Rob Schwartz on ripping up his LSATs, passing on Hollywood, and his life in advertising

Rob Schwartz

Rob’s childhood dream was to be a writer—but, plans change. Since making this (slight) detour, he’s become one of the more influential figures in advertising. Currently, he acts as TBWA\CHIAT\DAY New York’s Chief Executive Officer.

In his time at TBWA, Rob led their LA office through unprecedented growth. His influence impacts brands including Nissan, McDonald’s, Pepsi, and Visa. Along the way, he’s won countless awards—and an Emmy nomination. Meanwhile, people read his opinions in Forbes and Adweek.

Joining us today, from New York, Rob explains how he made his way into advertising. He also talks about where the ad industry is heading. And, he provides some thoughts on who’s best suited for work at a big ad agency.

You’re wrapping up your first year as CEO at TBWA\CHIAT\DAY New York. How do you like the gig?

I love it. In some ways, it’s the most creative job I’ve ever had. It demands that I act as a visionary. This requires me to write a lot—and simply do a lot. It’s exhilarating.

A surfboard. A coveted gift from Lee Clow. A surfboard. A coveted gift from Lee Clow.

Before this, you were President… at the same company. To many, the titles President and CEO are synonymous. How are these roles different for you?

My title was “Global Creative President.” It was a fancy way to say “Creative Director.” The “President” bit was a message of respect for clients and internal people. I ultimately had to earn my way to respect. But, having “President” on my email sign-off and business card got people to at least listen to the first few sentences I would utter.

You’re a creative guy who also needs to be strong on the business side. How do you balance these—seemingly opposing—requirements?

I think business is a creative endeavor. The numbers and the measurement give “business” this air of science. But business is really about using data and numbers to be creative and calculate the risk you can, or must, take.

What are the high-points of your job? (Perhaps tell me about the low ones, as well.)

The high-points? Setting a vision for the agency; working closely and deeply with clients; attracting and growing talent.

The low points? There’s only one: Quarterly reporting. Businesses need more flexibility and room to succeed (and fail) than Wall Street allows.

Which work/projects are you most proud of?

First, I’m really proud of the overall agency’s performance: 8 new business wins; revenue is up almost 40%; clients are happy and engaged—and our colleagues are too.

In terms of individual projects, I believe we have three standouts:

Michelin’s #FirstCarMoment. Imagine a tire brand—not a car brand—owning the emotion of getting your first car. We made a wonderful, emotional web film that was deployed through a very smart social strategy. It got millions of views, thousands of engagements, and real sales results.

The other piece I’m proud of is the World Food Program initiative we did on behalf of McDonald’s. This is another instance of high views and engagement, for an exceptionally noble cause.

A third standout is a recruitment campaign we did for H&M that truly connected with a distinct millennial audience.

In each case, the creative is stirring and smartly crafted.

What problems keep you up at night?

The biggest issue that keeps me up at night is talent. We need to retain the excellent people we have, and provide great opportunities for them. Recruitment is another concern. We depend on people who have high standards, incredible energy, and those who hold a burning desire to make a dent in the universe. If you are reading this, and this description sounds like you, contact me immediately. Seriously.

Advertising seems to be in a weird place. Cities talk of banning billboards; people watch TV via Popcorn Time (until recently, at least); and, ad blockers are on the rise. Does any of this freak you out?

It’s alarming. At the same time, these limitations open up new ways of connecting with people. We now do a lot of work via social media. We are working to create content that people want to experience. This leads to more of a “pull” model of creativity—rather than the old push model.

I’m a believer in what the late, great San Francisco ad legend Howard Gossage said: “People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.” Substitute “read” with “watch,” “experience,” and “share.” That statement is as accurate and relevant today, as it was last century.

Rob interviews Spike Lee.Rob interviews Spike Lee. (Photo courtesy of TBWA)

Where does advertising go next? Are agencies simply shifting to more of a brand-building role (for their clients), or is something else in the works?

I believe Advertising’s next move is upstream and daily.

