did pay for type-writing classes… more reasonable. And, terribly useful: he was one of the very few that was anticipating the arrival of personal computers. I started working as an apprentice in a Swedish advertising agency for one year, while I continued my education at night school. I then worked three years in a clothing factory for men which had lots of shops. The boss let me in on nearly everything, including working directly with the advertising agency and writing the campaign with the art director. I got to brief the agency, and I was not an easy client. Two years later, I saw an ad for a job working in communication for Volkswagen in the U.S. VW was a mythical brand for me at the time. I knew mostly of Volkswagen through advertising campaigns that I saw in LIFE magazine sent to me by my American uncle. I would learn them by heart, just like poems by Brecht. I didn’t get the job, but at 23 I became a copywriter at Young & Rubicam Frankfurt, where I met Bill Tragos who was working for Procter & Gamble, and Paolo Ajroldi who was working for General Foods. They had met in the Traffic department at Young in New York and became friends. I then joined DDB for its creation in Dusseldorf for a year. Afterwards, I came back to Young & Rubicam in Frankfurt, with the prospect of being transferred to Paris for the opening of Y & R Paris scheduled for 1964. Though I was writing in German and had learned English copywriting through Life magazine, I loved and was terrified by the French language. In 1964, I became one of the first employees of Y & R in Paris, and soon after Claude Bonnange joined as the person in charge of media and research. Meanwhile, Tragos successfully opened the offices of Y & R in Belgium and Holland, and Paolo Ajroldi, after being a consultant in Switzerland, joined Y & R Italy. I then decided to go to Y & R New York for a year before Bill Tragos took the head of Y & R Paris, and asked me to return, as he did of his friend Paolo, who left Milan in 1968 to join us. In 1969, we announced to the management of Y & R our desire to leave, and we took a year to help and organize our succession: the young Jean-Claude Boulet became the General Director at 28 years old, and later President of Y&R France. He later recruited Jean-Marie Dru as CEO. In 1984, they left to start their own adventure, BDDP, which, ironically, would merge with TBWA under the Omnicom umbrella in 1998 to form the TBWA group we know today.
– Can you describe to us in a few words Bill, Claude and Paolo?
Bill Tragos was born in St. Louis, Missouri, into a Greek immigrant family. America was a new world for his parents, and Bill learned to live and impose himself amongst Anglo-Saxons. He is and was an intellectual and physical ‘dynamo’. He is also the open mind and the compassion that stands up against traditional rules and stupidity. He was a brilliant student who earned a scholarship to the University of St. Louis before turning to advertising at Young & Rubicam in New York, at first in the traffic department. His career ascended quickly, first in the U.S. and then in Europe. In addition to being American, Bill is Greek. His brain works super fast, and never lacks resilience. Like a good Mediterranean, Bill masters the art of finding solutions to problems in such a way that neither the agency nor the client has to sacrifice any dignity.
Claude Bonnange is a Parisian only child. He started as a bright AND funny kid, and remained that way forever. He graduated from ESSEC. Always able to start a meeting with a joke, he brought lightness and ease wherever he went, even when subjects were complicated. Claude invented strategic planning in France, and played for me the role of sparring creative partner. It was like a sport, where the goal was to dig through ideas, find the gems and the clues in studies of the market, and launch the creatives. He’s the one who said: To be creative, before the creative (work starts). We would argue amicably (behind closed doors so as to not scare anyone) until we found the right idea!
Paolo Ajroldi came from a big Italian family whose documented origins date back to year 800! He studied classics and then worked in film and cinema before advertising. Paolo represented pure class, in his intelligence, his humor and his generosity. Even if a storm hit our agency, our convictions, our friendship, nothing could shake Paolo. When you come from a famiy of goths that conquered and lost the Roman empire, you’ve seen worse. But Paolo’s height didn’t hurt anyone. His compassion could calm the most irritated creative (me, for example). Everybody loved him. His passing in 1990 marked us forevermore.
– Why did you create TBWA?
