The Brand Union’s Toby Southgate on Matching his European Success, Stateside

Toby-Southgate1Toby Southgate was recently hired to be the CEO at The Brand Union, United States. Toby previously worked as the CEO of The Brand Union in UK /Ireland to tremendous success. Hew now hopes to duplicate that success in America. The Makegood recently spoke with Toby about his new job and ambitions for the position.

The Makegood: Congratulations on being named CEO for The Brand Union Americas. What made you decide to take the position and leave Europe?

The Brand Union is the number one or two brand strategy and design consultancy in each of the 22 markets where we have offices across the globe, except in North America. I joined this team to change that. We work globally with fantastic clients, such as Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Time Warner Cable, DuPont, Vodafone, The Absolut Company, GSK, and Nestle. We’ve been named Agency of the Year over the last three years in the UK, China, France, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Singapore, and Sweden. So I have a simple brief—achieve the same profile for our agency here in the Americas. We have a clear vision, the support of WPP, some great clients, and a very bold outlook. I’m grabbing the chance to make that happen. Also, I’ve lived in New York twice before and my family loves it here, so we’re very happy to be back.

The Makegood: What have you learned as CEO, UK / Ireland that you plan on carrying over to your new job and how do you think this position will differ from your previous one of CEO UK / Ireland?

Our agency was born in London in 1976, and was one of the first acquisitions Sir Martin made when he formed WPP in 1986. So from three years spent running what is essentially our global headquarters, I bring a deep understanding and respect for the history of The Brand Union – including the success of WPP as it has grown throughout the last three decades – and our place in the wider marketing communications industry. I’ve also seen and observed how we can work better and more effectively within the WPP group, to deliver stronger, more robust work as a lead component in some of WPP’s largest cross-network teams, including Bank of America, Vodafone, Shell and HSBC.

While I was in London, we also developed a formal partnership with Digit, a highly regarded interaction consultancy that we’re looking to extend across our network. New York will be the first office in which we develop that capability. The role should not be different strategically—I’m still part of the same network, working with many of the same clients—but it will differ tactically on a number of day-to-day operational levels. That’s part of the fun, getting under the hood of something that does essentially the same thing, but in a slightly different way.

The Makegood: What would you say makes The Brand Union so successful as an award-winning company? What differentiates it?

We’re most successful when we leverage the strength of our network in cross-office or cross-agency teams, working collaboratively to make great work for our clients. The Brand Union is increasingly and fundamentally differentiated from our competitors for two clear reasons. The first is the breadth of our offer. We’re encouraged rather than restricted in this regard, which enables us to execute great brand ideas in the most relevant and unique ways — TV spots, portfolios, innovation strategies or new pieces of technology. The root remains the same, and that’s our core competency in advising clients on how great brands are built over time.

Second, our view on brands and branding is fundamentally different. We build and create the experiences that define brands in the minds of the people who matter—that is, wherever the relevant audience sits. Strong brands are the result of multiple positive moments of interaction over time. They’re fragile, and they need attention and care in order to thrive. Understanding the people that matter for your brand, and how they want to interact and engage with you, is critical. Often that process ignores some of the most important people in delivering those experiences—your staff. So simply put, we start from the inside rather than the outside.

The Makegood: What are your short and long-term goals for The Brand Union Americas?

Short term—clearly define for our people what we do and where we need to get to in this market. Longer-term—get us on the podium here, as we are everywhere else in the world. This necessitates significant growth, which we’ll achieve both organically and through partnerships and M&A activity, both within WPP and outside. It’ll be impossible if our people don’t know what we’re setting out to achieve. So it’s simple, and simply put: In all of our other markets, we’re a top three global brand agency. We will become that here in the Americas within three years.

The Makegood: With the industry becoming increasingly digital, how will you use these technological advancements to augment what you plan to do in your new job?

We understand “digital” better than any of our competitors. Our partnership and integration with Digit evidences this, as does our point of view on the wider world of branding. If brands don’t embrace “digital” as a communications channel, in terms of use of technology and access; as a platform for innovation; as a content delivery mechanism; and simply as an expression of great brand ideas, they ignore a huge range of opportunities for their users and audiences to experience what they have to offer. This is not about touch points and digital execution; it’s about interaction and engagement. Digit enables us to place that kind of thinking at the center of all our client teams. We believe the experience of the brand IS the brand, so we need to have an opinion and an ability to advise on how those experiences are performing.

The Makegood: Thank you, Toby