5 Minutes With… Judith Carr-Rodriguez
On New York’s advertising gossip grapevine, Figliulo & Partners is one of those names that keeps cropping up again and again. When LBB headed to the Big Apple recently they were one of the agencies people in other adshops kept urging us to talk to. And it’s not surprising that they’ve been the talk of the town – founded by former TBWA CCO and chairman Mark Figliulo and LBi New York President Judith Carr-Rodriguez, their clout is inarguable and their inaugural client, Sprint, is pretty hefty too. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Judith to find out why she decided build something new with Mark and why she reckons Figliulo&Partners is bridging the gap between big brand thinking and digital innovation.
LBB> Figliulo & Partners was formed last year – how did that conversation come about?
JCR> Mark Figliulo was the chairman and CCO of TBWA and I was the president of LBi North America and we met and decided to launch a new agency. We launched in November 2013 as a new agency designed to bridge the gap between big brand agencies and digital agencies. His background is brand creative and mine has always been digital, so we describe ourselves as a ‘brand agency for the digital world’.
LBB> What was the appeal for you?
JCR> It was the opportunity to create an agency that was highly down to Mark and my vision as well as the other partners. We had both worked for big agencies in the past; LBi was independent and then became part of a network and TBWA is part of a big network. We were just really excited about taking the opportunity to fill a gap in the market to create and to make that from our vision. It gave us so much room for creativity, entrepreneurism and freedom - it’s been a really exciting time.
LBB> And it's interesting that you're bringing the big brand stuff and the digital stuff together because it seems like a lot of specialist agencies are trying to de-specialise. How do you think it helps building this into the agency from day one?
JCR> That's exactly it. We felt that all agencies are racing to this point of integration, they're racing to the middle. What they're doing really depends on whether they grew up as a brand or creative agency or if they grew up as a digital agency. The creative agencies are busy trying to employ digital specialists and trying to change their culture to enable that iterative, agile thinking and the digital agencies are employing brand planners and above-the-line creatives and trying to change their culture too. Because they're having to do it while they're moving it's difficult and slow and is often quite a chaotic process internally. Clients aren't benefitting from that because they're being exposed to too much of their [an agency's] complexity.
We wanted to do that right from day one and create an agency that was driven by big ideas and we really think from a media-neutral point of view. We think about the idea first and we think about the execution second. It's been a really refreshing way of working, thinking of a business or brand problem upfront and then thinking about executing it throughout any media after.
LBB> What's the structure like in the agency to facilitate that?
JCR> It's a very flat hierarchy. We’ve deliberately hired very senior, very experienced people. The model that we're selling to clients, and they're loving it, is fewer, better people. A typical agency model is like a pyramid and you've got two or three brilliant people at the top and then a lot of do-ers. On the other hand we've really staffed the agency with a flat organisation with fewer people, but people who are more experienced. They can bring that experience to the clients more quickly and more efficiently. We're also having a lot more fun doing that way - the ideas are bigger, they're better and we can take more risks.
LBB> Your first big campaign from the agency has been ‘Sprint Framily’ - what was the big goal for them and what were you trying to achieve?
JCR> Coming from the UK, I would compare it to something like the Nescafe campaign or Milk Tray. They were episodic series of ads and people were super excited to see what came next. We were really inspired by entertainment and fantastic shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards that have really brought back the idea of narrative story telling. We wanted to bring that idea into the advertising.
The owners of Sprint are a company called Softbank and they had an incredibly successful campaign over the last seven years featuring a family; we wanted to bring that success to the US and do it in a distinctly US way. The thing about families is that each one is crazy - I've just come back from the UK and mine is as crazy as everyone else's.
It's been really nice to see how America has reacted to the characters and the parallels they have seen with their own families. We're going to be continuing with the Framily campaign. We have six ads out right now and each one is performing better than the last, you can really see the awareness building.
LBB> From a more personal point of view, how have you found coming from a digital background into brand strategy and above-the-line area?
JCR> It's great because digital agencies are great at understanding technology and how it has fundamentally changed the relationship between consumers and brands. Consumers are now much more in control than they used to be. Bringing that consumer control to the planning process has been really useful for us.
We’ve also been bringing the idea of iterative thinking into the agency. Digital agencies are really great at creating products and releasing them in beta format and then seeing if they work, if they can work harder, if they need to change it. We've applied that to our creative process. We're always looking at creating big ideas – we call our approach ‘ideas first’ – and then we filter these ideas using data, research, information as we go along during the creative process and after it has gone to market. That lets us see what's working and what we need to change. Traditional agencies don't tend to work like that. Things get researched upfront and they don't tend to change once they're in market. We're lucky to have that iterative campaign planning
LBB> You moved over to New York in 2009 – what led you there?