We had an instinctive desire, which was above all else, to continue to work together. We already worked in a lot in different countries and the logic of Y & R meant that we would most likely part again; Bill Tragos would take on more international functions, and I potentially would go work for our Switzerland office. Despite all the love we had for Young & Rubicam, our team might and would eventually break up, and so we started to think about how we could stay together. We then made the observation that we represented four major, complementary disciplines and we were lucky to be very international at a time when everyone around us was talking about Europe. We were convinced that Paris was the natural capital of Europe, for reasons of geography and prestige. We knew that we would have to quickly expand to other European countries to be truly European, so as to not be the French who invaded Europe out of Paris. When you start from zero, you think and build what has never existed before. We created the first agency, or really the first company in the world, that would be from the start, a European company, and even global. An economist was predicting at the time, that the first company to be truly European would open in 2014. He was off 40 years! But we weren’t. We represented, the four of us, this European core. No culture, no country would dominate another. No discipline in our line of work, represented by a single one of us, would dominate over another. Our project consisted in approaching countries, without using money or power. We did have, it’s true, our reputation. We were enthusiastic about everything different and everything new. But we didn’t want to ‘conquer’, we wanted to embrace talents as enthusiastic as we were. We were curious as to what talents were going to create; we hoped for good surprises from their part and we encouragement that we could all share. Consequently, we never thought of instating rules or sanctions. (The only sanction was a lazy or conformist campaign). We didn’t want hierarchy or the fear or boredom that it might provoke. They were to us, hereditary ennemies of good work. Also, even though the Paris agency was somewhat of a flagship, it was used as a ressource to the others, not a threat. This attitude attracted the best of talents. People we would offer liberty to, (and equality and fraternity, too.) Throughout the years, few competitors and journalists understood us. The magazine “Campaign” in London took us for a chaotic bunch. However, many clients, national or international, joined us and dreamt that their company structures resembled ours.
– How did the beginnings go; who were the first clients?
TBWA was born on August 10th, 1970. Because it was summer, we could get free unused billboard space, and this allowed us to create an advertising campaign to announce our existence. It was a simple announcement sign stating “Mr. Tragos Bonnange Wiesendanger and Ajroldi announce the opening of their advertising agency.” Our first offices were 120m2, on rue de Ponthieu in Paris. We were actually five, because Bill brought with him his assistant, Anne Mouchot. The four of us bunked in the same office. And it would always be that way. Samsonite was our first client; they allowed us to do some very creative things. Our second client was Ovomaltine, whose marketing director had worked with us at Procter & Gamble, and was our first true multi-country international budget. But it was probably URGO, of the laboratories Fournier, directed by a great man, that gave us our first high profile campaign: Urgo “is full of holes”, which later became “There is Urgo in the air/There is air in Urgo.” This campaign was based on a microscopic difference between TRICOSTERIL and URGO, which was the number of holes in the bandaid. URGO had more holes, and therefore let through more air, (which is what helps cure the wound!) We later got the idea to take advantage of the political campaigns going on that year – we went around sticking URGO bandaids on the posters of politicians’ faces. This is probably one of the first examples of “guerrilla” advertising in France… This spirit would stick with us from then on, for our campaigns for Absolut Vodka, like the poster that reconstructed a life-size New York apartment!
– What were some of the main events of the first few years?
Besides the creativeness of our campaigns, our visibility came from our quick expansion with the opening of TBWA agencies in Italy, Germany and in England. We opened our Italian agency in 1971. Everyone told us it was completely nuts, with the state of the economy (we would say the same today…) But Paolo knew better than all of us. I also had a brother living in Italy. We recruited a manager, a strategic planner and two creatives, without even having any clients! The Italian agency did will right away. We gained notoriety with Barilla. And it’s because we had Barilla in Italy that we later obtained the account in France, with a a campaign that would highly contribute to our reputation: a campaign where Barilla pasta was presented as jewelry. We then opened in Germany. We produced a campaign for Seita for Flint cigarettes, which highly displeased Philip Morris because “they were not cowboy cigarettes”. Intrigued and annoyed at this campaign, Philip Morris people came to see us. When they discovered the potential and creativity of TBWA, they asked to work together. They told us they had needs in Germany, so so we chose three great talents in Frankfurt. Work blossomed. England was also a great story thanks to (or perhaps because of?) the fact that it impressed us. We were a little nervous to move over there. We took advantage of the revival that was taking place over there, and met with exceptional talents, including John Bartle, Nigel Bogle, John Hegarty and Chris Martin, who would later create BBH. For ten years, TBWA was one of the best, if not the best agency in the UK. One of TBWA’s greatest successes of the time in England was the talking animals film for LEGO. Later, the Absolut Vodka campaign would launch TBWA’s successful adventure in America. We opened in New York and in St. Louis, Bill Tragos’ hometown (who then moved to the USA). What made us successful at the time is still what makes the strength of TBWA today: a deeply multicultural network that knows how to attract the greatest talents of the moment!