Five questions for Tyler Turnbull, FCB North America’s first-ever CEO

Tyler Turnbull, who was promoted to FCB’s first-ever North American CEO this week, is the son of two lawyers. Not surprisingly, both of them expected him to pursue a legal career.

“They said to me ‘Do whatever you want for your first degree and then become a lawyer,'” said Turnbull during a wide-ranging conversation with The Message this week. “So I did a film degree at Queen’s [University], which was a lot of fun… and got an internship at Publicis to help pay the bills.

“About two months later, I said ‘I’m going all-in on this advertising thing.'” It was a good decision. This week marks the fifth anniversary of Turnbull’s arrival at FCB’s Toronto office, which, the network admitted in a release announcing his promotion this week, was an “agency in decline” when he took over.

Since then, he has been part of a network-wide turnaround that has produced noteworthy, culturally relevant work that contributed to 51 Cannes Lions this year (the most in its 146-year history) while at the same time taking an uncompromising stance on social issues.

We spoke with Turnbull about his rapid rise within the FCB ranks, and where he plans to take the network from here. “It’s just been an awesome five years, and I’m so pumped for the next chapter for all of the teams across North America,” he says.

1. How does the new operating structure fundamentally change the way FCB does business?

Along with Turnbull’s promotion, FCB announced it will integrate all of its North American operations. The new operating structure, it said, is designed to increase clients’ ability to access talent, capabilities and stronger integrated solutions. They are changes that sound similar to those at McCann and the “Power of One” mantra from Publicis.

What clients value today, says Turnbull, is breakthrough creative across the entire customer journey. “In order to do that you have to have a system of agencies that allows flexibility in who goes on what challenge and who’s best positioned for any client brief or opportunity.”

Having a system that encourages more diversity of voices, strategies and creative ideas leads to better thinking and outcomes, he says. “A big part of our momentum is because we’re very collaborative and open as a company, and really help each other out office to office and we really believe in connecting our creatives, our strategists and business leaders to help solve our clients’ challenges.”

2. How much of a point of pride is the planned global rollout of Toronto-born FCB/Six?

Creative data analytics agency FCB/Six started in Toronto in 2016 and subsequently expanded into New York. Without providing details, FCB said it plans to roll out the network globally beginning in 2020, calling it a “key priority.”

FCB/Six captured multiple Lions in Cannes, including a Grand Prix in the Creative Data Lions category for its “Go back to Africa” work on behalf of travel and lifestyle company Black and Abroad.

“I am incredibly proud of [FCB/Six president] Andrea Cook, [chief creative officer] Ian Mackenzie, [senior vice-president] Jacob Ciesielski and [EVP strategy] Anna Percy-Dove,” says Turnbull. “That group came into the company and completely transformed the previous iteration of the agency into the [leading] data analytics agency in the U.S.

“It’s exciting to see that as Canadians we can create a powerful brand, almost overnight, [that is capable of having] an impact globally. It’s very easy to talk about targeting and communicating the right brand benefits at the right moment, but it’s another thing to make that communication creative.

“I have a lot of pride and admiration for the way we’ve been able to grow that business, and I’m excited for the future.”

3. There’s been a lot of talk this week about FCB’s turnaround. How was it accomplished?

“If you were to rewind the tape and go back to 2013, [DraftFCB] globally was struggling. We’d lost a number of large global pieces of business, and [CEO] Carter Murray came in, and one of the first things he did was rebrand as FCB to send a clear signal that we were going to be focused on our creative product.

“He went to all of our operations around the world helping talent that was already there or looked for talent to bring in and re-infuse creativity into the DNA. The success we’ve had, and the success I’ve had personally, is solely based on team.

“This is a team game, and when I look at the people in Canada, like [chief strategy officer] Shelley Brown or [co chief creative officers] Jeff Hilts and Nancy Crimi-Lamanna or business leaders… some of them had been with the company for 11, 12, 13 years, some of them have joined in the last five, but we’re all very in sync around the type of environment we’re trying to create, which is positive and inclusive, and the type of work we want to do.

“If you were to distill the turnaround we’ve had…it’s because of the steadfast belief that today creativity in what we do matters more than ever, and if we create cultures that foster and enable that, we’ll win.”

4. In the wake of your appointment there was some chatter about why Canadians are well-suited to global/regional leadership roles. Do you have any personal theories about that?

“I’ve had the opportunity to work in many parts of the world, and I always have so much pride when I see how many Canadians there are out there running big agencies and making great work.

“I think a big part of it is when you grow up in the Canadian market, you have to be scrappy. You have to do more with less and you have to think in an integrated matter, and really get the most out of the creative product, the budget and the client relationship to succeed. It creates a group of people who are cross-functional, who see the value in many different types of communication, and can bring them together in a very organic and fast way.”

5. What are the hallmarks of your leadership style?

“First and foremost, I try to be as transparent as possible at all times. I believe that people need all the information, and I really put a lot of trust in people that once they have that information, they’ll do what’s best for clients and what’s best for the agency.”

Turnbull also expresses a deep affection for advertising, which permeates his day-to-day leadership style. “I love our business, and I try to bring a sense of optimism to it every day,” he says. “It’s very easy in an industry that’s going through the amount of change we are to be cynical, to be scared, but I like to remind people why what we do is amazing and why this industry is one of the most exciting and dynamic in the world.

“I also believe in hiring the smartest people I know and then getting out of the way to let them do their thing,” he says. “When I look at the momentum we’ve generated in Canada, and now New York and other markets, that has been the formula. It’s just trying to find people who want to make the best work of their careers, want to bring their full self to work, and who, frankly, have no egos and who aren’t assholes.”

Bonus question: The release mentions efficiencies, which have almost become shorthand for layoffs. Are there plans to cut staff?

Turnbull stresses that the changes announced this week are aimed at doubling down on the network’s current momentum. “This is about growth for us and moving into the next chapter, not about trying to shave another point of margin,” he says.

“My in-going attitude as it relates to efficiencies is that I believe this is a time to invest in our people and our company. Agencies are challenged, and I think if we can continue to double down on our creative product and our talent, we are going to succeed in the long-term. For me it’s about investment.”

Chris Powell