5 Minutes with… Tyler Turnbull
Tyler Turnbull’s career has travelled at an exponential speed. He started out as an intern at Publicis Toronto in 2006, with the plan of staying for a few months and then studying to be a lawyer. But the creative energy within the agency - which he felt the first time he walked through the door - inspired him to leave behind his plans in favour of a life in advertising. He’s a self-confessed “geek by nature” and was an early adopter of digital and platforms such as Facebook. These were unique skills in the mid-2000s and, as a result, Tyler found himself in high level pitches and meetings at the age of just 24.
When Publicis purchased Digitas in 2007, part of the acquisition involved Modem, a digital agency in New York and London. Tyler was part of the original team when the Modem brand was set up in Toronto, as a small startup digital agency within the Publicis network. He then moved to London in 2009, following his partner at the time (and his now wife), and became the planning director at Publicis Modem London before, only 11 months later, becoming joint head of planning.
But Canada called and so he moved back home to take a senior vice president, strategy and insight role at Proximity Canada. In 2014 the agency saw a leadership change and Tyler found himself stepping out of strategy and into that realm, as president.
LBB> How did you end up in the advertising industry? Your first role was as an intern at Publicis after university - but was that always something that was on your mind or was it more a happy accident?
TT> It definitely wasn’t my plan. Both my parents were / are lawyers and I went to school at Queen’s University. The plan was to do whatever I wanted in my undergrad and then go to law school. For my undergrad I did a film degree and studied visual communications, production and theory. I fell in love with the medium and just communications in general. When it was coming up to my graduation year I’d interviewed with a variety of different companies - management consultancies, CPGs, major clients - and I just didn’t feel a connection with the environments I was going into. I spoke to a mentor of mine and he asked me if I’d ever thought about advertising. The truth was I hadn’t - I had no idea what an advertising agency was or what it did.
I ended up doing an interview at Publicis in Toronto, and I tell this story a lot, but I’ll never forget the day I walked into the lobby. I could just feel the creativity of the business. I did a quick tour of the agency, met creatives, designers, digital architects and I could just feel the energy in the space. I took an internship with them and the plan was to do that for three months while I studied for my LSAT. But six weeks later I stopped studying for the LSAT and knew that what I was all ready doing was for me. I’ve been a big advocate for and believer of what we do ever since.
LBB> You just said that you studied film - were you ever tempted to go into the production industry or was it always more a hobby?
TT> It was more of a hobby to be honest. I love the business aspect of what we do: presenting, new business pitches. There are also more capable people who can do the production. I have a huge appreciation for the making part of what we do. Having a great idea is half the battle - making it and keeping it great is equally hard. So, I love being around it and involved in it, but the role I’m in is definitely the best one for me.
LBB> Your career accelerated at a dizzying speed from that moment! Why do you think you were able to rise the ranks so quickly?
TT> I think it was a real combination of things. There’s the time. I started in May 2006 and around that time Facebook had just opened up to the public, after being a college closed platform before. Google was about five or six years deep but there was still a lack of understanding of how brands could really leverage these platforms. I was a big fan of the digital space. I loved Facebook, I ran a blog for five years when I started at Publicis which was me and a colleague - and now close friend - offering our perspectives on work and where it was going. What happened during that time was massive brands, almost overnight in some cases, shifting their budgets to digital.
And within agencies there weren’t that many people who were in love with Facebook and other digital platforms and technologies. I think my passion and knowledge gave me a real opportunity to be in high-level meetings with CMOs and agency management at a very young age.
The second thing to add is something I love about our business. An ad agency is not a law firm. There’s not a preconceived set of time expectations - you don’t need to be an account co-ordinator for two years before you can be promoted, you don’t need to be a creative for a certain amount of time before you can become a creative director. What I love about this is that if you are passionate and deliver results, you can move very, very quickly. That’s something that I really valued from my bosses and mentors at the time and it’s something I still value today, and it should stay the same for the next generation of talent.
LBB> As you mentioned, you were an early adopter of digital, one of the first users at Facebook, and claim to be “a geek by nature”. How do you inject those interests into your role as a CEO? And how important is it for your agency to have that running through them?
TT> Fundamentally, the best agencies and the best people within agencies are relentlessly curious. Of course we want to discover new ideas, but to do that you have to understand things that you don’t, whether that be a new piece of technology, a new set of customers or a new business model. That curiosity is something that really drives me and it’s something that we’ve really tried to instil across FCB Canada, and I’ll give you an example of how. About a year ago I went to Silicon Valley with the top 100 executives within the FCB network, and we did a roadshow with the five major platforms.
I came back from that and decided that I wanted every single person that works for FCB Canada to write the Google AdWords certification test. And it wasn’t about passing or certifying every employee. It was about having everyone think about how search works and how it can be used more creatively. We spent a day as an agency, had Google kick it off, everyone wrote the exam in groups - it’s pretty hard if you’re not familiar with search - and a result of that exercise is the work we did last year for Canadian Down Syndrome Society. I don’t think we would have come up with a platform like that if all of our creatives weren’t thinking about how they could use search creatively.
