Pigott’s brand new path

In our exit interview with JWT's Tony Pigott, he reflects on his career, the challenges facing the industry and his plans for the charity BrandAid.
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From trainee account executive in 1979 to global CEO of JWT Ethos, Tony Pigott has had a long career at J. Walter Thompson. Now, the former leader of the agency’s CSR branch turns his full attention to BrandAid, a global initiative he founded that uses the power of branding to help artisans from the developing world build sustainable businesses and sell their wares at fair prices. Here, Pigott reflects on his career (which included being president of Enterprise Creative Selling and CEO of JWT Canada), the challenges facing the industry and his plans for BrandAid.

Is there anything you will miss about leading an agency?

I used to say I felt there was a fundamental difference between clients and agency people: agency people hated high school. Generally speaking, we’re a bit more misfit, so it attracts great characters with different attitudes and that’s always been fun and full of surprises.

And what would you say you’ll miss the least?

Financial meetings in New York.

What were your proudest achievements?

I had the good fortune of having a hand in the building of the Tim Hortons brand and business over the years. That was a high-water mark.

Another would be creating a partnership back in 2002 between J. Walter Thompson Worldwide, UNESCO and the Canadian government [to develop communications programs promoting the principles of sustainability globally].

Tell us about your plans for BrandAid.

There are two things we will focus on. One is to turn it into a famous consumer brand that allows people to connect in a new and direct way with producers at the bottom of the economic pyramid. The second is to establish a new marketing-oriented model for international development. The [pop-up store] at Hudson’s Bay was supported by the Canadian government and they are looking at what the industry does here – which is to market, brand and promote, and use design and technology – but to apply that to small producers to create new jobs and new business opportunities, and have the consumer engaged in the process. That’s a new concept in international development and we want BrandAid to be at the forefront of it.

What is the succession plan for JWT Ethos?

The team that has been driving it in Canada will continue to do that and will receive more support within the agency. David Gibb [EVP managing director, JWT Toronto], for example, is going to become the business director of Ethos in Toronto. The other markets, like New York, London and Japan, will be self-led with [Toronto's] support. We’ve spent a year and a half really enrolling key parts of the agency in this way of thinking and now these places are ready to go.

What challenges in the ad world kept you up at night?

Power has migrated to people and the choice and influence individuals now have, because of technology, creates enormous challenges and huge opportunities for agencies. So you can see attempts to really come to grips with this in an industry that 20 years ago could control things in a much more direct way, where ideas could be pumped out and people were pretty loyal to certain media, and we could measure all of that.

The great agencies are responding by being open, entrepreneurial and innovative at a time when clients, I’m sure, are more concerned and confused than ever.

What other changes do you see coming for marketers and agencies?

You’ll see continuous evolution in what brands stand for. I believe that social leadership is going to become a fundamental part of brand strategy and brand activation, so agencies need to more proactively deal with this and understand that there is a marketplace of social change.

There’s a feeling that agencies today are being treated less like trusted partners and more like vendors. Is that something you’ve witnessed?

Peter Drucker said there were two essential things in business – innovation and marketing, and everything else was a cost. Yet I don’t think business has really embraced those things over the last 20 years. In fact, I believe that marketing has gone backwards in terms of its stature overall within companies.

That’s one underlying reason agencies are being pressed by procurement pressures. Of course, there is a fundamental and long-standing challenge that the industry has had – to be recognized and paid for the value of what you deliver. But this becomes even more challenging to demonstrate given the circumstances that everybody’s in now: you’re paid less, you’re asked for more and the work has to work quickly.

How can agencies respond to this challenge?

John Costello (the former senior EVP for Sears in the U.S.) was asked what he wanted from his agency and he said “I can sum it up in three words: ‘Listen. Then lead.’” I think if agencies can do that in the midst of all this confusion, if they can listen to the market and listen to their clients and then take them to places they can’t get to themselves, they can start to realize more of the value that they deserve.

Who were your mentors and what were some of the important lessons they instilled in you?

