Blogs & Comment

Do ad agencies need a CMO?

TBWA Toronto's newest exec Julia Foster talks about why her position fits the changing industry and more.

Julia Foster, chief marketing officer, TBWA Toronto

Over the past few years, a lot of talk in advertising has revolved around the need for agencies to behave more like brands. Shops like Anomaly, BBH, Mother and The Brooklyn Brothers have gone so far as to create brands of their own, both to exercise creative ideas but also demonstrate to current and potential clients that they get what it takes.

So if agencies should be thinking and behaving like brands, does that mean they should also adopt some of the same corporate structure? TBWA Toronto recently named Julia Foster as the shop’s first chief marketing officer. Foster was a business development director at the agency before going to TBWA’s Dubai office in 2005 to be its director of brand leadership.

I spoke with Ms. Foster about her new role, why it’s called CMO and how her experience in Dubai prepared her for the return to Toronto.

Canadian Business: Why does an ad agency need a CMO?

Julia Foster: We’re not an advertising agency anymore, we have to be a creative agency. The way we work with our clients is about making sure they connect with their audience and that doesn’t just encompass TV, print and the other traditional tools. We always point to the Apple store as the best campaign we ever did for the brand.

What that means for my role is, we as TBWA have to act more as a brand rather than simply a service provider. We have to make sure our own behaviours — from self-promotion to new business development — reflect what we offer clients. We’re adapting our tools and changing the conversations we’re having with clients, trying to raise the bar of our role to be more business partner than purely a communications vendor.

How does this go over with more traditional clients?

That balance is the art of it. We know what the ideal conversation is, but for clients that are a bit more conservative we need to tailor it to them.

You’ve commented about how your experience in Dubai parallels this one, in terms of working with homegrown brands, in a multinational city and trying to get a global agency to resonate locally. How does that translate to working in Canada?

A lot of what we have to do is inherited creative [from U.S. agencies]. Doing the dot-ca for the website at the end of the commercial. And fine, yes, there are times when our hands are tied and that’s the only thing we can do but when you look at brand behaviours and ways we can start to use the brand for more social currency here in Canada, that’s where there are amazing opportunities in how we engage the consumer.

Many times, hands are tied in places like Canada where a lot of the budgets are in the U.S. and sometimes that’s a restriction. But people here are always looking for creative solutions. It’s not conservative in attitude, just maybe sometimes in how we have to work. But that’s what is exciting about working in this market, there are lots of buttons that can be pressed out there on both agency and client side that can be used to create some great work.