I use that as a small example of how I, as a CEO, am trying to create moments for people to be curious, and to create moments where people can come in from the outside to educate people on the inside on topics that everyone might not be an expert in. I think one of the challenges of the digital age, in terms of agencies in the mid-2000s, is that there was a lot of black-box thinking going on. If you brought in a “digital person” it would confuse clients and people that didn’t know the space, instead of simplifying it. What I really believe is that if you have the passion to learn something today, you can learn it. It doesn’t matter what your background is, it’s about drive and passion. The people teaching those things should be simplifying it and making it easy to learn. That’s what I’m trying to do here.
LBB> With that in mind, what are most exciting elements of digital and tech right now?
TT> I’m really excited about certain aspects of AI. When I think about the agency journey from client brief, to concept, to production, to launch, I think that AI can play a really interesting part in many areas of that journey. One of the things that I’m most interested in is the long tail of an idea. What I mean by that is that today brands need a core of what we call brand bedrock, purpose and reason for being. That purpose then needs to be distributed and personalised based on the signals that different customers send us in the digital space. I’m really passionate about what AI can do with the personalisation aspect of what we do with brands, be it from a targeting standpoint, a mobile / web standpoint. We’re at the very beginning of true personalisation and AI is very exciting there.
LBB> “One of the reasons I love advertising life is that talent is rewarded regardless of age, experience and tenure” - that’s a quote from you that I read in regards to your ’30 Under 30’ listing. With the conversation around diversity that’s happening at the moment, I’d love to get your thoughts on ethnicity, social class, gender?
TT> I’m hugely passionate about diversity in all forms. Gender, race, background, which is something I don’t think is considered enough. We did a study this year into whether some of the populous trends that have been around recently in the US and parts of Europe were also around in Canada. It specifically looked at lower and middle class Canadians. We found that a lot of the anxiety that exists in other countries, also exists here. That’s countering in some ways to the Canadian mindset. We’ve got [Justin] Trudeau, but there are still a lot of people in this country who are worried about their futures and their jobs. We did that study because we wanted to make sure that we’re creative for 100% of our population, not just the top 1% or 10%. In order to do that you have to have people that come from multiple types of backgrounds; they don’t just come from the same three universities and heritage.
From a gender standpoint it’s critical. We need to be okay at looking into the numbers and finding out what the truth is. Two years when I joined I did an audit of our salaries and our ratios. In those two years the whole FCB Canada team has evolved to 68% female, and it’s around 65% on the management team. It’s critical to have a diverse way of thinking period - and that can only come from a diverse team of people.
LBB> I’d love to talk to you about the Canadian industry in general - you moved to London earlier in your career but moved back to Canada. What tempted you back and what kind of state do you think the industry is in now? How does it compare to your time in London?
TT> It’s an interesting time for our business no matter which country you’re in. From a creative perspective I think Canada has had one of its best years for a long time. We had our best showing at Cannes Lions this year with 44 Lions won, compared to around 14 last year. There’s a lot of work coming out of Canada that’s being recognised on a global stage, and that’s great.
But! We still have our challenges. I think Canada as a market for global brands is often seen as a secondary market in terms of contribution. That creates a real need in Canada for marketers and agencies to push even harder to be creative because the reality is that the budgets aren’t on the same scale as in the US or some other markets. In some ways that can be really liberating because we can try new things, take risks and go for it. I think the agencies doing that are the ones being recognised, and that’s pretty special.
LBB> Obviously your southern neighbours have had an interesting time of it recently - do you think this has opened any doors for Canada? Perhaps clients and talent heading north?
TT> Our leaders are so different and I think that shows how different the countries are today. From an agency standpoint, there are a lot of Canadians in America and I have certainly had conversations with many of them about the possibility of moving home. I don’t think it’s happening en masse - I wasn’t flooded with resumés on 10th November! But I think it is a consideration.
LBB> Which pieces of work from FCB Canada are you particularly proud of and why?
TT> There’s the Down Syndrome Society work that we’ve discussed. I’m incredibly passionate about that work because of seen and heard the impact that it’s had on parents of children with that diagnosis. It’s meaningful to me because it’s always there. It’s not a paid for campaign that we turned off, it’s all about organic ranking and being there as a resource.
There’s also the ‘Where Am I?’ campaign we did earlier this year for Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation. Almost half the tourism revenue that comes to Ontario comes from travel within Ontario. But the challenge is that people that live in Ontario think they know they province. So we created an unbranded tourism campaign. We shot a number of videos that acted as a riddle for places in Ontario and then we created a web experience that allowed people to guess where each place was. Only one in 13 Canadians guessed correctly. It really then brought people into rediscovering all that Ontario has to offer. I love that experience because it ties together the whole buying journey, right up to booking the trip.
LBB> What do you like to get up to when now working?
TT> Well I have two kids, a three-year-old and a one-year-old, so I spend a lot of time with them. As I mentioned, I come from a film background. I’m a huge fan of TV and think it’s the best time ever for the format specifically. I’m into a ton of different shows - I probably watch more than I should.