One is Sarah Moran [SVP strategic planning at JWT Toronto], who, in my mind, has been the best planner in Canada for several decades. She’s also about to retire from JWT. She was a mentor and a teacher on so many levels but particularly with her ability to distinguish between insights – which are a dime a dozen – and true discovery and ideas. I owe a lot to her.

Another is a bit of a surprise. I was one of 15 advisors to UNESCO on a report on globalization and cultural diversity, with the advisory group meeting several times between 2007 and 2009. One of the people I worked with as an advisor was Neville Alexander, a black South African who spent nine years in prison with Nelson Mandela (and who died in August 2012). I learned a few things from him that were very compelling. One was perspective on our industry and another was the importance of having the courage and resolve to confront wrongdoing. Another was the fundamental understanding that people, whoever they are, wherever they come from, need recognition and respect more than anything else.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to run an agency?

H.L. Mencken (the famous American journalist, essayist and satirist), came to Canada decades ago and when he went back he wrote that Canadians are the only people in the world who take moderation to an extreme. So, my advice to the whole industry is that we have enormous opportunities here and we need to not just be creative in the work that we do but much more entrepreneurial in the way that we think about our role in marketing, business and society. [We need] to step out and take some risks in approaching these conditions that we find ourselves in.

Looking at opportunities like social change is an example. The marketplace, the way people are using media, the issues that consumers have, all represent new business opportunities and great agencies are starting to move beyond simple communication strategies to use their creativity and insight on a bigger plane.


Parting words:

“In his DNA, Tony is a believer, and when he believes in something, he intellectually and emotionally works towards making it happen. There is a bit of a rebel in Tony, not in the way he acts, so much as the way he thinks. He likes to challenge the establishment in a very subtle, intelligent and soft way that to me is very remarkable. He won’t force it down your throat as much as make you think and inspire you to come up with ideas”

- André Lachance, VP, GM, JWT Montreal
“Under Tony’s leadership we developed our ‘True Stories’ coffee campaign in the mid-’90s. ‘True Stories’ drove an emotional connection between Canadians and Tim Hortons by inserting our brand into customers’ lives, through rich storytelling of travel, adventure and perseverance. More importantly, the campaign linked Tim Hortons to a sense of national identity, and the rest is history.

“Tony was also instrumental in creating a Quebec-specific creative strategy for our brand. The TV campaign featuring Minou and Pitou really struck a chord with Quebecers, helping to establish a distinct identity for Tims in La Belle Province.

“We’re thankful for Tony’s leadership on our business, and grateful for the relentless passion that has helped make Tim Hortons a brand beloved by Canadians from coast to coast. We raise a cup in wishing him all the best in the years to come.”

- Bill Moir, chief brand and  marketing officer, Tim Hortons

“Tony has a fierce passion for big thinking and the power of a great idea. His relentless focus on being great is infectious and empowering.
Whether it was rebranding Shnier, Canada’s largest flooring distributor, igniting commitment for U of T as a world-leading research university or fuelling the hand-made economy in Haiti, Tony’s keen intellect and focus on what’s possible inspired the people around him.

“Tony is both an architect and contractor, he doesn’t just direct great ideas, he makes them happen. As a leader, he always made us feel like we were working with him, not just for him. He always had our back and pushed us to be great.”

- Jack Perone, VP director of planning, JWT Canada

“Our relationship was awkward at first. I was usually perceived as a stereotypical environmentalist and Tony, who I was introduced to around 1997, was the first senior advertising executive I had met. But I soon realized he was a thoughtful, caring person with a way of actually listening and a penchant for straightforward communication.

“Our largest undertaking was during the run-up to the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2002. Tony poured time and energy into this unique initiative, including personal trips to Johannesburg and Paris. His efforts resulted in a signed document between the UN and a major advertising giant [JWT] that was, and remains, unique. The most admirable part of this was the time and effort in spite of the realization that the UN could not contribute to the JWT coffers. It was all work that was done for ‘the right reason,’ as Tony saw it.”

- Charles Hopkins, UNESCO chair in education for sustainable development, York University