JCR> I was client services director at LBi London and then an opportunity came up to be the managing director of one of LBi's agencies in New York. It hadn't been rebranded LBi at that point so I was asked to come over and head up that process of rebranding and re-architecting the agency. It was a great opportunity and something that both completely terrified me and that I leapt at. It just gave me so many opportunities. The market out here is obviously much bigger. The risks are much greater but the opportunities are greater too.
LBB> How did you find the difference in industry culture between London and New York?
JCR> There are things that are similar and there are things that are different, and I think the things that are different take a little bit longer to come out. When I moved over here from London it felt like a big city, very energetic, always on the go... and London's like that too.
From a marketing perspective things are slightly different here - I had to get my head around budget, how many zeroes there are to deal with. The other thing that's different here, and that I love, is that America is so diverse. My husband is of Mexican descent and America is going to be 40% Hispanic by the year 2020. There are many, many more opportunities to talk to different people in different ways, to make sure you're really being culturally resonant with your messaging. That's been really interesting to me from a planning and consumer insight perspective.
I think technology is slightly different too. Funnily I feel like Britain is more advanced with things like rFID technology. I guess because it's smaller and because it's an island there's more of a technology infrastructure whereas here it's less well developed. There are different creative opportunities with Out Of Home in the UK that would be quite interesting to bring to the US.
LBB> How did you get into advertising in the first place?
JCR> It's one of those classic accidents, really. I went to university in Bristol and I did French and German. I spent time abroad in both countries and became fluent in both languages but I really didn't know what I wanted to do. The Milkround processes were happening in Bristol and I went to a bunch of different presentations from ad agencies and I was really interested in what they were doing.
One that really caught my attention was the institute of direct marketing. I felt they were positioning themselves differently because they were already thinking about digital and one-to-one marketing and how the landscape was changing. I really liked the idea of being able to influence people's psychology like that. I applied to the Graduate Programme at the Institute of Direct Marketing, in which applicants are sponsored, placed in an agency and sent to university two nights a week. I got a placement at Lowe for two years and I got to work in all their different areas to experience what it was like. I really enjoyed Lowe Live, which was their direct marketing place at the agency. I moved onto the HSBC global account at the time that the agency came up with 'the world's local bank' positioning and it was just a fantastic time to be in the industry and get my feet under the table.
I got my qualification after two years and I moved onto an independent digital agency called Wheel. I loved the idea of moving from a really established agency into digital. At the time no one really understood what that was, what it meant. No one in the creative department wanted to make a website. The banner ads were still being written by the account people. I felt like this is a 'thing' and it's being under-appreciated at big agencies. I moved to Wheel and that became LBi and from there I moved to New York. It was a good move on my part and it was a lucky move. Going to a small agency and specialising in order to expand my career was really a great thing to do.
LBB> Was technology something you were always into or was it an interest that crept up on you?
JCR> I think it just crept up on me. I think if you've got a natural curiosity about how the world works I don't think you could deny that the world today is a digital world. We, as consumers, are using technology every day but somehow when we got to work we pretend it's a completely separate thing. We go back to our old ways of thinking about how you build a brand. Nowadays brands are built by people. They are influenced by the company that the brand belongs to, but the brand belongs to the consumers as much as it does to the overall organisation. For me it was just a big realisation that brands need to behave differently and they probably need different thinking in order to help them thrive today. The old methods aren't going to be successful for them in the long term.
LBB> Do you have any creative heroes - within or outside of the industry?
JCR> My closest relationships in my career have always been with the planning directors and creative directors. I think there's something so powerful in that classic triangle of a great accounts person, a great creative person and an amazing, planning thinker. When I look back I've always admired people who took the step to create their own agency. I'm thinking about people like Tom Bazeley from Lean Mean Fighting Machine, people with the entrepreneurial spirit to say 'I want to do something new, I want to do something fresh'.
LBB> How big are you and what sort of people have you been looking for?
JCR> We only launched in November last year and we've already got 50 people. We've just been hiring people, great talented people, mostly friends of friends and people we admire and have always wanted to work with. We've been very lucky with recruiting so far in that it's been a very easy process.
LBB> And going forward, what are your hopes for the agency? Where do you want to see it in the next five years or so?
JCR> Mark and I are really inspired to make great brands for great companies and to think less about tactical execution - although that's incredibly important - but to put the brand first. We want to help brands really thrive in a world that's much more driven by consumers. That's the long term vision for the agency - continue to grow, add more clients to the roster (we're pitching right now) and make it a great place to work.
Another driving factor for creating our own agency is to make something that we are very proud to have people join, somewhere people feel free to grow in their own careers, and somewhere that people feel healthy and happy and valued at work. We'd love to be recognised in the next five years as an amazing agency for clients who want to get the best work and also as an amazing agency for employees where they love working here.
It's always going to be difficult and there are always going to be times where you have to make tough decisions but I think if you make sure that you communicate openly, transparently and honestly with the people who work with you you'll make a much healthier place to work.