Philosophy of Disruption

9 December 2009 Matt Shepherd-Smith

Advertising agency TBWA's philosophy of 'Disruption' has been used by some of the world's leading companies. Chief executive Matt Shepherd-Smith explains to Michael Jones how shunning the norm – by challenging a brand's conventions to create new ways to communicate an idea – opens up new levels of creativity.

CEO: Please explain TBWA chairman Jean-Marie Dru's original Disruption philosophy and what makes it meaningful to large corporates?

Matt Shepherd-Smith: Disruption is a working methodology that Jean-Marie Dru has been using since the 1990s. It came about when the notion of the unique selling point was coming to an end. Techniques of major manufacturers had converged so much that every category became flooded in a sea of sameness, wiping out all tangible difference between products. In this regard we had to use communication to highlight or create differences or ruptures as a way to disrupt conventional product and communication patterns.

Today it is different. The market has changed and the business world has evolved beyond recognition in the internet age. Disruption has found itself with a new challenge: to offer something new to corporations that are creating their own ruptures in their business models, services and communications.

Disruption creates a focal point for a brand. At its simplest, it is a way of looking at the conventions that operate within a category, and finding a way for the brand to behave differently to accelerate its growth.

"We tell our clients they cannot outperform a market if they adhere to its conventions."

How can Disruption help companies change their behaviour to their advantage?

Disruption is a unique way of ensuring that positive change is implemented and based on a firm knowledge of the category a brand operates within. We tell our clients they cannot outperform a market if they adhere to its conventions. This is the truth on which Disruption is founded.

Disruption demands that a company challenges conventional behaviours and finds a new way to act. If you analyse the behaviour of the category in question you will see conventional patterns of activity are apparent on four levels: corporate, marketing, communications and the customer's point of view. Some of these conventions are invariably good and necessary, while others are not.

The opportunity lies in seeing how a brand can use its strengths to do something less conventional to change its path and accelerate growth. A great example of this is one of our Mars brands, Pedigree. It has moved from a product-based packaged goods strategy to a brand-based strategy. It sounds small, but the shifts in corporate behaviour, marketing and communications, and resulting brand perceptions, have been enormous.

How can Disruption help companies seek branding and marketing opportunities in a downturn?

Agencies have an obligation to be proactive on a clients' business all the time. However, as Procter & Gamble CMO Marc Pritchard said recently, the downturn is the time to reset. Disruption is about recalibrating. It demands that you act smarter and do things differently.

Put another way, a downturn, more than at any other time, means not throwing money at a problem, but throwing creativity at a problem.

In unpredictable times, why should companies invest in yet more unpredictability?

The Disruption process allows us to summarise the market conventions, understand the vision of the client company, and then find a disruptive idea to help us meet our aims. For a client with an existing vision, our Disruption Day event would ensure that they are on the right path to growth, and ensure that they continue to be distinct from their competitors. For a client without a clearly defined vision, it helps them to find an articulate one. This is not risky, it is essential.

No one can predict the future, but if you imagine it the way you want it to be you will act accordingly to try and make it happen. As a brand, the outcome of your actions is more unpredictable if you don't.

"Many CEOs freely admit that their organisation has lost sight of what it stands for."

In regard to the levels of disruption, it depends entirely on the needs of the particular brand. Low-level disruptions are those that result when attacking a convention leads to the renewal of a brand, not the market. The brand's place within a given market has been shifted as opposed to the displacement of the market itself. High-level disruption occurs when the company, by expressing a new vision, displaces the entire market.

I don't think there is a link between low-level disruption and a downturn. You can have a large-scale disruption in a downturn and a low-level one in times of growth. It isn't an obvious relationship.

Do corporates need to overhaul their operations to adopt Disruption or can the theory be aligned within a more traditional business strategy?

I think alignment and implementation came easily because Disruption is a simple and collaborative process. We invite key people from the client and agency to a Disruption Day – an intensive immersion into the category and its behaviours, and their brand within it. In collaborative working exercises we then look at opportunities for growth, and find a Disruptive idea to help take the brand forward.

The days are informative, exciting and rewarding. In the last ten years we have run more than 2,000 of these events with more than 30,000 clients. The attendees are senior to junior clients from all disciplines of the company. The current business strategies of, for example, Pedigree, Absolut, Pepsi, Visa and Gatorade, all came about after a Disruption Day.

Can the theory be conveyed globally?

TBWA has built its network on successfully working with global brands such as Apple, Nissan, NIVEA, adidas and Visa, all of which have an aligned strategy and a consistent communications platform. Pedigree is a company that loves dogs, not a manufacturer of dog food. Visa's Visa-Go positions the company as one of action as much as transaction. They are all big ideas that allow us to orchestrate brand activity anywhere, and they work for global or local brands. We have hosted hundreds of Disruption Days for clients around Asia and as a result we are currently the fastest growing agency network in that region.

Is this just a marketing concern or should this be championed by the CEO?

Consumers are so much more savvy. Brands must therefore conduct themselves well and behave in a way that is clear, complimentary and consistent.

Many CEOs recognise that a clear vision is essential to allow this behaviour drive their activity. And many CEOs freely admit that their organisation has lost sight of what it stands for. They then realise that a lot of their investment in how they present their brand is not helpful. It isn't getting them to where they want to be, and that can be very expensive and difficult to rectify. I have been on several Disruption Days where this has happened, and the CEO has enthusiastically embraced the need for clarity.

The client organisations that get the most out of Disruption are the ones who embrace it from the most senior level down. They recognise that corporate behaviour and brand behaviour cannot be treated separately. For example, buying into being a company that loves dogs and not a dog food-making company means you have to really live that. You have to let people bring their dogs to work, put pictures of them on their business cards, support dog adoption programmes. It has to be manifest in all your behaviour as a company.

Many CEOs consider themselves creatively minded. Will they be surprised by taking a fresh look at Disruption?

It is rare for a CEO of any company to see their brand and category presented in its entirety in one place. A Disruption Day allows them to see that. They always find it surprising, and almost invariably they recognise the need for a change.

What examples can you give of ad campaigns that have successfully grasped the concept and achieved notable success as a result?

"TBWA has built its network on successfully working with global brands such as Apple, Nissan, NIVEA, adidas and Visa."

The successful campaigns that have resulted from Disruption are too numerous to mention, but of the big campaigns Apple, Absolut, Nissan Qashqai, Pedigree, adidas, Pepsi in the US, McDonald's in Europe stand out as successful campaigns because they all have a big idea or organising principle that determines their marketing communications programmes. Interestingly, it is often the big international brands that really embrace it, and a correlation of that is 85% of our creative and effectiveness awards are for international clients.

Speaking as both an advocate of the theory and as a CEO, is disruption always a good thing?

Disruption needs to be applied at the right time. The need is often dictated by the market, and knowing when a change is needed is usually pretty clear. But we always use it as part of a pitch process with new clients, and the more we use it on existing clients the more success we have.

There are now more than 200 offices in our network. The ones that have grown fastest are the ones that use Disruption to do great work and win new business. Disruption is practised everywhere and is the reason for our creativity and our rapid growth. Because of this we have become a true network company, not a loose confederation of agencies.

Disruption is our common philosophy and way of working. Becoming the AdWeek and Ad Age network of the year for 2008 bears testament to the fact that it is a good thing.