Upstream in that all companies—the old ones, as well as new disruptors like Uber—need internal clarity. People within an organization must understand what the company they work for does. This understanding should be clear, motivating, and actionable. So, I believe great agencies will be in even more demand to help clarify and unify. This extends from the C-suite to the front lines, and all the places in between.

At the same time, “advertising” needs to find its way into daily culture and out of daily clutter. By this, I mean mobile first—and in conversation. There’s no question that brands are now media companies. So, like any good media company you have to ask: What are you publishing? How do you add value for people?

What’s most exciting about advertising, today?

The most exciting part of advertising is that anything is possible. We have the technology. We have the platforms. All we need are the ideas.

Let’s go back a little: What led you to advertising, in the first place?

I got into advertising because my first two career choices were failures.

I was studying to be a lawyer, and in the middle of my LSAT entrance exam, I hit question no. 72 and literally put my pencil down. I stood up, ripped up my test, walked out—and never looked back.

Then, I was going to write the great American novel. I had a number of great opening sentences and starts, but ultimately couldn’t finish.

I was at a publishing company, when someone I worked with suggested I take advertising classes. I studied at the School of Visual Arts, and I loved the concept classes. I put my book together and got a job as a junior writer. I’ve been writing, and getting paid to do so, ever since.

Rob explains TBWA influence and DNA “Create.”Rob explains TBWA influence and DNA “Create.” (Photo courtesy of Anthony Kalamut)

Did you ever doubt your path, or feel like you were meant for something else?

Once I got on the path, I felt there was nothing else I’d rather do. I had a brief dalliance with Hollywood, though. I wrote for a TV show called Mission Hill, lead by two showrunners from The Simpsons. Ultimately, I decided that I liked advertising more.

I suspect that many readers of this are young creatives, just starting out. So, let’s move the discussion to what they’re likely wondering. What do you look for in new talent?

For young talent it comes down to three things. First is ambition. Do you want to do work that gets noticed? Do you want to make a dent in the universe? Second, I look for work that moves me. Does your book/website have ideas that make me feel something? A laugh? An emotion? Third, do you care? Are you passionate about brands and their ability to help or inspire people?

Ambition, emotional work, caring: that’s what I look for.

What do folks get wrong? Specifically, are there mistakes you wish young creatives would stop making?

See above. If you aren’t doing those three things, I notice.

It’s intimidating to enter a competitive industry. How does a young person in advertising stand out?

It’s difficult to stand out in life, let alone advertising. Some people don’t even want to. Those who do stand out go the extra mile. They create ideas that connect. They might do this on their blog or Instagram page. You have access to tools as never before. If you can’t stand out with all that’s at your disposal, you won’t be happy in this business.

What’s missing in the industry? Are there roles that agencies struggle to fill? Are there personality types you can’t find enough of?

We need more idea people. I mean people with ambition and ideas. We need makers who don’t need to wait for a production company to make something. We also need more strategy folks: people who love trying to understand what makes people tick. We then connect these people.

Rob writes. Rob writes. (Photo courtesy of Cabell Harris)

Are certain types of people more/less cut out for big agency life?

People who thrive here seem to have the following traits: ambition; energy; ideas; a collaborative spirit; resiliency. The winning formula seems to be when someone exhibits these traits in all departments.

Just a few last questions before we wrap up: What do you wish you had known when you started out?

I wish I had known that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. I had this equation inverted—which was a mistake. I started out thinking that there were a few geniuses, and then the rest of us. I later learned only a rare few are true geniuses. The rest of us are separated into those who put in the time, energy, and effort to succeed—and those who don’t.

What life experience would you like a do-over on?

The only do-over I’d ask for is my first four years in the business. I stayed at my first agency three years too long. In the do-over I would have left and experienced more agencies, or freelanced. Jobs were really tight back in the early ’90s. I was scared to not have a paycheck. This fear was limiting. I wish I had the guts I have now, then.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

That about does it—now it’s your turn. Want to move up in the ad industry? Looking for a new opportunity? Want to ask some questions? Here’s your chance: request Officehours with Rob.